Nearly 500 Jewish summer camp leaders are expected to metaphorically pitch their tents this Sunday and Monday in Jersey City for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s biennial Leaders Assembly.
Thanks to studies linking summer camp experiences to the development of positive Jewish identity, camps have become big business in recent years, attracting major funders like the Jim Joseph Foundation and Avi Chai Foundation as well as big-hitter lay leaders like Leslie Wexner and Lynn Schusterman.
Since its establishment in 1998, the FJC, which works with 150 nonprofit Jewish sleep-away camps, has grown to an annual budget of more than $22 million.
This weekend’s assembly marks the public debut of the foundation’s brand-new CEO, Jeremy Fingerman. A former president of Campbell Soup Company’s U.S. Soup Division and, perhaps more importantly, an alumnus of two Jewish summer camps, Fingerman replaces Jerry Silverman, who recently took the helm of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Q: You spent eight summers at Jewish camps: Ramah in Wisconsin and Blue Star in North Carolina. Were you ever a counselor?
A: I was offered a job as a camp counselor, but then a few months after I accepted it, I got a congressional internship in Washington. I had to write to the camp and say I was not coming. They said, “We’ll give you one year off.” That one year turned into a 30-year business career. But now I’m finally back working at camp again.
What’s your favorite camp memory?
One of my favorite camp stories is a camper-staff softball game. We tied the game, with someone sliding into home and then the umpire called the game on account of Shabbos approaching. … It struck me that the umpire had a higher purpose than baseball: to make sure people got prepared for Shabbos.
To what extent have Jewish summer camps changed since you were a kid?
Kids have changed, parents have changed and the needs have changed. … We now have to navigate the role the Internet plays: how do you make sure it allows for communication (between campers and their parents) but doesn’t overtake the experience … Also, kids and their families have more on their plates now, more competing activities that they’re trying to fit into a summer.
Sleep-away camp isn’t cheap. How’s the recession affecting camp recruitment and enrollment?
In general, camps are telling me they’re 90 percent full at this stage for the coming summer, which is on target with last year at this time … Last year, overall the enrollment was flat. Private camps had a drop in enrollment, but the nonprofit Jewish ones managed to stay flat. … One of the things we do is provide resources and information about scholarships, and we’ve been offering incentive grants (for first-time campers) since 2006. To date, we’ve sent about 10,000 new campers as a result.
What are you hoping to accomplish in the new job?
The Foundation has done a lot to improve the camp experience by training directors, administrators and staff. There are other constituencies I want to continue to engage, like lay leaders, JCCs, campus Hillels and synagogues, to talk about how we reinforce the camp experience when kids and counselors come back from the summer … and what role camp might play in helping to improve [the Jewish education] experience during the year.
My Jewish camp experience gave me the joy of Judaism, and I want to make that not only more accessible, but possible for every Jewish kid.