What do all of these “firsts” have in common?
- Lisa, a parent of a preschooler mentioned that she knew the other parents as ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ at the school, but, she says, “At camp I really got to know them for the first time.”
- Barry and Allison, parents to a three-year-old, were so inspired by the talk by the parenting expert at camp that when their child had a meltdown at family camp, they put into practice a new strategy they learned right then and there for the first time.
- Kylie, described as a shy four-year-old, got up on stage and performed in front of nearly 100 people at a talent show.
- The Davis family expressed how they don’t have a lot of Judaism in their home but camp really helped demonstrate how to introduce it into their daily lives by trying out certain rituals.
All of these “firsts” took place at one of our 16 family camps during the past year in which over 300 families of all shapes and backgrounds participated. With our Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Family Camp Project, we design, guide, and inspire Jewish families to experience an immersive, joyful weekend at one of our local Jewish overnight summer camps.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN:
Several years ago, we had our first PJ Library weekend. We saw the impact — the magic — that takes place when families immerse themselves in celebrating Shabbat, singing Jewish songs together, reading PJ Library books, enjoying a campfire, and stepping out of their day-to-day stressors. At family camp, parents begin to let their guard down knowing that their children are well cared for by loving and capable counselors and staff. They let themselves enjoy a walk with their partner, a stroll with a new friend, or a few moments alone to enjoy the sounds of camp. They let themselves just be, instead of thinking about all they need to do to get ready for the next day. And they do this all embraced by an inclusive, open, and welcoming Jewish communal space.
We asked ourselves — how could we keep this magic just within PJ Library? So our Federation created The Family Camp Project.
WHAT DO WE KNOW?
- Immersive experiences, especially Jewish overnight summer camp, help children build foundational memories tied to their sense of self. As a result, Jewish living becomes an integrated core part of who they are. Yet nearly not enough of our youth attends camp.
- Jewish early childhood programs have the potential to be effective pathways toward meaningful Jewish engagement for the family. Yet most Jewish early childhood centers (ECCs) struggle to find the resources, time, and bandwidth to focus on the family — especially to plan an immersive camp experience.
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
We view the launch and success of our Family Camp Project as a huge win for our Jewish early childhood centers, our camps, and most importantly — our families with young children. It’s the casual strolls to lunch where fresh conversations start. It’s the toddlers playing in the sand and discovering how it feels on their hands. It’s the light of the Havdalah candles surrounded by circles of multiple generations of faces all noticing the transition from Shabbat to the rest of the week.
We know it when we see it. On the other hand, we’re very clear about how we are measuring success so we can design and program with intention. We learn from program evaluation and reflection in order to strengthen our work and increase the chances that we’ll reach our goals. As a result of a family camp weekend, we hope families will:
- Develop bonds with other families raising Jewish children
- Gain curiosity about being Jewish and how to incorporate that into their lives
Six months down the road, ideally with ongoing programming offered by the ECCs, we hope families will:
- Be more open to incorporating something Jewish into their lives
- Integrate new Jewish rituals, songs, and traditions into their home
- Develop friendships with families they met at camp
- Be more invested in programming through Jewish ECE and beyond
HOW DID WE GROW THE INITIATIVE?
We built off the successes of PJ Library and expanded it community-wide. We invited Jewish early childhood centers and camps to join us in this endeavor. We welcomed other natural, organic groups of families with young children as well, such as our Russian-speaking families. We provided joint training opportunities for camp professionals and ECC educators to get inspired to cater to young families in a camp setting.
We see the 16 Family Camps between September and May as the kickstarter for our ECCs to build community and guide their families on their unique Jewish journeys in a vibrant community. We’ve had weekends with Russian-speaking families, families with children with special needs, and a wide range of Jewish early childhood centers representing our geographical and denominational diversity. Already, we have seen these results:
- 76% of Family Camp participants reported feeling significantly more connected to their ECC community after attending their Family Camp weekend;
- 72% of respondents report that they are more likely to enroll their children in Jewish educational experiences in the future;
- 100% of our families who completed the surveys report that they will return next year if Family Camp is offered again.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
We need to sell it: We realized quickly that many families with young children are not immediately comfortable with the idea of going away for a weekend to a camp setting. Their concerns were varied:
Will I have a place to put my pack ‘n play? What if my daughter doesn’t go to the children’s activities without me? What if my child doesn’t like the food? What if I can’t get my child to go to sleep so I can hang out with the adults? How do I bring enough to be comfortable at camp?
We created a video to highlight how to prepare for camp, what camp offers for families with young children, and the joys of participating.
Training works: Camp staff members are experts in camp activities for ages eight or so and up; Jewish early childhood teachers are experts in child development with young children. However, ECC teachers don’t always have experience at camp and camp staff don’t always have experience with young children, so increasing their skills, confidence, and capacity became a priority through annual trainings with experts in Family Camp AND early childhood together.
Designated and trained point person at camp is necessary: Each of us only has so much bandwidth to design and implement programs. Our partnerships have worked best when there is a dedicated person focused on developing the programming, hiring the staff, collaborating with Federation and the Jewish early childhood program, and ensuring excellence during the weekend. Successful partnerships include a Family Camp Coordinator hired by the camps.
Clear communication is essential and works best with trusting relationships: We started running with this project before we walked. We were excited, had the resources, and knew we had the experience of our PJ Library Family Camp weekends. Many questions arose quickly from the camps, early childhood centers, and families. Over the course of the year, we developed guidelines, templates, resources, and clearer communication that afforded smoother implementation among all partners.
Evaluation is ongoing: Asking and utilizing feedback are keys to our success. We’ve honed our instruments over the last year and streamlined our evaluation efforts so that we are gathering similar data in similar ways across camps, allowing us to analyze our impact as well as adjust programming to meet families’ needs over time.
Family Camp is meant to inspire — and the building of community (after Family Camp) through family engagement needs to be a top priority in our Jewish ECCs. When families join a Jewish ECC, we have a rare and precious opportunity to welcome them, model, and invite them into a joyful and purposeful life of Jewish living and community. It takes intentionality, training, and persistence.
Our Family Camp Project is a work in progress. We learn new strategies and face challenges and opportunities each day. Just as we thought we had a model worked out, we experienced the devastating wildfires in November that created so much loss for our camps and families. With this new reality, we sensitively worked with our camps to find new spaces, collaborate in new ways, and ensure that our families would still have the magical experience we know as Family Camp. The relationships we have forged, nurtured, and developed fortified us with the ability to deal with this new challenge and move forward with trust and strength. It’s the power of community, trusting relationships, and passionate investment in our vision that continue to inspire us in this sacred work.
Dr. Shira Rosenblatt serves as the Senior VP for Jewish Education and Engagement in Federation’s Ensuring the Jewish Future Strategic Initiative. In that role since January 2013, she oversees all of the programs and initiatives from birth through high school. Prior to coming to Federation, Shira was Associate Director of JESNA’s Berman Center for Research and Evaluation where she conducted evaluation and consulted with numerous foundations, federations, and program providers across North America to help them make evaluation meaningful and relevant. While earning her Ph.D. in educational psychology at UCLA, Shira focused on the social-emotional development of young children and led the research for the pilot Early Head Start program evaluation in LA. She focused her dissertation work on the relationship between families and Jewish engagement by focusing on the potential impact on families of their children’s Jewish day school experience. Shira earned her B.A. in Cross Cultural Child Development at UC Berkeley. Shira lives in LA with her three daughters.
This blog originally appeared on https://jewishfederations.org/education-and-engagement/ideas-in-jewish-education-and-engagement/family-camp.