Staffing Camp In A Bubble

This is the final article in the Returning to Webster series, detailing how Herzl Camp gets back up and running for the summer of 2021. To catch up: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Being a camp counselor at an overnight camp is exhausting, exhilarating, and rewarding, but the hard-earned day off is always welcome. A chance to unwind, catch up on sleep, and maybe get some laundry done. 

This summer at Herzl is going to be a little different. Sort of like going to Hotel California: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. Because of COVID, once counselors come to camp, they stay at camp. 

“The best thing we did was work directly with the staff,” said Jacqui Kalin, Herzl’s staff life and development coordinator. “The more agency they have, the more say and feedback and word and more involvement they have in our plans, the better.”

Getting the staff involved in camp is a big part of what Kalin is trying to accomplish at Herzl, and to do that, she is leaning on her past. 

Kalin is one of the most accomplished women’s basketball players in the history of the University of Northern Iowa — career scoring leader, two-time conference player of the year, Academic All-American, and a 2017 inductee to the UNI Hall of Fame. But she was also the chair of the UNI and Missouri Valley Conference’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee — a concept she likes so much, she started the Herzl Staff Advisory Committee.

“We’ve been going for a year and we meet monthly,” Kalin said. “I utilize them heavily.”

The SAC has 22 members, and Kalin has had discussions with the group about structuring things at camp, including how days off will be structured.

“You’re stuck on property, how do we help you refresh? What do you need? What do you want? Do you want structure? Do you not want structure?” Kalin said, recounting the conversation. “Do you want two 12 hour days or do you want one 24 hour day? Some surprising things came from it.”

One of those things was one 24-hour day, rather than two half-days. And with that, staff requested a place to sleep that wasn’t in a cabin with their campers.

“That was huge in terms of planning,” Kalin said. “I went to [Executive Director] Gary [Kibort] and [Camp Director] Drea [Lear] and said ‘whatever we do, we have to figure out staff housing for days off because it is one of their top priorities to have a place to sleep that is not with the campers during time off.’ So we planned that into housing [this] summer to ensure that we have a place for them to sleep.”

Among the lessons learned from some of the overnight camps that ran last summer is to have a staff member on the team whose job is dealing with staff days off. Kibort and Lear are supporting Kalin in getting that position filled.

Kalin also lives in Webster, so she is connecting with local restaurants that Herzl will be emailing orders to in order to get staff non-camp food on days off. 

There will also be some off-property recreational opportunities where staff will be outdoors and away from other people, but also some time built into the schedule to take advantage of camp amenities.

“They said having things available is great, but no, they don’t want anything that’s like required and everything needs to be their choice,” she said. “Typically when staff leaves on a day off, they go somewhere else. And when they’re at camp, they’re working, so they never actually utilize camp’s fun things.

“In interviews, half of the people are asking ‘what’s going on with days off?’” she said. “It’s important to them. And it should be. It’s an exhausting job, and they want to know that they’ll be taken care of.”

Role Beyond Off-Days

Discussing the needs of staff on days off is important — made more so by the fact that staff can’t leave the bubble of camp. But the SAC is also tackling important issues that extend beyond camp. The social justice, culture, and programming committees are like a Venn Diagram, meeting in the middle to allow staff to help drive a successful summer.

Max Walker, who shares the social justice committee, said that SAC provides an important connection between the staff and the camp higher-ups, something he had given negative feedback about previously.

“I think it’s very difficult for people who are at the administration level, at camp to understand the kinds of daily struggles that do happen at camp,” said Walker, a St. Paul native who is 19-years-old and taking a gap year this year. “That’s kind of the function of the SAC, is that we give voice to what all of these people who make up the vast majority of the staff are experiencing at camp.

“I could not praise camp enough for the reaction to feedback. There’s absolutely an attitude of positivity, openness to change, and a desire to change. And so when I gave that feedback, that was received very well.”

Social justice work is a passion of Walker’s, and certainly, it has taken center stage — particularly in the Twin Cities — since the camp was last in session. 

“It’s about taking the educational aspects of camp and creating space for social justice education within that existing framework,” Walker said. “So for staff, it will likely mean staff training has a social justice component. That’s a really good built-in place where we can insert that. And then for campers, there [are] educational opportunities every single day. Social justice is a Jewish value itself. And in our Jewish programming, there are countless opportunities to highlight social justice, its importance, and connect it to what’s relevant now.”

Naomi Kaplan, chair of the culture committee, said that after a year away, culture in Webster is that much more important than ever.

“It also makes creating changes easier. This summer, more than ever, we’re going to have to adapt to new ways of living at camp, new ways of being, and that that makes it easier to get people to be open to change,” Kaplan said. “If you’ve spent time at Herzl, you know, that we do not like change. We are rooted in tradition, and no one wants to see that go away. And our goal isn’t for that to go away. But it will be a lot easier because especially knowing going into the summer that it’s going to be different. The group of staff this summer are more open to change at camp than ever.”

Kaplan said she thinks people’s mindsets are changing, particularly in relation to culture and social justice, because of what has taken place in the last year. And with respect to COVID, people knew what to expect when they applied to work at Herzl.

“They were informed that this is what’s going to look like: We will have podding, we will have mitigation strategies, and we need your buy-in for that to be successful. And if you’re not willing to support that, then maybe this isn’t going to be the right summer for you,” she said. “I personally think it’s going to be a really great group of staff because those who aren’t willing to make those changes and see camp in a new way aren’t going to be there. 

‘Seeing The Big Picture’

Kalin told the story of a counselor who, at the start of their interview for a position at camp, told her he probably wasn’t going to come back to camp. By the end of the call, he was all in for another summer in Webster.

For many years Lear has talked about the idea of “professionalizing” camp, so that Herzl isn’t just a fallback for prospective counselors that think they can’t work at Herzl because they need to have some sort of internship for their future career.

“We teach kids to work hard to get to this step, then the next step, but we discount sometimes the life experience that you can get before diving into the rest of your life,” Kalin said. “I am very careful to call it the ‘outside world’ rather than the ‘real world’ because this is a real-world job. It’s just separate from the outside world.” 

Kalin came to Herzl after a career as a basketball player in Israel and coaching at Drake University. Kalin was a camper of Lear’s when she was younger, and grew up a Herzl camper, but never was on staff. 

“It’s been really helpful to have a lot of one on one conversations with staff and to help them understand the value of the experience here,” Kalin said. “You can go to an internship and, you know, get coffee for people and take some notes. In today’s world, the values and character and the work ethic (from camp), I think is way more valuable than like one specific skill in a certain internship in a certain niche.”

Kaplan, who will be graduating from the University of Minnesota next month, said that one of the great parts of SAC is the accountability that staff holds each other.

“If you’re not respecting and trusting your peers, the changes aren’t going to occur,” Kaplan said. “And I think it’s even more than just wanting it, I think it’s being able to see the big picture. And I believe that’s super applicable to the culture at camp and changing it.

“You have to be able to see the ‘why,’ and the ‘how,’ and the ‘what,’ but especially the ‘why.’ We can start working on pronouns and say that when we introduce ourselves, but if you don’t know why you’re doing that, and you’re not able to explain why we’re doing that to our campers, then it’s not actually making a change.”

Demi Fine, who chairs the programming committee, said this has been a great experience for her and gives her a leadership opportunity, despite being a first-year counselor.

“I’ve learned so much about camp that I didn’t even know, even after being there for however many years,” she said. “And I also feel like having only been an Ozo (staff in training), I think that this gives me such a good opportunity to see what responsibilities I have and what I have to look forward to.”

The SAC is in its second year, even though it hasn’t encountered a summer of camp yet. But that didn’t mean the work that went into preparation for 2020 was lost.

“Being the first year, it was more so about getting the conversation started and being the guinea pig and seeing what we can actually do as a committee that can be carried out,” Kaplan said. “It’s about making concrete programming and protocol and guidelines that camp can follow.

Kaplan said that the past two years, the group had been able to create programming for staff week that will allow them to reflect on the past and talk about changes for the future. 

“I love being a part of a group that loves talking about camp,” Kaplan said. “Change is really tough in this space, and being in SAC means that I get to interact regularly with staff who are invested in that change and want that change.”

This series received 1st Place in the category Award for Excellence in Writing About Jewish Summer Camps from the American Jewish Press Association’s 41st annual Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.