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From Campbell’s to camp:  A conversation with Jeremy Fingerman

The Foundation for Jewish Camp has tapped Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood as its new chief executive officer. He succeeds Jerry Silverman, now CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Fingerman, a Harvard Business School graduate who formerly headed Campbell Soup Co.’s U.S. Soup Division and the management group for Manischewitz foods, moved to Englewood with his wife, Gail, in September 2005. Their 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter attend The Moriah School there.

With an annual budget of more than $22 million, FJC provides leadership, expertise, advocacy, and financial resources to approximately 150 non-profit Jewish overnight summer camps, 70,000 campers, and 10,000 counselors in North America. Philanthropists Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner founded it in 1998 to fill a need they saw for more and better identity-strengthening opportunities for Jewish children.

Fingerman, most recently the founder and managing principal of the consulting and investment advisory firm Clairmont Ventures, will be formally introduced at the foundation’s Leaders Assembly, March 14 to 15 in Jersey City.

In an early Sunday phone interview before going to morning services at Cong. Ahavath Torah, Fingerman talked with The Jewish Standard about the relevancy of his background and interests to his new position.

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Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood is the new CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

Jewish Standard: Soup and summer camp seem like entirely different businesses. How has your past experience prepared you for the FJC?

Jeremy Fingerman: I hope my experience in branded packaged goods will bring a fresh perspective to the work of the FJC. My discipline, developed over 20-plus years in consumer businesses, is to address the needs of each constituency

The “consumers” in this case are the campers and their families. We must make sure the product offered meets the needs of today. The “retailers” are the counselors and staff that delivers those products and services, and we must make sure they are refreshed and renewed each season. The “distributors” are the boards, administrations, and movement heads, who need to decide on funding, capital expansion, and prioritization.

JS: Where did you go to camp as a kid?

JF: I started at Camp Blue Star in North Carolina for four summers, then to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for four summers. They were truly magical experiences. My parents both attended summer camp in the late ’20s/early ’30s and all of my siblings attended summer camp. My wife attended Camp Interlaken, the JCC camp in Wisconsin. We were in Eagle River during the same summers, but unfortunately didn’t meet until about 15 years later.

JS: Where do your children go to camp?

JF: They have gone to day camp at the JCC and Ma Tov. We are getting ready this year to look into sleep-away camp. We want to send them to the same camp, so I hope one of the advantages of this job will be to help us find one right fit for both of them.

JS: Do they need the Jewish camp experience as much as children who go to public school?

JF: Definitely. I expect that a camp’s immersive, 24/7 Jewish environment would both reinforce what they have learned and provide further joy to their Judaism, besides giving them the time of their lives! I also hope they — like me — will eventually gain the leadership skills that will serve them well both professionally and in their communal activities.

JS: How can parents best narrow the field of choices?

JF: I think you should look at issues of administration and safety. Find a director with a trusted reputation for getting to know and look after each and every child. You want to choose a camp that reinforces the hashkafa [Jewish outlook] you’re trying to establish in your own home, and one that can supply what your children are looking for.

After that, it’s a matter of what your own camp memories are. Sports, for example. I got to try everything, and then explore what I wanted to begin to specialize in after camp. Jewishly, you can apply the same principle to an extent. Most impactful for me was having role models among the staff who set an example in davening [prayer] and Torah learning.

JS: Does the FJC support camps that provide a more cultural than religious Jewish environment?

JF: Yes. But there has to be an Israel component and a Shabbat component in all Jewish camps, even as they cover the gamut of [different approaches to] Judaism.

JS: What other Jewish or civic endeavors are you involved in?

JF: I serve on the board of trustees of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood. I also serve as national vice chairman for the American Friends of Magen David Adom. And I have been active in the Englewood Business Forum, which is helping people expand their networks, develop new businesses, and provide guidance and support during this challenging economic period.

JS: Given the approximate cost of about $1,000 per week for an overnight camper, how is the economy affecting camps and potential campers’ families?

JF: I don’t yet know the specifics, but I’m sure that just as schools and shuls have been tightening their belts, camps are looking at their suppliers and vendors and negotiating harder to save money in non-program areas.

Looking at the demand side, last year the percentage of occupancy of beds among the 150 camps we support was in the high 90s. So, many parents are still sending their children to camp, but maybe for four weeks instead of eight. It could be that camps need to focus more on marketing themselves as a one-month option. This is still a meaningful period of time.

 
 

Scholarships v. camp or Israel trip?

Schools alert parents that aid may be endangered

Scholarship committees of two modern Orthodox day schools in Teaneck wrote to parents earlier this month that if their children attend on scholarship and the family can afford to send them to a summer program — including an Israel program — their scholarships may be in jeopardy.

This move has set off a controversy among professionals in the world of Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps, and Israel programs.

Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), a boys yeshiva in Teaneck, and Ma’ayanot, a girls yeshiva a block away, released a joint statement regarding the letters: “Ma’ayanot and TABC are proud to offer a quality yeshiva high school education on a need-blind basis while remaining fiscally responsible towards our parent body and donor community. Our letter to parents represented a restatement of long-standing guidelines shared by many, if not all, area yeshivot and was intended merely to ensure transparency and predictability in the scholarship process. Of course, each unique situation is evaluated based on individual circumstances.”

The statement was attributed to Dr. Howard Friedman, president of Ma’ayanot, and Etiel Forman, president of TABC. Arthur Poleyeff, TABC principal, told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday that he was “unable to comment at this time,” and telephone calls to Ma’ayanot were not returned.

Jewish summer camp professionals expressed dismay at what they characterized as the letter’s threat to penalize parents seeking a Jewish summer camp experience for their children, stressing that Jewish summer camp plays a strong role in cementing communal identity.

“Families should not be penalized for wanting a full Jewish educational experience for their children,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). Fingerman, an Englewood resident, said Jewish summer camp is a “proven building block” for creating a strong sense of community, and that “summers at Jewish camp are a valuable component of a child’s Jewish education and the creation of [his or her] Jewish identity.”

Lee Weiss, vice chairman of the board of the FJC, said that his organization does not view this as a widespread trend, but stressed its disappointment in what he characterized as an either/or mindset on the part of the schools’ decision-makers.

“We have not seen this in any way shape or form as a model across the country,” Weiss said. “Obviously, we believe Jewish education expands beyond the classroom, and informal Jewish education is incredibly important. We are disappointed it is being looked at as a zero-sum game.”

He added, “It’s disturbing the value camp can bring to a high-school or grade-school child isn’t being recognized the way we’d like it to be.”

Israel programming professionals voiced the concern that, should paying to send their children on an Israel program mean that a family could risk losing financial aid for day school, hard-won gains in Jewish-identity formation provided by Israel programs could be lost.

In particular, some stressed the potential threat to Jewish leadership.

“It would be a bad development for Jewish education if this policy became widespread,” said Omer Givati, Young Judaea shaliach for the Northeast.

Givati, whose work includes recruiting Jewish teens for participation in Young Judaea’s Israel programs, stressed the value of a three-tiered educational template — Jewish day schools, Jewish youth groups, and Israel trips — for cultivating future Jewish leaders.

“Future Jewish leaders will be those who start in Jewish day school, go through summer camps and Jewish youth movements, and spend significant time in Israel,” Givati said. “Those are the people who will be pluralist enough to see all aspects of the Jewish community and lead the Jewish community in the future.”

While Birthright Israel, which sponsors Israel trips for Jewish teens and twenty-somethings, has eased the cost burden for some, more Reform and Conservative families send their children to Israel via Birthright than Orthodox ones, according to Stuart Levy, community shaliach for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, whose work includes advising families about Israel trips for teenagers. While cautioning that he does not have a “crystal ball” and can’t know whether pitting day-school scholarships against Israel trips will become widespread, Levy said that should such policies result in fewer Jewish teens being sent to Israel, it would be unfortunate.

“I would not want to be in the position of having to choose between a Jewish day-school experience and Israel experience,” said Levy. “Both have very important value in shaping Jewish education for all ages.”

The FJC plans to announce the findings next week of a study it commissioned on the influence of attending Jewish camp on Jewish community affiliation among adults.

 
 

It’s official: Jewish camp strengthens Jewish identity

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish camp alumni — and their parents — have long known that those halcyon weeks spent at Jewish summer camp don’t just cement lifelong friendships, they strengthen Jewish identity.

Now they have it in writing.

A new study on the long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp concludes that those who have attended camp are more Jewishly engaged as adults, according to 13 key variables, than those who did not go to camp.

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According to a new report, these happy kids at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires are more likely to be Jewishly engaged as adults than their friends who didn’t go to Jewish camp. Judah S. Harris/Foundation for Jewish Camp

“We finally have a tool that proves Jewish camp works, that it helps create a more vibrant Jewish future,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which advocates for more than 155 Jewish nonprofit camps in North America and sponsored the study.

“Camp Works: The long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp” used data from 26 national studies of adult Jewish engagement, including the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, to produce the first statistical look at the effect of Jewish camping on individual as well as communal Jewish identity.

The report shows the most pronounced increase in Jewish engagement in four areas not typically associated with non-Orthodox Jewish behavior. Three of them have to do with Jewish communal identity: Camp alumni are 55 percent more likely than Jewish adults who did not attend camp to say they are “very emotionally attached to Israel”; they are 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month; and 30 percent more of them donate to Jewish federations.

This is significant, says lead researcher Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, because those three behaviors indicate a certain level of Jewish communal commitment, and it is precisely that communal identification that many Jewish experts fear is most at risk.

“Where camp has had its strongest effect has to do with its creation of an intense, temporary Jewish community,” said Cohen.

That communal experience imprints on the individual, he surmised, leading to a greater propensity to view one’s self within a larger Jewish social network in adulthood.

The other 10 areas of investigation also revealed increased Jewish engagement among camp alumni, from a 37 percent increase in those who “always/usually” light Shabbat candles to a 5 percent increase in the number of those who “always/usually” light Chanukah candles. These 10 areas are related to an individual sense of Jewish identity.

Camp’s impact is more pronounced among non-Orthodox Jews under 49 than their elders, the report notes.

More than 70,000 children and teens attended Jewish overnight camp in 2010.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Local camps balance safety and fun

Jewish camps review safety measures in wake of Ramah Darom tragedy

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Lake safety training is a regular focus during staff week at Union for Reform Judaism Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Mass. Union for Reform Judaism

SAN FRANCISCO – It’s the nightmare of every parent — and every teacher, youth leader and camp director.

When a child dies in an accident while in someone else’s care, the agonizing questions begin: Could we have done anything different? Were all the proper procedures followed? And above all, how can we keep children safe while still ensuring that they have a fun and meaningful summer?

The Jewish camping community is asking such questions with the death of Andrew Silvershein, 16, of Davie, Fla., who drowned June 19 on a whitewater rafting trip during his first week at Ramah Darom, a Conservative movement summer camp in northern Georgia.

“For all of us in the business, this is the No. 1 thing on our mind,” said Len Robinson, executive director of the New Jersey Y Camps. “At the end of the summer, when the last child is delivered home to their parents, you feel the weight of the world lifted from your shoulders. Unfortunately, things happen.”

Everything was done correctly in this case, camp professionals say: A trained guide was in every raft, and every child was wearing a life jacket and helmet.

The current was strong, the raft overturned and Silvershein was wedged under a rock. He was pulled out, but it was too late. He was buried three days later.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Andrew’s family and friends, and with the Ramah Darom community,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “It’s clear that camps are tremendously safe places. This was just a senseless and tragic accident.”

Nevertheless, Jewish camp directors have been reviewing their safety measures.

Rabbi Paul Resnick, the longtime director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, said his staff immediately began re-checking the camp’s standards to make sure that they comply with the regulations of the American Camping Association, as well as of the New York Board of Health. And this summer’s programming does not include whitewater rafting.

“We certainly believe in outdoor adventure, and although there is always some risk, we believe we have a very well-trained staff, use reliable trip providers and that we are following all safety protocols,” Resnick said, adding that he also offers his sympathy and support to the Ramah Darom community.

Many camps had not started their seasons and were still running training weeks for counselors and other staff when the Darom tragedy occurred. Safety, which is always stressed, camp directors say, was underlined yet again.

Although many families of Ramah Darom campers were in touch right after the accident, some asking about particular safety protocols, Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, says that none withdrew their children or canceled their registration.

National Ramah is the umbrella organization for eight overnight camps, three day camps and Ramah Israel programs.

Directors of other Jewish camps say the number of calls from parents concerned about the safety of their children has not increased. Those calls come anyway, they say.

“Parents are more involved in asking questions today,” said Robinson, who has been in the Jewish camping business for 45 years. “Industry standards have remained at the same high level since the 1970s. It’s the parents’ concerns that have changed.”

Some practical changes have been made in the past few decades, he says. Diving boards were taken out of camp pools, for example, for fear of accidents. Campers now wear life jackets, not just life belts, while water skiing. And lifesaving and rescue techniques are constantly being upgraded as knowledge increases.

Even the materials used in some equipment is different. Life jackets used to be filled with a material that became unusable if waterlogged, Robinson says. The newer jackets are more resistant, and buckle easier and more securely.

“We have better and stronger materials today, some from the space program,” he said, mentioning nylon as one NASA-developed material now in wide use.

Paul Reichenbach, the director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, says the union has made nearly $750,000 worth of security upgrades to its camps over the past decade. URJ camps have new fences and 24-hour guards, and have installed gates and security lights. An Israeli security firm runs training sessions for its camp directors and staff every summer to teach them how to evacuate buildings and look for a missing child, as well as other emergency tactics.

“We have never had a serious incursion, but it’s what we do for the health and security of our children,” he said.

The URJ isn’t alone, Reichenbach stresses.

“Lots of camps have significantly upgraded their security,” he said. “Things have changed. It’s part of our commitment to families and to ourselves.”

Still, he says, children are killed virtually every summer, whether in Jewish or non-Jewish programs. In 2002, a six-year-old girl drowned at a JCC summer camp in northern California. In 2009, a 14-year-old girl was killed at a JCC camp in Pennsylvania when a tree fell on her tent.

“It’s the reality we live in,” Reichenbach said. “We have active programs. It doesn’t mean you stop swimming. After a tragedy you redouble your protocols and ask yourself the tough questions: Are we doing everything we can?”

Ramah Darom has “incredibly high standards,” Reichenbach noted, and they work with “an excellent company” to ensure that they get the best safety training and preparation.

Transparency is key, say those interviewed. Parents want to know the risks, how safety will be ensured and how emergencies will be handled.

Immediately after the Silvershein tragedy, Ramah Darom staff alerted the families of the other campers by e-mail and phone. Grief counselors were called in to supplement the camp’s rabbis and social workers as part of an ongoing healing process.

Fingerman says he is “tremendously impressed” with how Ramah Darom has been handling the tragedy, and with how the rest of the camping world has reached out to the camp.

More than 800 mourners attended the funeral, he notes, and many of them hugged the camp director and board chair to show support, even as they were trying to support the grieving family.

Instead of turning away from the camp, the Silversheins have created a scholarship fund in Andrew’s memory, so other Jewish children can attend camp. And their daughter, Andrew’s younger sister, is expected to return to Ramah Darom after the shiva, or week of mourning.

“The family stated how important camp was in his life,” Fingerman said. “They said he’d never want this tragedy to destroy the joy other kids could have at camp.”

JTA Wire Service

Julie Wiener of The New York Jewish Week contributed to this report.

 
 
 
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