Friends for Life: Engaging Jewish Camp Alumni

By Julia Riseman, Mentor, JCamp 180

On a cold, still snowy March afternoon this past week, I got together with my cousin's wife, Beth -- she just celebrated her 6-month wedding anniversary, and I'm still getting to know her as family. Over hot cups of Chai Tea in a Northampton, MA café, we caught up on the new couple's plans. 

Beth asked me what I do for work. I told her I provide consulting services to Jewish Overnight Camps with JCamp 180. Her eyes lit up. "I loved my Jewish Camp! It's where I first felt really accepted for who I was, where my world grew much broader than my hometown." We talked about her experience growing up as an isolated Jew in the South, and how wonderful it was to find a broader community of friends just like herself at Jewish Camp in New England. "I'm still friends with the kids I met at camp. It's where I had my first kiss," she said with a smile.

Beth's story mirrors the results of a study conducted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp on the significant impact of Jewish Overnight Camps on adult Jewish identity. I hear stories just like hers among the many Camp Alumni Lay Leaders I work with all across North America. Like them, Beth is articulate about the impact of her experience at camp. She can trace her positive Jewish identity to camp, and she is still connected to her camp friends as an adult. But for all that goodwill and appreciation for "her" camp, she is not in touch with the camp itself, and she is not a supporter of camp today. 

I assume the camp doesn't have Beth's contact information and doesn't know how deeply she feels about her experience. If Beth is typical of the majority of Jewish Camp Alumni, what strategies might camps use to re-engage alumni like her? How might Jewish Camp remain a "Friend for Life" with all their alumni from now on?

What Do Camps Have to Offer Alumni?

I believe that Jewish Camps should firmly commit to on-going engaging with alumni as "Friends for Life" and really think about the foundations of that life-long friendship. The first step is for camps to recognize that they have valuable "stuff" that alumni really want from an ongoing friendship. Here is a list of some of the "stuff" I believe camps have that alumni want: 

  • Memories -- The most vivid memories of a person's life are created in young adulthood and, in the case of alumni, that means when they were at overnight camp. When alumni revisit those memories later in life, camp still owns the physical location of those formative, powerful, life-defining memories. Camps also keep volumes of old photos that alumni would love to see. 

  • Friends -- Jewish Overnight Camp is, at its core, all about creating life-long friendships. Adult alumni seek out their friends from camp, and alumni of every age are actively using Facebook to reconnect -- with or without the help of camp.

  • Networking Opportunities -- Adult alumni often turn to their old camp community of friends when networking for jobs, seeking dating opportunities, or finding friends when moving to a new area.

  • Summer Jobs -- Young alumni turn to camp for summer employment opportunities. Your website should make it easy to send updated contact information when interested in employment and indicate if they are alumni of camp, then reconnect to say "hello and welcome back." 

  • Legacy -- Alumni who are parents will think of overnight camp for their own camper-age children. Parents can look forward to sending their child to the same camp they attended, unlike their University or Jewish Day School/Synagogue (which would depend on living in the same community the parent grew up in). Many older Jewish Camps are now experiencing three or four generations attending the same camp. 

  • A Place to Give Back -- Alumni are thoughtful and reflective about the impact and value of camp on their lives, their children's lives, or even their grandchildren's lives. They are willing to give back and support camp with a referral, donation, bequest, or volunteer leadership -- IF ASKED. Older alumni can complete the circle from their generation to the next generation through their support of Jewish Camp.

Alumni care deeply about their camp experience, and camp has stuff alumni want -- a wonderful combination for meaningful engagement.

Establishing and maintaining a life-long friendship with Alumni takes time, attention, and intentional effort that can best be sustained with dedicated staff. Jewish Day schools have recognized this opportunity.

Forty-three percent of Day School surveyed in a recent Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) study now have staff dedicated to alumni outreach -- a position that is still rare at Jewish Camps. 

(Note: We've posted a sample job Description for a Director of Annual Campaign and Alumni Relations on our Knowledge Center.)

How Can Camps Make it More Personal?

In the field of fundraising, we know that donors increasingly desire a personal and  meaningful connection to the organizations they support and want to know that their donations make a difference. So, camps today face two challenges when communicating with alumni: first, to authentically engage alumni and avoid lumping them together as a single group and, second, to explain why giving to Jewish Camp is important and to demonstrate the difference it makes. 

In order to engage alumni of different ages effectively, I would suggest that you reflect on the changing interests of alumni of different ages, and then target your Alumni communication accordingly. Colleges and Universities understand this and plan a variety of communications and events that appeal to alumni of different ages.

Here is a sample table to consider Alumni by ages:

Age Group     Focus
17 to 25
(Young Aumni)
  • Where are my friends now?
  • Summer jobs or mentorships
  • Travel to Israel
25 to 40
  • Family: Camp for kids or family camp
  • Single: Looking for other Jews
  • Opportunity for camp-like community
40 to 75
  • Stories about staff/friends who made an impact on me
  • Proud parents want pictures of their campers
  • Proud alumni who support camp
  • Camp's Strategic Vision: Lay leadership years
  •  Legacy
  • History and old photos
  • Continuity of Jewish people and traditions 
  • Grandchildren and pictures of them at camp

Once you've identified the interests of your alumni by age for your own camp, it is possible to map out and plan your alumni communication, events, and fundraising efforts to coordinate with your camp's overall marketing, fundraising, and outreach efforts over the course of a year. 

Create a plan that includes specific measurable goals, and monitor success from year to year. Critical to your camp's ability to maintaining life-long friendships with your alumni is your commitment to your donor database. Make a plan, monitor the plan, measure success, and make improvements each year. Easier said than done?  Sure, but lasting friendships are worth the effort!