Last month I turned 40. Though I had four whole decades to prepare, it caught me by somewhat of a surprise. That number made me think back and reflect on my life. A two-week trip to the US turned out to be just what I needed. Fifteen years after we founded Kimama, I was going on a work trip to meet my good friend Avishay, Kimama’s current CEO.
Avishay and I had met 20 years ago, on a plane to New York. We were both of a delegation of the Jewish Agency for Israel at the time, on our way to be songleaders (music counselors) at summer camps in the US, and we’ve been best friends ever since – BFFs, as the Americans like to say.
I was going on a business trip to attend a few very interesting professional conferences, but I was mostly excited to visit Kimama’s New York offices. During those first few months, when Kimama was nothing more than an idea, we were working out of Ronen Hoffman’s house. Later we worked from a coffee shop, Cafe Goferman. We soon realized we needed a real office space, and by the end of our first year we were working out of a warehouse in Rishpon.
Looking out at the Manhattan skyline from the offices in New York, I was reminded of those early days. The Rishpon office was windowless.
On this trip, the first event we took part in was a conference for parents on how to reinforce children’s self-esteem, organized by the Tenafly Therapy Group in New York. The conference was organized by Yael Omer, an expert parenting coach. I was thrilled by this opportunity: I started my career in education at the age of 15, as a youth movement counselor (first for HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed, then Bnei HaMoshavim). I then went on to become a summer camp counselor in the US, give staff training workshops for the Jewish Agency, create education programs for various organizations and, eventually, found Kimama. (Writing this, I realize it’s been 25 years… incredible.) Summer camps are a meaningful and empowering experience for kids and teenagers. Education is a core aspect of our work, so teaming up with Yael for this specific conference was a logical step.
We gave a workshop titled “The Freedom to Be Me – How Do Kids Behave When Their Parents Are Not Around”. Our aim was to give parents practical tools for preparing their children to face new and unfamiliar challenges and adjust to new environments, in a way that builds up positive experience and boosts their self-esteem.The examples and case studies we used were all taken from summer camps. It was a fascinating session (so said the parents who participated).
During the conference, I was often approached by parents who wanted to talk about children’s ability to acclimate to the summer-camp environment and adapt to changes, and how staff members can help campers on their way. I immediately thought of Danny R. During my first year as a summer camp music instructor in the US, Early in the morning of the very first day of camp, I was greeted by a group of eight-year-old girls, all of whom had never spent a single night away from home. The little campers all huddled inside my tent, except for one little girl, her eyes puffy from crying, who sat outside and refused to join the group.
I asked her counselor (a teenager herself) what happened, and she told me that Danny – the little girl – had gotten so homesick that she couldn’t sleep all night, and she’ll probably be returning home that very day. My fellow music instructor began session while I took my guitar and sat down by Danny’s side. We talked for an hour. She told me she was homesick, and I, being away from home, shared similar feelings. She felt uncertain about starting school the following year, and I told her I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in. At the end of our talk we prepared a mutual contract of ‘participation at camp and making an effort to enjoy the camp experience’ (we had the same level of English, more or less).
During the two weeks that followed, I became a shoulder to lean on. I took my meals together with the group, and I felt that, for the first time in my life, I had become a sort of father figure. Danny returned to the camp year after year, and even worked as a counselor for three years. That’s 12 years in total. We saw each other every summer at camp, and she would always greet me with a hug and say, “You’re the reason I’m still here.” On years when I couldn’t make it to the US, she would send me an e-mail expressing the same sentiment.
Two weeks ago, Danny wrote me to say that she’s engaged. (It seemed so strange at first; to me, she’s still the same eight-year-old girl. It was a reminder that while I was turning 40, everyone around me was growing up, too.)
The conference ended with a riveting lecture by Michal Daliot, Israel’s very own Super Nanny. (This is a good time to brag and mention how she cited many examples from our workshop…)
On a personal level, my time in New York introduced me to a strong, vibrant, and diverse community of Israelis, and I was pleased to see – and prove to others, time and time again – that summer camp is the real deal: a life-changing experience.
The conference was a success. It ended at around 10:30 at night, and Avishay offered to treat me to a pita sandwich at Eyal Shani’s famous Miznon restaurant in the Chelsea Market. We took a cab and got ourselves in the right mood for a satisfying meal with good music and great company. Alas, the restaurant was closed. It turns out that Manhattan, the center of the universe, shuts down after 10 PM. Well, maybe not the whole city, but the Chelsea Market sure does.
The next morning, we rented a car and took a three-hour drive to Baltimore, to attend an assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Yes, turns out that’s a thing. There are about 12,000 summer camps in the US, 500 of which are dedicatedly Jewish. The organization supports Jewish summer camps and offers professional tools for education, training, fundraising, and providing financial aid for parents, to allow as many Jewish youths as possible to attend summer camp.
Jewish organizations understand that summer camps that offer Jewish education on top of ‘standard’ camp activities and encourage campers to connect with their Jewish identity can help foster a deep and positive connection to the Jewish identity among campers. Because a child’s first-ever summer camp is a meaningful emotional experience that leaves a long-lasting impression, the campers’ connection to Judaism will forever be intertwined with their positive memories from camp. For Jewish organizations today, summer camps are one of the main solutions for reducing assimilation among Jewish youths in the US. That’s why the Foundation for Jewish Camp invests millions of dollars in summer camps.
At the conference, I met many close friends and colleagues from my 20 years in the field of summer camps (shout out to Susan, Jody, Hannah, Mitch, Aaron, Shalom). Most of my American friends are long-standing summer camp managers (‘long-standing’, in this case, applies to both the camp and my friends), or have high-ranking positions in informal education organizations. It’s been two decades, but our conversations remain as passionate, motivated, and competitive as ever (which also means we keep repeating the same old jokes).
I was pleased to meet my friend, mentor, and true role model, Jim Mittenthal. He was the camp director during my first years as a counselor, and he’s been running that same camp for the past 27 years. He keeps improving and coming up with new ideas. Over the years, we’ve become close friends and colleagues.
Nothing fascinates me more than meeting people in their mid-twenties, who choose to become deputy directors or develop summer camp programs out of a desire to influence campers and develop a new generation of community leaders – just as they were positively influenced by their camp counselors in the past. Avishay even met a few young camp directors whom he used to counsel when they were campers… (well, he’s no young man, either.)
The most moving experience for me was to see the love and appreciation that Kimama (and we) received. Hundreds of people from different camps, movements, and organizations are familiar with the story of Kimama and what makes it special – a true Jewish summer camp, a newcomer in US terms, that operates in three continents. All the leading summer camp experts express their appreciation, and they often incorporate examples from Kimama’s summer camps into their lectures or workshops: from our marketing campaigns and global community outreach to the way we develop professional programs and manage crises. (I have not attended every lecture myself, but my friends keep me informed.)
Kimama’s butterfly metaphor and the educational message that we instill in our community (the Kimama family) is based on the idea of the so-called butterfly effect: the flutter of a butterfly’s wings causes a chain reaction that creates a tornado halfway across the world. Every action we take, every word we speak, has implications that are a lot more far-reaching that we can imagine. Suddenly, all at once, I experienced Kimama’s butterfly effect in the real world: our delicate flutter 15 years ago, in a café in Israel, created a tornado of lectures and workshops attended by hundreds in the US.
At the end of the conference, and even though Kimama has been part of my daily life for over 15 years, I suddenly gained a new perspective.
I was filled with gratitude for the amazing opportunity I was given and created with Kimama, the opportunity to educate through experience and work alongside such amazing people. I promised myself that from now on, I will make a habit of visiting the biennial conference. After two days being surrounded by friends and colleagues from the world of Jewish summer camps, it was time for the main event: the American Camping Association’s annual conference in Atlantic City.
In the United States, summer camps are their own economic sector, with an annual turnover of 15-17 billion dollars (yes, you’re reading this correctly: 15-17 billion) and tens of thousands of employees. The conference is attended by over 4,000 directors and staff members from some 2,000 camps. There is also ample representation from camping equipment suppliers. The showroom is as big as three soccer fields, and you can find anything from pencil erasers and ping pong balls to extreme sports equipment and lakeside attractions. The conference also features an impressive professional program, with hundreds of workshops on various topics – management, counseling, educational program development, motivation, human resources and recruitment, marketing, financial management, team-building, and more – given by well-known speakers from each field. Summer camps have been my world for the past 20 years. In addition to founding camps and helping formulate their core values, I travel with my family to the US every summer, where I work as program director for a major camp, advise educational organizations, develop education programs, train counselors, and give lectures on youth leadership.
I admit that not many workshops told me anything I didn’t already know, but visiting the conference inspired me and expanded my outlook on the world of summer camps. In each workshop, lecture, or meeting, regardless of the subject matter, and in a way that seemed almost prearranged, the same core challenges came up again and again: how to create engaging and challenging educational activities for campers, how to foster a sense of community that enables campers to grow and learn new things about themselves, how to offer a constructive and meaningful emotional experience, how camps can shape a new generation of young leaders who engage with their environments, and how to find and train professional, attentive, and responsible staff members. And most importantly, how to create a physically and emotionally safe space for campers and reassure parents while their children are away. These challenges are common to all summer camps worldwide.
These same challenges were our guiding principles when we founded Kimama a decade and a half ago.
Firstly, I was pleased to see that despite the astonishing technological advancements in today’s society, values and ethics have stood the test of time and become more relevant with each passing year. Secondly, I can proudly say that these values are still at the heart of Kimama’s educational activities, and they serves as our guiding light in all our endeavors. We are always evolving, updating, and improving so that we are able to succeed in facing these challenges.
When the conference ended, heavy snow was blowing outside, and we made our way back to storm-struck New York. I said goodbye to Avishay (no violins were playing in the background, but it was still emotional) and used the two days I had left in the city to meet up with some close friends (all of whom – you guessed it – are people I met at summer camps).
On the way to the airport, as my mind struggled to make the switch back to the ‘real world’, I received a message from an American acquaintance whom I’d met 18 years earlier, when we were both counselors at a summer camp in Atlanta. He told me that this summer, his eight-year-old son will be attending that same camp for the first time. “Is it true that you still visit there every summer?” He wondered. I told him it was true and promised to make sure his son receives a warm welcome. Sending him that text gave me a sense of victory. I realized that there was no switch to flip. Six weeks from now I’ll be back in flip-flops, guitar in hand, surrounded by hundreds of kids, doing what I love most.
It turns out that summer camp really is the real deal, and 40 might be just a number after all.
Thoughts and reflections over the past two weeks:
- I won, big time. Li-Ron, my wife, has been a true companion from day one. She is an absolute champion and the most supportive spouse anyone could ask for. We have four young children at home – Ilay (9.5), Alon (7.5), Ella (2.5) and Leeon (5 months), and I can just take off to America like it’s no big deal.
- With all due respect to Starbucks and Pika, nothing beats a hot cup of instant coffee first thing in the morning, with 4 kids running around and shouting ‘dad’.
- Kimama is the real deal: educational, principled, experiential, professional. A top-ranking summer camp, up there with the best of them.
- Broadway is not all about musicals – they have some amazing plays, too! If you happen to be in New York, don’t miss out on The Play That Goes Wrong. It’s the funniest show currently running anywhere in the world. Trust me, go see it and you’ll thank me after. (Thanks Tommy & Jess)
- Watching the New York Knicks play Madison Square Garden is a peak of high culture, akin to a good opera or a trip to the museum (Thanks Scott & Hannah). You don’t even have to be a sports fan (though I am, very much so).
- If you want to learn about perseverance, just look at Robert John Burck – or, as you may know him, the Naked Cowboy. He’s been performing for 21 years, wearing his signature cowboy hat… and not much else. Today, his Naked Cowboy brand (and registered trademark) earn him thousands of dollars a month, and he still gets up every morning to take photos with tourists in the middle of a busy street. I first encountered him 18 years ago, and he was still there this time around.
- Flying abroad? Take into account that your flight might be cancelled after you’ve been waiting on the plane for two hours, and the next flight out is 25 hours later, so you miss an entire day… (Yes, this happens even with scheduled American flights J)
- If you’re ever stuck in an elevator for 20 minutes: (1) Might as well be in the company of a good friend, and (2) it helps if one of you has cell reception so you can call the hotel reception desk and ask for assistance. (See photo)
- A good playlist can make a four-hour drive fly by and keep you nice and warm, even when it’s 20 degrees out.
- With all due respect to the United States – and it is certainly due – there’s no place like Israel!
About the author:
Deddy Paz, age 40 and one month married to Li-Ron and father to Ilay, Alon, Ella, and Leeon. Believes summer camp are the ‘real world’. When Deddy is not at camp, he develops education and training programs for World ORT and acts as advisor for summer camps in the US. Paz has a bachelor’s degree in Business Management, gives workshops for teachers, and lectures on youth leadership as part of the nationwide Youth Parliament program. Co-founder of Kimama and Sunrise Israel.