Making Tradition Last
By Jeff Krieger
Tradition is an important part of the camp experience. These long-standing legacies are what define a camp's character and its story. These perennial practices are what campers think about while they are day dreaming in school all winter long and what they look forward to every spring.
Staff members discuss these curious customs whenever they reminisce with their peers, both those who work as counselors and those who do not. Traditions are those hand-me-down days, programs, songs, displays and activities that proclaim a camp's identity and unique standing in the world.
These historical happenings express a camp's personality and pride. Camp traditions highlight the evolution of both a camper and counselor's timeline. The older they grow the more imbedded they become in that process, the more they take ownership of it and the harder they strive to preserve and secure their own place in those traditions.
Bringing Tradition to Life
The formula for successful tradition begins with the appropriateness of them. Are they appealing to that specific age group and will they maintain that appeal for more than two to three years? Is there another tradition that will replace one tradition once a specific camper has aged out of that camp group and moved up? This also holds true for the counselors.
Many counselors prefer to follow a group of campers as they grow older, following the same path that many of them followed as campers themselves.
Clearly as both campers and counselors mature, their interests, sense of humor, values and skill levels change, so must the traditions they participate in.
Tradition can only become "real" when a consistent effort is made to continue it, even when you get a sense that a particular individual or group is not as enthusiastic about it as others in the past.
One should never judge a current success or failure, when it comes to traditions, without considering who and what made it appealing in the past and who is waiting in the wings to participate in it.
Tradition requires repetition and a consistent and a well scripted strategy, when necessary. One cannot overemphasize the issue of ownership and accountability. The campers and staff must recognize that they own the tradition, not the camp administrators.
However, the camp directors must be able to be held accountable for the success of traditions. Camp administrators must remain as hands-off as possible without losing sight of their responsibilities.
This relationship is never as obvious as in our end of the year celebration, in which the counselors take complete control over every aspect of that event. It's theirs! They take such enormous pride in the preparation and the performance, and it has become such an impressive event that extended family members, members of our community, alumnae and members of our community center (where our camp is run), all attend the affair, year after year.
It's also very important to include traditions that incorporate and impact the community and the world in which we live. Several of our traditions, such as our Swim-a-Thon -- which raises money for the Children's Heart Foundation -- and our Mitzvah Projects -- which raise money for the Gulfcoast Jewish Family Services -- are activities that the entire camp, their families and the surrounding community all participate in and get excited about.
Tradition builds community and character. Some traditions can be all about having fun, while others may be important because they teach a valuable lesson and contribute to an effort to improve the quality of life.
It's never the wrong time to start new traditions or revive dormant ones. Traditions are fun; they can improve team spirit and teamwork as well as fuel that good old competitive spirit.
They have value in terms of how they can encourage respect and appreciation of those who came before them and those who will follow after them.
Traditions are not simply to be acknowledged, they are to be nurtured, protected, enjoyed and, most importantly, passed on. Some are strictly age appropriate, some camp-wide and some even involve the greater community at large, but all are testimonials to the significance of camp life because everyone can participate.
An individual does not need to excel on the playing field or demonstrate special skills or knowledge; one simply needs to get involved. All, in some small or large way, contribute to the reasons why, whether it's a day camp or sleep-away, or a specialty or a general camp. These experiences create lifelong memories.
The camping experience plays such a pivotal role in a child's view of the world around them and the traditions that shape that experience can help mold a child's comprehension of how necessary traditions can be and how they can be pro-active in promoting that spirit.
Traditions here at Camp Or Hashemesh are a part of every camp day. Whether it's during our camper drop off and pick up, the flag raising ceremony, ice pops at the end of the day, our trips, sleepovers and late nights, shaving cream fights, cookouts, Friday Shabbat and Maccabiah Programs, community service projects, staff meetings, end of the year shows or our daily activities, one is abundantly aware of tradition and the impact they have not only on our campers, but on our staff as well.
This relationship is so critical to a successful program, that it can't be stressed enough. The single most important reason why traditions at this camp are both so important and that the camp is so successful is staff and camper retention.
Clearly without camper retention, a camp's ability to remain solvent and profitable becomes increasingly more difficult. However, one of the most significant indicators of a camp's stability and success is consistency in the ranks.
Staff retention is one of the more difficult challenges facing camp directors and perhaps one of their most important assets. Nothing raises the comfort level of a camper and their parents more so than seeing familiar faces of counselors each summer.
Returning counselors are a clear indication that all is well, that this camp is a well run organization and an appealing atmosphere to work in. Camp counseling is not an easy summer job; it's work, hard work, but it can be the experience of a lifetime.
Yet, what truly inspires a camper to return year after year, a camper to strive to become a Counselor in Training, a C.I.T. to become a Jr. Counselor, then a Senior Counselor or Specialist, and ultimately for any of this group to pursue a career as a Camp Director?
What does it really take for a middle school student to decide to take on the responsibility of being an assistant counselor (CIT) and spend their summer days working with campers, rather than being one for one more summer?
Why does a high school or college student choose to work as a camp counselor when there are other higher paying jobs available to them? When does a teacher finally decide to start taking the summers off, rather than direct arts and craft, nature, sports, drama or other specialty programs?
Clearly some do it because they love working with children, some do it because they love working outdoors or with their specific set of skills. I'm quite sure that none of them do it because it's a quick way to get rich. I do believe however that many of them do it due to tradition.
Here at Camp Or Hashemesh we are proud of our staff retention rate, which averages about 75 percent each summer. I can assure you that camp tradition is largely responsible for that positive trend.
As a non-profit organization we are able to pay competitive salaries for our staff, but we must remain extremely diligent and frugal with our budget. As a result we are constantly faced with the dilemma of possibly loosing our staff to higher paying jobs.
So what's the carrot, the payoff that keeps our counselors coming back, summer after summer? Our staff, of whom over 50 percent were campers here at our camp, continues to want to remain a part of this camp culture, this tradition.
Camp Or Hashemesh Assistant Director, Andrew Goldstein, is a shinning example of this process. During his 14th year here, starting as a C.I.T. and rising through the ranks, he has seen many more counselors come and stay for multiple years, than leave after their first season.
"The staff keeps coming back, and they want to stay involved with this very special community and the traditions that they have been such a part of building and maintaining," he says.
Our staff places tremendous value in their camp life and realizes that they not only can gain a tremendous amount of worthwhile experience and knowledge from working here, but that they have a real responsibility to continue the tradition.
These counselors, across the board, seem to grasp this concept and address it with a sense of commitment, an unselfish effort and an enthusiasm that echoes throughout our camp.
When you have a staff that is so familiar and passionate about both the smallest of details and the big picture regarding their camp, the more you witness the willingness of these individuals to work together and provide the ultimate camp experience for everyone involved, campers, their families, the staff and the larger community.
I made a reference above to "their" camp, because that's exactly the sentiment that a director is thrilled to see and feel from the staff.
Once a counselor begins to act as if they have earned a degree of ownership in their environment, they will work hard to secure that status. There's no better way to develop that scenario than to promote the various traditions that validate just how important each staff member is in that environment.
It is exciting and heart warming to witness how deeply involved and consumed a person can get in a thought, an event, a process when they know that they are such a valuable part of not only that moment, but a part of a lineage, the past, present and future.
Tradition has allowed entire families, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles to share in the evolution of a wonderful moment and to experience that moment from many different perspectives.
There's nothing more powerful than hearing a counselor proclaim that when they were a camper here they couldn't wait to have the opportunity to participate in the staff talent show or listen to a group of campers and counselors belt out in unison a hearty rendition of their favorite camp cheer or song. You can feel the history and taste the harmony; it's truly a beautiful sight and sound.
Tradition is such a meaningful and tangible resource and a tremendous mechanism that camp directors can use in their efforts to encourage their staff and campers to return for another summer.
Tradition these days seems to often take a back seat to special effects, high-tech activities and highly competitive atmospheres. Our camp slogan, "Traditional Camp Values in a Modern Day Setting" accurately describes both our agenda and our goal.
A camp that faces financial limitations can still provide an exciting, challenging and satisfying curriculum. Change can be productive and we are always looking to tweak existing programs and add new activities that address the varied interests of our campers and utilize the skills of our staff.
However, we hope to never lose sight of our meaningful and memorable traditions.
Jeff Krieger is the director of Camp Or Hashemesh, Clearwater, Fla.