We Heard You: Lessons from Post-Summer Feedback
You Spoke, We Listened
Rabbi Eliav Bock
The better part of the past eight weeks or so since leaving the chava (ranch) have been spent reaching out to you, our camper families, to gather your thoughts about us and our camp program this last summer. We did this by personally calling or emailing each of our over 350 camper families. We also sought your input via an anonymous survey, which was administered by a third party foundation. But we didn’t stop there. We also asked all 90+ staff members for their perspectives as part of their exit interviews at the end of the summer. And then we requested them to complete a similar survey as well.
We heard from many of you and cannot thank you enough for your time and responses to our questions. Now that we have had time to review and evaluate it all, here is what we have learned and our plans for the future.
(I apologize for the length, but firmly believe in sharing as openly with you as you have with us.)
TWO THUMBS UP:
The geographic and religious diversity of our camp population enhances the warm and nonjudgmental community that we create each summer. Many of our chalutzim (campers) have “never felt so welcomed”, never felt so accepted for who they are, and “never [felt] so able to pursue [their] own passions without fear of being judged by others.” There is an overall feeling among those who responded that most people at camp share the same values as they or their children do.
Our Outdoor Programming
While there were a few masaot (excursions) that did not go as planned, this part of the program continues to be the most memorable and impactful aspect of camp. Our chalutzim who participated in multi-day experiences felt challenged and returned to camp with a great sense of accomplishment. Equally as important as the venues was the peer-to-peer bonding that took place.
Although the weather at the start of summer put a damper on some base camp activities, we received many compliments on the excellent balance between program quality and content, skills instruction, and fun factor. There were no complaints that our chalutzim had biked, climbed, or rode too much. (In fact, many would have liked more opportunities to do these.) And while there was high praise for the equipment used at camp, there were also times when there were more chalutzim wanting to participate than the equipment could accommodate at a single time.
Our Quality Staff
Many parents commented, and many of our older chalutzim noticed, that not only was our staff older than they had expected but also how eager and motivated they were to be working at camp and with the campers. While there were some critiques of missed follow-ups, a few poor choices made by staff, and some less-than-ideal counselor pairings, the overall consensus was one of a stellar team running a safe, educational, and inspiring summer for their children.
From the staff side, 100% stated that they were working there to advance the camp’s mission. Nationally, only 80% of Jewish summer camp staff members answer this affirmatively.
MIXED REVIEWS (& WHERE WE CAN IMPROVE)
Overall, we received the most comments about the food at camp. Some loved it, others wanted more meat, some wanted nuts, and others wished for more menu variety. Our food program is an integral part of our camp’s mission. At the same time, we know that little else matters if our chalutzim are hungry or wondering about the menu for the next meal. During the off season we continue to refine our menus, replacing less popular choices with new options, integrating more mainstream plant-based proteins, and improving our between-meal snack variety. This past summer we learned that while some campers were aware of readily available snacks, many of our younger campers did not know that they could grab something from the Ohel Ochel (dining tent) whenever they were hungry.
Improving our communication to campers about snacks is an easily accomplished goal. Other menu challenges, particularly meat availability, have multiple variables involved. Each year, a farm family in upstate New York raises free-range (organic) chickens for our summer needs. We made the switch to free-range chickens in 2012 after receiving negative feedback about serving factory farmed meat that did not fit in with the values we are living by as a community. In 2015, however, due to the unusually colder winter and spring in the northeast, the chickens were not of eating size and not schechted (ritually slaughtered) until late June, delaying meat on the camp menu until early July.
Acquiring additional organic chicken and meat from other sources and making it more often would answer that need, but would ignore the reality of our available facilities. Quite simply, we do not have a suitable meat kitchen at camp. Until we are able to build a new, $3+ million dining hall/commercial kitchen, we do what we are able which means that our only method to cook meat is on an open grill. And while we use the main kitchen to keep things warm (double wrapped in the dairy warmers) and to prepare parve side dishes, meat meals require us to shut down most of the regular kitchen and cover it in plastic for much of the day resulting in simplified dishes served for breakfast and lunch on those days.
While the shortage of meat/chicken is not readily fixed, we continue to offer eggs at most breakfasts and include protein options during the week as part of the salad bar. Meanwhile we continue to review our menus with a nutritionist to ensure that our community’s nutritional needs are met. We realize that this situation is not ideal, but hope our clarity helps explain why our meat situation is the way it is.
Our Younger Camper Experiences
Each year we continue to grow our camp programs for all our edot (groups), however, this summer it was clear that our younger campers needed us to rework their schedule to accommodate more of the popular base camp activities and incorporate additional outdoor adventure experiences particularly for our Ilanot chalutzim. The wet start to the summer did not help their adventure opportunities!
To address these issues, starting kayitz (summer) 2016, we are:
- Forgoing most day trips, which will enable our younger campers to participate in more base camp activities including horseback riding, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
- Conducting more outdoor-based overnight experiences that are age-appropriate to take advantage of our ranch and surrounding national forest, leading to an increased appreciation for all nature has to offer.
- Ensuring that any additional equipment needed for our youngest campers are available BEFORE any campers arrive.
- Aspiring higher in each of our program areas, ensuring that our younger campers are learning the basic skills needed as foundations for their progress in the current summer and future seasons.
Our Interpersonal Connections
Jewish summer camp works as an educational medium in large part because campers develop close, personal connections with their counselors and friends. This summer we noticed that, especially among our two-week participants, these connections did not take root as we hoped they would. For many of these chalutzim they had fun activities but not emotionally memorable experiences. Although we have had four-week campers in tents with mixed 2-week and 4-week campers, the transition of saying goodbye to one set of friends and welcoming another proved more difficult than in years past.
Moving forward, we will improve our staff training to ensure that social connections are being made within the ohelim (tents) and require counselors to complete regular socio-grams to aid them in identifying and encouraging healthy group dynamics. We will also encourage more activities that foster positive early connections and adapt our scheduling to include more bunk-specific bonding activities are all being worked into the programming vision for summer. Our goal is for each ohel, when they are in base camp, to have a minimum of one peulat erev (evening activity) just to themselves and then other activities with the broader edah (age group) or entire camp. Plus we will be adding more ohel time on Shabbat before havdallah.
Two-week programming will continue to be available to our edot through their Bogrim summer for 2016. However, we are evaluating the feasibility of requiring our Bogrim chalutzim to register for four weeks starting with the 2017 season. While we continue to believe that it is possible to create memorable and impactful experiences for our younger campers within two weeks, independent research has proved that longer sessions result in greater impact, deeper relationships, and additional personal growth. For our older chalutzim we may need to make this change to fully realize the outcomes we strive to achieve in our program.
With the exception of our first-time Ilanot-Sollelim campers, we will continue to encourage families to consider the four week options over two-week sessions. No matter how incredible we make our two week program, it simply cannot live up to the magic experienced over four weeks.
We feel incredibly privileged that so many families have entrusted us to care for their children each summer. We know the awesome responsibility that this entails and are aware that a child’s experience at camp can influence decisions throughout life. We are constantly seeking to improve our camp and to fully realize the values that guide us throughout our summer. We also know that there will be times when we fall short of expectations, and cannot thank our parents, chalutzim and tzevet enough for continuing to push us make our camp better and stronger!