Even though I haven’t technically been a camp counselor for a decade or so, the role has never fully left me. Camp counseloring is an unassuming yet all-powerful part of my identity. The skills I learned have helped with every job I’ve done, every degree I’ve earned, every relationship I’ve built. Yet this summer, my fellow Jewish summer camp colleagues across the country are facing hiring challenges with our college-age counselors.
It seems that instead of loading up their fanny packs and heading off to wrangle young campers for the summer, most college kids feel pressure to find “real jobs” like internships and fellowships in their chosen future fields. So the would-be senior counselor is alphabetizing files in a local law firm, and the would-be operations director is entering data into spreadsheets at a tech company.
And that’s a shame.
I feel eternally grateful for the six would-be internship summers I spent at my beloved summer camp in Pennsylvania. On paper, I started as a camp counselor and became a camp director. In actuality, I spent those summers becoming a coach, facilitator, program designer, manager, choreographer, comedy writer, chef, party planner, song leader, Jewish educator, blogger, activist, community organizer — the list goes on.
The skills I learned during my summers at camp travel with me everywhere I go. The overall lessons of camp counseloring provide an essential blueprint for building empowered professionals, successful teams, healthy organizations and strong communities. So yes, it’s true: Everything you need to know in life, you can learn as a Jewish camp counselor. Below are some of the most translatable skills from my summers as a counselor:
1. Enthusiasm Generates Enthusiasm (EGE) has become my modus operandi. What started as a vehicle to psych up campers enough to get into a cold pool has had fruitful dividends. Whether leading a training, pitching a new idea or speaking with a donor or investor, the energy you bring to a space is infectious. Use it right!
2. Get comfortable with feedback: How to give it, ask for it, receive it and mediate it. From teaching two 11-year-olds how to use “I feel statements” (I feel excluded when you don’t invite me to come sit with you) to unpacking the gender and power dynamics of our counselor-in-training group, we learned that not running away from the tough stuff made our relationships (and our work) stronger.
Pro tip: If you’re interested in learning how to start giving feedback, practice by graciously telling someone when they have food in their teeth or that a rest room is out of toilet paper.
3. Meet people where they are: When our campers saw that we took the time to learn their taste in music, validate their experiences and understand their needs, we developed a deep trust that opened up the gates of conversation and built a foundation of mutual respect. Whether you’re 14 or 40, you deserve to feel seen and understood. Taking the time to understand those you work with will not only aid in creating new meaning for you and your team, but working with mutual trust and respect will help exceed your goals.
4. Mobilize in times of crisis and calm: Once we ran a “Zombie Apocalypse” special day at camp. Our campers “trained for battle.” They stood up for their community in a (simulated) time of need. After sunset, our local fire department appeared, sirens roaring, to remove the “captured zombies” from camp.
Fast-forward to the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Shortly after hearing the news, I put out a call on Facebook to gather members of the Philadelphia Jewish community for a vigil of solidarity. Two of the first to respond and help were camp friends living in the area. Together we were able to take a stand in a time of real fear and threat, gather a diverse representation of local leaders, and navigate the infrastructure of local police and city parks departments to provide last-minute permits, electrical power and protection. Hundreds of people gathered that evening in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. We spoke, we listened, we cried, we mourned. We showed up, together.
5. Embrace scrappy and (literal) campiness: Like the scene in the movie “Hook” in which the Lost Boys eat an imaginary feast that becomes real to them, camp counselors are the world’s most resourceful thinkers, as they suspend belief on a daily basis. Their low-budget productions can turn a kick ball into an orb of magic energy. Everything they see has a hundred different possibilities. It’s their exercise of thought that will create solutions to the challenges of industry and society both great or small.
A decade after my years as a camp counselor, I see my camp friends as rising leaders in their fields. Each has a story about how their time at camp trained them for a crucial facet of their volunteer and professional work, as well as their relationships. And each will tell you that yes, being a camp counselor is indeed a real job.
Wishing you all a happy and safe summer! If you need to find me, I’ll be back at camp.
Molly Wernick is a contributing writer to JTA and Kiddish magazine.