By Aaron Hadley, Director of Camp Ben Frankel
We usually spend 10 months a year planning our summer at Camp Ben Frankel. While every year is different and special, we have a basic understanding of the programs, activities, and experiences that make campers and staff an amazing summer. But this year is anything but typical. After our board of directors agreed to the recommendation to cancel the camp at the beginning of May, we suddenly had weeks to completely reinvent and re-introduce the camp.
The camp is so important to our campers, employees, alumni and families. Many of our campers and advisers come from places with small Jewish communities. For them, Camp Ben Frankel is their Jewish community. The camp is the place where they develop their sense of Jewish identity, immerse themselves in Jewish values and connect with Jewish people their own age – in order to prepare them for a life of Jewish engagement. We couldn’t just let a year go by without camp experience.
We started experimenting with virtual programming. We designed creative problem solvers to enable innovation in this new online environment. The process was like a combo of a television typist’s room and a friendly version of Shark Tank – someone would propose to the group, everyone else would give them feedback, and we would come out with the best ideas. While this is not the summer either of us is planned for, we wanted to make it the best summer 2020 we could.
In the work of re-imagining the camp from scratch, we were guided by a seemingly simple but incredibly important question: “Can we reinvent the camp and still keep the magic of the camp?” This led us to a related question: ” What is Storage Magic? “
One of our camp songs mentions “Friendship, Fun, and Excitement” and while the magic of the camp cannot be fully captured in these three words, they are the basic essentials that we need for any of our online activities. Everyone had to enable campers – also in an online area – to make and maintain friendships. Each program had to be fun and compelling, with an element of “wow”. And perhaps most importantly, the experience had to be interactive, not passive. We didn’t want CBF Online to want to see a show or a video. We wanted it to feel like part of a camp community.
We never expected how personal, interactive, entertaining and social the online format would be. Activities like Bob Ross-style painting, broadcasting sports, creating a podcast, cooking, creating music videos, and more have all been incredibly successful. This year’s virtual camp gave us the opportunity to hire talented professionals from around the world who – in a typical year – might not be able to commit to working at the camp. Our campers learn from a scriptwriter in Hollywood, an NBA trainer in New Orleans (who started at the Jewish camp), consultants from Israel and Ari Shapiro from “All Things Considered” – to name a few!
Of course, a significant amount of the camp magic takes place outside of structured activities. There’s nothing like sharing experiences with friends and connecting with bunkmates. We also wanted to recreate this experience virtually, which prompted us to implement an optional unstructured one-hour lunch menu. Campers can register, have lunch and get in touch with bunkmates and advisors. It is gratifying to see real friendships form and grow right before our eyes. Campers keep telling us: “It feels like camp.” In addition, we can now invite whole families to enjoy the Kabbalat Shabbat services with their RV, which gives us a new level of socialization, connection and fellowship.
Once we are in a post-pandemic world (hopefully soon!), The online format can help us improve the camp experience and make the camp more accessible to a greater number of people. For example, we could host camp meetings or winter camp sessions to keep our community busy year round. We could hire a potential camper who may not feel ready to camp by suggesting they join a summer online. The “risk” would not only be lower, but they would come to the camp in the following year to get to know other campers through their virtual experience.
We have the potential to expand our network to create a Jewish community for all types of campers from around the world. We have new coast to coast campers saying they can’t wait to join our personal camp next summer. We also have new campers whose special needs may have prevented them from trying out our overnight camp. Now we’re working with her parents to find a way to welcome them to our physical camp in 2021.
While warehouse closure was a situation we never expected, the virtual warehouse has allowed us to explore new ways to reach – and even grow – our warehouse community. When the personal Camp Ben Frankel reopens next year, we will be grateful that we can return to our well-known “camp magic” – and look forward to the new “camp magic” that we acquired this summer in support of ours Community to use.
Aaron Hadley is the director of Camp Ben Frankel, traditionally an independent Jewish overnight camp. Previously, he was chief operating officer for Camp Kesem National and assistant director for Beber Camp.
This piece is part of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer series about innovation in the Jewish camp. Follow us all summer to read more!
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