Four years ago, I was sitting in my living room in Israel, where I was spending my fourth year of Rabbinical school studying at Machon Schechter, when I received the email. It was from Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the National Ramah director. It read “Call me; I have big plans for you.” I picked up the phone and called Rabbi Mitch. He told me that the National Ramah Commission was going to apply for a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp & the Jim Joseph Foundation through a new program called the Specialty Camp Incubator. These foundations were looking to seed five new Jewish specialty camps to attract Jewish children who were either not going to camp, or attending non-Jewish specialty camps. Rabbi Mitch asked me to help craft the grant. Working with a team of exceptionally talented individuals, we put together a winning proposal and were awarded an incubator grant in the fall of 2008. Shortly after, I became the director of this new camp, Ramah Outdoor Adventure, and commenced work to implement our 2009 staff training program and our 2010 inaugural summer camp program.
By all measures, the past four years of the incubator grant have been a resounding success. All five camps that were launched in 2009 through the Specialty Camp Incubator are continuing to grow at a fast pace. Last summer alone, between the five camps, we brought over 1,800 campers to Jewish camp. The numbers are still early this year, but we expect to grow this number by at least 25% in the coming season.
As one of the incubator camps, we have benefited by learning best practices from numerous leaders in the business, camping, and not-for-profit worlds. We have modeled many aspects of our program off of the best practices of not just Jewish camps, but successful secular programs too. Our staff and directors have had the opportunity to attend camping conferences and meetings with thought leaders throughout the country. Best of all we have brought over 400 children and teens to Ramah in the Rockies ranch in our first two years and will have over 300 campers and staff this summer! We currently have over 250 campers registered from throughout the US, Canada, Israel and now even the Dominican Republic!
Of course, the incubator grant is what has allowed us to grow at a rapid pace and open camp each summer, knowing that our (ever‑shrinking) operating deficit will be covered by these foundations. We are well on our way to reaching economic sustainability, and are targeted to break even on our operating deficit in the next year or two, while we still have funds to draw upon from the grant.
The purpose of this blog post, however, is not just to celebrate the past, but to look forward to the future. Two weeks ago, the Foundation for Jewish Camp announced that a new round of incubator camps will launch in the coming months. They are currently accepting letters of intent from organizations and individuals who want to begin their own specialty camps. Take a look at this link to learn more about the process. In the last round, three of the grants were awarded to organizations and two were awarded to individuals. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to each model, and if you are interested in learning more, please email or call me. As the director of an incubator camp, I cannot overemphasize the amazing experience it has been to be part of this process and to work so closely with my colleagues in this program, all of whom have faced similar challenges in starting a new Jewish camp.
Think big, pass the word around, and let’s help get four more Jewish camps off the ground in the coming year!