In November of 2008, the Jim Joseph Foundation (JJF) and the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) made a big bet. They awarded the National Ramah Commission (NRC) $1.1 million to create the first outdoor specialty camp in the country with an intensive Jewish focus. Jewish children had been going in droves to numerous secular specialty camps. The JJF, FJC & NRC bet that if a Jewish camp could offer a high level of programming infused with Jewish texts, values and traditions and employ passionate young educators to serve as role models to the campers, then a Jewish Outdoor Adventure camp would not only survive, but actually thrive. And thus Ramah Outdoor Adventure was born.
Four years ago, I sat in our first incubator camp session along with directors of four other Jewish specialty camps dreaming of what our camp would look like. Based on the model of a business incubator, where businesses share resources and knowledge early on to create a new business, the FJC organized a four year program to help five new specialty camps come to market. In that first meeting, the professionals running the camp incubator spoke to us about creating a 501(c)3, articulating a mission and list of values and conducting a SWOT analysis to figure out how we could compete in a crowded marketplace with 190+ other Jewish camps and hundreds of other excellent private camps. Over the ensuing four years, we have continued to gather as a cohort in our incubator sessions five times per year. We have moved from talking about camp as a theoretical idea to serving hundreds of young campers and staff each season. We have moved from talking about our “theory of social change” to implementing programs where we are actually changing children’s lives. We have moved from a group of 20 & 30 somethings with an idea about what an ideal camp could look like to a community with campers age 8-18, over 200 college/ graduate school age staff members and countless enthusiastic fans from parents to teachers to other camp professionals who are copying aspects of our program.
Last week in New York, the directors of all five incubator camps gathered for our final official incubator meeting to celebrate our collective success and welcome the directors of four new specialty camps who are setting out on their own journey to make their own camp dreams a reality. Standing in the room with the other directors, the heads of our respective agencies and many members of the FJC team who have helped bring us to this point, I could not help but feel a sense of collective pride in the thousands of Jewish children who have attended our five camps, many of whom would not have gone to a Jewish camp without the introduction of these incubator camps to the broader Jewish Camp marketplace.
And as I sit here, four years later, I think the three most important lessons I have learned are as follows:
- Always stay true to your mission and values, even if it means losing some sales. In the long term the dedication to our core values are what has made Ramah Outdoor Adventure such a special place and continues to guide each of our decisions about how we continue to improve our program.
- Hiring passionate, dedicated staff members who come to camp because of their love for the outdoors and their desire to advance our mission ensures the success of the program each summer. Our facility is one of the most rustic in the Jewish camping world and few children come to camp for our basketball but I have no doubt that our staff is among the absolute top in the entire camping industry.
- Many children want to be challenged, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Ramah Outdoor Adventure is a place with a clear “aspirational arc” in each of our program areas. At each stage of the program, campers are able to aspire to a new level. Whether this is in the teffilah program where we offer different prayer options to different age groups, or the archery range, where we have a traditional range with round targets and a 3D range for more advanced shooters, or our masa program where younger campers go for day trips and short overnights and our older campers head out for 4-6 days on the trail, at each stage we celebrate where a camper is, and show him/her where s/he can continue going.
With days left in our super-early bird registration, we have more campers registered for camp today than at this point in any previous year. In fact, we have more campers enrolled today than who came to camp in our opening summer only three years ago. It truly has been a fantastic ride, and I know that we are only at the beginning of ensuring that Ramah Outdoor Adventure continues to be a place where Jewish children come to spend their summers for years to come!