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Early Childhood Centers and URJ Camps: Let’s Get Together!
Lisa David, Associate Director of Camping, URJ

Originally appeared in URJ Ganeinu Early Childhood Newsletter

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, in his “Immersion and Identity” presentation, argues that immersion experiences are central to creating a “radiant core that can inspire an abiding attachment to Jewish identity.” He observes, “the power of immersion experiences in general…is their ability to generate the kind of intensity required to navigate today’s world Jewishly. In short, they create miniature Jewish societies.”
In the fall of 2009, the professional and lay leadership of the URJ began to recognize that within our Reform Movement we were nurturing two distinct universes of miniature Jewish societies: early childhood education programs and summer camps. These transformative educational experiences had much in common:
  • Living life in “Jewish time”: celebrating holidays, sharing meals and marking moments based on a Jewish calendar and rituals (many of which were perhaps not observed outside of the educational setting
  • Experiential application of Jewish values: creating intentional communities that teach and reinforce Jewish values through role modeling, practice and processing
  • Passionate, skilled and trained Jewish educational professionals: camp and school administrative leadership, as well as teachers and counselors in direct contact with kids, have extensive training in Jewish education
  • Opportunity to engage families: parents are very invested in their child’s educational experience; as the child experiences Jewish ritual and learning, the family can be engaged, as well
  • Learner experiences Judaism as joyful: music, play and fun are all key components of both settings; when experienced in a Jewish context, Judaism itself is seen as joyful, a very important positive connection to make at critical periods of identity development
  • Building Jewish social networks for students and families: the social connections made can be lifelong, and Jewish social connections are a key predictor of future involvement
Despite these commonalities, little was being done to link these experiences so families could see their child’s Jewish education as an ongoing journey, not an episodic experience. In the summer of 2010, the URJ Camps and Early Childhood professional and lay leadership launched the first ECE-Camp Caravan at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. The following summer caravans visited URJ Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania and URJ Crane Lake Camp in Massachusetts.
2010 ECE Caravan
Participants of the first ECE-Camp Caravan in 2009 at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute
This caravan functioned as a think tank of sorts, with the goal being to develop some creative and innovative ways in which our Reform Movement early childhood centers and camps might collaborate to better meet the needs of Jewish youth and families. Through observation of camp activities, discussions with key community members and our own processing meetings, we discussed and developed a range of exciting concepts and strategies.
Central to our discussion was Rabbi Tucker’s concept of a radiant core, introduced to us by OSRUI Camp Director Jerry Kaye. The concept allowed us to think about models of excellence within each setting, but also prompted discussion about how, within our Movement, there are opportunities for us to link our two settings/cores in order to create an even brighter and more compelling Jewish community.
One educator shared a reflection about attending a Hebrew High School graduation ceremony, where all but one of the 12 or so graduates had attended her early childhood program. Wouldn’t it be exciting, we imagined, if we cultivated Tucker’s radiant communities? In radiant communities, educational experiences that are proven to have an impact would be linked through shared human resources; shared educational goals and content; seamless transitions between distinct settings; and, perhaps most importantly, sacred relationships. Participants would experience an early childhood program, camp, religious school, congregational life, family educational experiences and lifecycle events as a cohesive force providing meaning to their lives.
Practically speaking, we discussed many opportunities to “link the silos” of Early Childhood Education and Camping:
  • Connect early childhood day camps to URJ Camps and share program resources
  • Use a URJ camp as a site for Early Childhood programs, such as family retreats
  • How can camp be a model for early childhood curriculum and vice versa?
  • What can we learn from each setting about including parents in the Jewish journey of their child, and encourage them to continue their own journey?
  • What resources might we share between our settings?
  • How can early childhood centers and camps work together to encourage professional development?
  • Share resources and best practices for teaching worship, music and the arts in a Jewish context
  • Consider any part– or full-time staff that can be shared among settings, providing continuity
These efforts are ongoing and we will continue to work together to leverage the impact each of these Caravans has on lifelong Jewish engagement as we strive to create radiant communities. We're excited to be hosting a caravan this summer 2012 at URJ Camp Coleman in Georgia. To learn more, email camps@urj.org or call 212-650-4070.
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