The Strategic Advantage of Being Part of a Group

By Harrell Wittenstein, Executive Director, Association of Independent Jewish Camps

It goes without saying that no one should be left all alone in Jewish Camping. What is true for an individual camper is also true for your individual camp. 

There is something powerful about camp-to-camp cooperation: working together with other like-minded camps creates professional development opportunities for knowledge sharing and building friendship. Not only is this deeply rewarding, it is also a competitive advantage for your business.

I was a camp director of an independent Jewish camp - B'nai B'rith Beber Camp - in the early 90's. At the time, we were without a cohort, nor part of any specific movement. This left Beber Camp rather isolated from the rest of the field. Everything we did as an organization was built from the ground up and was often the result of trial and error.

I didn't have easy access to the knowledge, experience, and expertise of other practitioners in the field (and beyond). In hindsight, this made change at our organization sometimes slow and often piecemeal. It was difficult to be exposed to best practices, let alone adapt them.

Fast-forward 25 years, and now the field of Jewish camping provides incredible opportunities to participate in field-wide initiatives, programs and development, thanks to the tremendous efforts of JCamp 180 and the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), among others. However, the depth of relationships and sharing that come from participating in a like-minded association or a movement goes well beyond these field-wide initiatives. 

Enter Associations/Movements

Today, across the Jewish camping industry there are many pockets of Jewish Camps clustered together by associations or movements: JCCA camps, URJ camps, Ramah camps, Habonim Dror camps, and Young Judaea camps, among others. All of these groupings provide the possibility of deeper collaborations.

The benefits of belonging to such organizations are far reaching:

  • Professional cohorts,
  • Shared knowledge centers for programming and organizational documents,
  • Collective professional development opportunities,
  • Shared operational excellence,
  • Greater capacity to apply for Foundation Grants, etc.

​The recent success of the National Ramah Commission to obtain funding for national initiatives for Alumni Outreach is a great example of power of Jewish Camp cohorts to leverage resources and improve programming. The key ingredient of all these clusters of Jewish camps is "like-mindedness," which creates deeper relationships and the ability to share openly.
But what about the rest of the Jewish Camps that don't fall into any of these cohorts? I would argue that independent Jewish camps without any cohort operate at a competitive disadvantage. But it doesn't have to remain that way any longer. 

The Association of Independent Jewish Camps Fills a Need

The newly formed Association of Independent Jewish Camps (AIJC) is bringing together like-minded independent Jewish camps from across North America to grow, thrive and succeed. Already 11-members strong, the intent is to provide the support services to a cohort of Jewish Camps that would otherwise be left "solo" in the field.

The AIJC has already begun creating partnerships with both for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations to bring expertise to the cohorts. For example, the AIJC has partnered with Giving Tree Associates, a professional fundraising organization, to participate in monthly fundraising cohort calls. This allows for the staff from member camps to share and learn from each other and to learn from a fundraising professional from Giving Tree Associates. The association has also partnered with Moishe House to help engage young alumni (22 - 30 year olds) through the programs at Moishe Houses and eventually through Moishe House Without Walls. AIJC has also partnered with Keshet, a special needs organization, which is helping the member camps strategically plan and develop inclusion programs for their campers. 

In addition to operations, partnerships and professional cohorts, the AIJC is planning to work with the camps' boards of directors. This fall, the AIJC will be bringing together board members from two camps to begin creating relationships among the board members. Not just to discuss best practices of board governance but to collaboratively consider practical issues such as developing lay-professional relationships; connecting board culture to the camp culture; maintaining a strategic direction; and gaining a better understanding of the broader field. This will help the board members better evaluate the success of their camp program and professional staff. 

What's Next?

What is next for associations and movements? I predict that in the field of Jewish Camps, what you obtain through cooperation with other like-minded camps will be as valuable if not more so than the outside funding you receive from Foundations.

The AIJC will continue to leverage the expertise of the member camps and programs to help everyone achieve success at a high level. The long and short range plans include offering development seminars for summer staff; providing weekend or week-long training sessions; encouraging full-time camp staff to visit, participate in, and work out of another camps' office; researching business solutions for everyday problems; and creating relationships up and down the professional organizational chart so that camp staff and board members have peers to reach out to for problem solving…and solution sharing!

With the addition of the Association of Independent Jewish Camps there should now be a level playing field and professional development opportunities accessible to every non-profit Jewish camp in North America.