“Research shows that Jewish camping is the most effective way to inculcate a love for Judaism in kids,” says Jordanna Flores, MAJNM ’01, MAJE ’01. “Camp is an acculturative, immersive experience, where kids can live Jewishly and joyously every day.”
Her assessment is confirmed by Paul J. Reichenbach, URJ Director of Camping and Israel Programs, who explains, “Jewish camping is where young people find Jewish role models and create lifelong Jewish friendships and identities.”
The Reform Movement’s commitment to this mission is exemplified by the exponential growth of URJ camping programs, including pioneering initiatives led by HUC-JIR education and nonprofit management alumni. Armed with the skills and knowledge they gained at HUCJIR, they are developing new specialty camps to be launched this summer that are designed to appeal to kids’ specific interests.
Flores is the director of the new URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy West in Southern California, designed to cultivate the Jewish minds and spirits of 5th through 10th graders through Judaism, science, and technology. “We want to start with something that a camper already loves, and connect through that to Judaism,” she says. “Invention and innovation are part of our Jewish tradition as much as our rituals and practice. We wrestle with questions, don’t take things at face value, and solve problems with ingenuity, making the tradition contemporary and more relevant. Seeing an unfulfilled need in the world and coming up with an invention to fill that need is the intersection of Judaism and sci-tech. That is repairing the world and that’s our tikkun olam.”
Jo-Ellen Unger, EMA ’16, is the director of the new URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy in the mid-Atlantic region. This camp is for rising 4th through 11th graders who have a passion for six key areas: culinary arts, dance, instrumental and vocal music, theater, and the visual arts. “Starting from the ‘why” rather than the ‘how’ and ‘what’ is one of the things I learned at HUC-JIR,” explains Unger. “We started our planning for this new camp by identifying the core values and outcomes we hope to achieve. The goal is to lay the foundation while being aspirational.
Both Unger and Flores have spent the past several months ramping up to launch with budgeting, staffing with specialized expertise, board leadership development, marketing, and recruitment. Seeking an open tent, they want to make the camps accessible and affordable to congregational families as well as engage those who are unaffiliated. Each camp will offer short-term experiences, which research shows are impactful. Campers can also go to general camp for a session, and then do a specialty camp session too.
Finding kids who will thrive in specialty camps more often extends beyond kids already going to camp. “We are going to robotic competitions and local maker spaces where those kids hang out,” says Flores. She is also working closely with the leaders of the first URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Camp in Massachusetts, a huge success with over 600 kids this past summer.
Unger wants to provide her campers with pathways to reach their own understanding of themselves as Jews. “Today we are connected by technology but have lost the intimacy of connecting as human beings. Camp gives you the opportunity to appreciate the natural world and to be authentically who you are. There is nothing like experiencing community during Shabbat at camp.”
Inclusion support is also a part of Unger’s foundational planning. Working with the URJ, NFTY, Mitzvah Corps, and Keshet, she wants “to ensure that all prospective campers have access and opportunities that are meaningful and are set up for success.”
Flores credits HUC-JIR for “training me to be an educational leader who can run a camp, a Jewish educational institution. I can look critically at curriculum, know what makes for great teaching, and supervise how the content is coordinated and delivered by my teachers and counselors.”
Unger acknowledges that she wouldn’t have this position without her degree from HUC-JIR. “The coursework was demanding and meaningful. It gave me a vocabulary that, internally, validated intuitive knowledge and, externally, gave legitimacy to my work as a Jewish educator.”
Unger and Flores feel blessed to be doing this work. “The future of the Jewish people rests on the opportunities we can provide through immersive programs.”
Jordanna Flores, MAJNM ’01, MAJE ’01 (Lewis and Clark College, B.A. in English; HUC-JIR, M.A. in Jewish Nonprofit Management and M.A. in Jewish Education) Zimmer Children’s Museum Interim Director; Brandeis-Bardin Institute Program Director; Camp Alonim Director; LA Melton School Director; Assistant Director, HUC-JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education/DeLeT.
Jo-Ellen Unger, EMA ’16 (Florida State University, B.A. in Theater; HUCJIR, Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education) National Shakespeare Conservatory; Camp Coleman Assistant Director; NFTY Regional Director for Southeast Council; Assistant Director of Education, Temple Beth-El, Boca Raton, FL; Director of Education, Temple Beth El, Ahavath Chesed in Jacksonville, FL and Har Sinai Congregation in Owing Mills, MD; was the recipient of the Jim Joseph Scholarship.