Yoni Stadlin was washing the dishes one day when he suddenly had a big idea: what if he started a new Jewish camp?
Stadlin had worked as the director at a day camp and had been involved with seven Jewish overnight camps, along with earning a master’s degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary in informal education. He knew his career would be in Jewish camping, but to make a pre-existing camp all that he wanted it to be seemed daunting. Then, the dishes, and the idea for a new camp model emerged from the soap bubbles.
“It was one of those big ideas that felt like a huge yes,” he says.
Eden Village, the working name of the camp he and his wife, Vivian Lehrer, devised, will focus on the environment, spirituality and social justice. It is one of five new residential Jewish summer camps offering specialty programming that the Foundation for Jewish Camp is launching through its Specialty Camps Incubator.
The new camps are meant to mirror start-up incubators in the business world, with the Jim Joseph Foundation providing seed money of $10.6 million and the Foundation for Jewish Camp providing resources and guidance to the new camp directors.
“We see ourselves as somewhat stewarding and providing expertise and skills to these organizations, to ensure success and sustainability long-term,” says Jerry Silverman, chief executive officer of the FJC.
When it announced the initiative earlier this year, the FJC received 30 applications from various entrepreneurs who hoped to ignite a new crop of Jewish campers through specialty camps that would integrate Jewish content with a focus on a specific subject, a market in the secular world that is continually growing.
Of the 30 applicants, a panel comprised of experts in nonprofit incubators, the for-profit camp world, private foundations and others chose 12 applicants to submit proposals, nine to undergo in-person interviews and finally settled on five camps that will open for business in summer, 2010. They include Stadlin’s camp, which will be housed in upstate New York and focus on the environment, Passport New York, a project of the 92 Street Y and the New Jersey Y camps, as well as a wilderness travel camp in Atlanta, an outdoor adventure camp in Colorado and a sports camp in North Carolina.
“When you look at the market penetration now, we’re only reaching 10 percent of the market,” says Silverman, adding that there are approximately 700,000 camp-aged Jewish children in the United States. The goal is not to create competition and draw campers away from traditional overnight camps, but rather to add a new option for campers who seek a specialty experience and would otherwise not choose a Jewish camp.
“Business incubators have never been tried with Jewish education before,” says Michele Friedman, director of new camp initiatives at FJC. “If you don’t get on board with what children want, they’ll get on board with somewhere who offers it, and there’s no Jewish content at Nike summer camp.”
The incubator project will fund each camp for five years, creating “turn-key operations” that will hopefully sustain themselves after years four or five. Camp directors have already begun receiving extensive training and support from FJC, setting them up to build business models that will flourish.
For Alan Saltz, director of camp planning and development at the 92nd Street Y, the opportunity to introduce campers from across the country and Israel to New York City’s treasures, while also finding Jewish relevance in everyday activities, is the impetus behind Passport New York, which will offer specialties in film, fashion design, rock band, baseball and culinary arts for about 200 children ages 11-16. In addition to living together and working together on projects, the campers will have the chance to meet accomplished Jewish New Yorkers.
“We hope to get … people who are well-known in their fields, to demonstrate to the kids that you can be successful but tied still to Judaism and your Jewish roots,” says Saltz.
The camps open in a year and a half so some of the specifics like cost and time frame have yet to be hashed out. But for the new entrepreneurs, the chance to prove their business mettle, creativity and passion for Jewish camping is plenty for now.
“It’s a full-time job and a full-time life,” says Stadlin