Institutional Memory

Creating Institutional Memory:

I am on my way back to Denver after spending last week visiting two summer camps. One of the great parts of having this grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation is that I have the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the camping field. While I have spent many years working in camps (mostly Ramah camps), it is a totally different experience to walk into a new place with an eye towards learning from another camps successes and trying to avoid their short comings.

Last week I visited two very different camps: Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. Both of these camps are known for their excellent programs. Both have extremely high levels of returning campers and staff (Yavneh has a 90% return rate of eligible campers!). Both have long time directors and are able to raise significant amounts of money for scholarships and capital improvements.

Both camps have nice physical plants. I would not refer to either as a “spa camp” nor would I say either is so rustic. But what stood out to me at both camps was not their physical plants but their leadership staff. Each of these camps has a group of key staff leaders who have returned to camp for many years helping to shape the program into what it is today. At Ramah Wisconsin, the director, Rabbi David Soloff, has been with the camp for 35 years. His key educational leaders and staff trainers have each been with the camp for over 20 years. There are a number of younger folks (people in their 20s) who have also been working at camp for many years and see themselves as helping to shape the core of the program.

When I sat down and talked with people in senior staff positions at Ramah WI, all spoke of the sense of mission and purpose in what they were doing. These people set the tone for the rest of the camp. Walking around Ramah Wisconsin, one is reminded time and again that this is not just a summer camp, but a Jewish educational institution. From the use of Hebrew in the Hanhallah meetings (they are conducted entirely in Hebrew!) to the constant buzz in the program office where counselors sit to prepare peulot it is clear that most of the staff at camp are there to enrich the Jewish identity of themselves, their peers and their campers.

Perhaps most importantly, there is a strong sense of institutional memory. Because there is such a strong core staff that returns year after year, I did not get the sense that they were constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. In the programming center one can look back 5 years to see the programs done in each edah. I was almost in disbelief as I watched a group of madrichim with a binder from two years ago open in front of them as they were preparing for a peulah for a program this week. It appeared to me that the key staff was able to ensure that materials are catalogued and available so that the ideas from camp do not disappear when a staff member does not return the following summer.

Camp Yavneh also has a core group of leaders who have been together for some time. The director, Debbie Sussman has been in her position for 18 years. Sitting in on the senior staff meeting felt like being a fly on the wall of a get together of old friends. Indeed, many of the core group have been working at camp for over ten years! Yavneh’s model of staffing is very different from Ramah’s . They rely heavily on younger hanhallah (Rashie Edah are 20 or 21) and Madrichim spend most of their day with their chanichim. All work in a specific Shetach during the day. Programming planning is mainly done by the Rashei Edah and is often decided upon in the off season.

This model works for them, not only because there is a core group of staff who have been with the camp for years, but also because there is excellent institutional memory whereby programs are written down and made accessible to those who need them. The programming in each edah does not change so much from year to year, so program for the 7th graders one year will look very similar to the programming for the 7th graders the next year. In addition, the educational curriculum for each Edah is set during the year and does not vary greatly from year to year. They have also been fortunate to have an excellent Rosh Chinuch who comes back year after year to oversee the program.

There is an obvious critique of both these camps, which is that they might not be so welcoming of outsiders/ new blood. Whereas I walked into Ramah Berkshires last summer as the Rosh Mumchim, I could not imagine having taken such a leadership role in either of these camps during my first summer. As someone who is taking on a leadership role at my 5th Ramah camp, I think that a camp that is not open to newcomers stepping into leadership role might be missing out on some excellent talent. Yet at the same time, I understand why a camp where everything appears to “be working” would be hesitant to having the “new guy step up to the plate.”

One might also argue that programming in a camp like these can become stale after a while. For better or for worse, programming at a camp with poor institutional memory is often fresh and innovative. When a counselor or specialist is not able to refer back to the previous years program s/he is forced to come up with something new. I have been a part of creating some amazing new programs. Also, when a madrich develops a program s/he will often take more pride in executing it than s/he would if s/he was simply told what to do. Of course it is a fine balance, but these are legitimate concerns with a model like Yavneh.

As a new camp director, I have been trying to figure out what the balance should be in a camp of welcoming new ideas each summer, changing the program to fit the needs of the participants, while also trying to avoid the problem I have seen too often of a camp having no institutional memory. Especially as a new camp it is going to be paramount to find this balance quickly and to recalibrate often in the initial years. As I begin to hire staff, I want to ensure that I find a mix of people who want to develop and grow with the institution as well as being welcoming to the new ideas and new people who will come along in the initial years and infuse this project with the necessary bursts of ideas and energy.

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