It was ten years ago that I found my “home away from home” at the JCC of Central New Jersey and Camp Yachad. And since then, it has been an amazing journey, working for my community, alongside some of the most dedicated professionals and volunteers I could ever imagine. I consider myself truly lucky to have stumbled upon the JCC, literally in my own backyard, during a critical time when I was undecided as to my next step in life.
It was the spring of 2004. I had just been laid off from my first full-time camp job. In December of 2002, I had convinced a friend of a friend to hire me as his assistant camp director for a small start-up day camp in northern Burlington County, NJ. I did my best to convince Andy Pritikin that my skills developed while obtaining a master’s degree in Musicology from the Eastman School of Music, subsequently touring with a rock band, and then leading business development efforts with an Internet advertising network in the late 1990s were skills that would be transferrable to the world of day camping. I had really no idea what I was getting myself into. I just knew that I had a wife and 16 month-old daughter to help support, and a new mortgage on a house in Fanwood, and I needed a job. Andy taught me a lot during my “trial by fire” summer of 2003 at Liberty Lake Day Camp, but the camp was not large enough to sustain my year-round salary. But Andy did me a bigger favor then he knew when he put me in touch with Robin Brous at the JCC.
I went to meet with Robin in March of 2004, and she offered me a job as the Yeladim unit director at the oddly-named Camp Yachad. I thanked her, and told her I would weigh her offer against other options—I was really looking for and NEEDING a full-time gig. I ended up taking a job with the new owners of Meadowbrook Day Camp in Long Valley, NJ. In the summer of 2004, Roz and Jed Buck taught me a ton about running a successful day camp. They hired me as their Transportation Director, and I learned how to design and manage intricate bus routes, and how to develop a “bus spirit” program of activities and prizes for campers on the bus ride to and from camp. What a concept! And I even got my commercial driver’s license (CDL), which I have maintained to this day.
During that summer, I got a call from guess who? That’s right, Robin Brous. She told me that the JCC was looking to hire a full time “Director of Teen and Afterschool Services”. I had no idea what that meant, but the full-time part sounded good. I went in for an interview, and then a second one, and long story short, I got the job! I started working at the JCC on September 1, 2004, and haven’t looked back since then.
A big part of my job, I quickly learned, would be working in Camp Yachad—the highly-touted day camp program at the JCC, which was expertly supervised by Robin. My first summer, 2005, I was the CIT director, and I also helped out with overseeing aspects of the transportation for camp. I established new standards for bus counselor training, bus spirit programming (yes, the birth of the Golden Cup!), and even new ways of parking the buses for dismissal.
By the summer of 2006, I was promoted to Assistant Director, along with my now long-time partner, Jodi Hotra (then Baxter). And when Robin became the Early Childhood director in the spring of 2007, Jodi and I were quickly thrown into becoming the co-directors of Camp Yachad. Since then, for going on 9 summers now, Jodi and I have been a solid duo. I am so lucky to work with such a talented, patient, diligent and selfless individual as Jodi. She complements my skills and experience, as I think I do hers. While we’ve tried to develop more and more of a clear division of our roles and responsibilities over the years, as Camp Yachad has grown in size and complexity, Jodi and I tend to work best when we are just “organically” playing off of one another, and working like one camp director with two heads!
Jodi and I really owe a huge debt of gratitude to Robin, who pretty much single-handedly created Camp Yachad. For 13 years, she developed Camp Yachad with her expertise, creativity and passion. Many of the traditions and systems of camp bear the mark of Ms. Brous. Among other things, Robin taught me to be firm yet compassionate, to never be complacent, to always be questioning and striving, and to manage risk carefully. It was a daunting thing to take over the reins in 2007, as Jodi and I saw how much Camp Yachad was truly “Robin’s camp”. The program was “Robin’s program” and the staff was most surely “Robin’s staff”. Oh, and the camp parents. The parents were “Robin’s parents”. The campers too, for that matter. Hers were big shoes to fill, and Robin helped Jodi and I fill them, as she graciously bowed out from the camp spotlight, and quietly helped us behind the scenes. I don’t know that I will ever be able to adequately thank Robin for all she has done for our community, and personally speaking, for my career.
During my tenure as Camp Yachad Co-Director, I was also able to gain a lot of other JCC experience-- first as Program Director, where I supervised several other program department directors—and then as Assistant Executive Director, a post I have had since February of 2012. My duties as Assistant Executive Director sometimes pull me away from camp, and these have only increased as the JCC has grown in size of programs, members, facilities needs and operating budget. With that in mind, in February of 2014, we were able to hire a full-time professional who would be dedicated to camp (and only camp!) on a year-round basis. Jodi and I knew that we needed this person in place, as camp continued to grow. We were very pleased that Mallory Zipkin accepted our offer, and came on as Camp Yachad’s Associate Camp Director. Mallory grew up at the JCC, and then worked as the Youth and Teen Director (she was Mallory Saks then) before moving on to a Jewish resident camp (Poyntelle-Lewis Village) as their Assistant Director, before coming home to us. Present secured, and future assured! —Camp Yachad is in Mallory’s heart and soul.
In retrospect, I have been extremely fortunate to have such wonderful mentors and colleagues. I have also been incredibly lucky to have found the JCC in my “backyard”—a true “home away from home”, where I have been allowed to develop and grow as a professional, while getting to help build a vibrant Jewish community. My community. Our community. It is indeed a very, very special and unique place.
So for 10 years at the JCC of Central NJ, here are 10 things I have come to learn about camp:
10. Once you stop changing, you are done.
9. Acknowledgement is more valuable than money.
8. It’s not the object, it’s the concept and ruach behind the thing that matters (see: “The Golden Cup”).
7. You can never have enough Gaga. Ever.
6. Program Quality is more important than Facilities Quality.
5. Staff Quality is more important than ANYTHING.
4. Day Camp truly does “begin and end on the bus”. Think about it.
3. The most important state of mind one can hope to develop in one’s camp community is that of gratitude.
2. Every child should be given the opportunity to attend camp, regardless of anything.
1. There is no better place than camp for a child to build a sense of identity (Jewish or otherwise), self-esteem, resiliency and social confidence.