Putting Southern Camping on the Map

Putting Southern Camping on the Map

There’s a new jewel in Atlanta’s Jewish organizational crown, and its focus is on youth!

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Group of kids in forest by bonfire with mushmellows. created by senivpetro
Group of kids in forest by bonfire with mushmellows. created by senivpetro

The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has opened a new Southeast Regional Center office at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta that will be overseen by veteran camp director, Bobby Harris. Harris, who brings 36 years of experience to the role, joined the FJC in October and is the first veteran camp director to come on board in a full-time capacity.

The Atlanta-based center was established through the generous support of The Zalik Foundation. The new hub aims to strengthen relationships among Jewish camp professionals, community leaders and funders in Atlanta and the Southeast, encouraging learning, sharing and mutual support.

With his broad experience, Harris has an opportunity to identify issues and challenges among area camps and bring together the right people to address them. The Southeast Regional Center serves day and overnight camps, including Camp Barney Medintz, Camp Coleman, Camp Judaea, MJCCA URJ day camps, Camp Ramah Darom, In the City Camps and Union of Reform Judaism 6 Points Sports Academy.

“Together we can make each other better,” Harris says. “For instance, right after MLK weekend, camp and facility directors from six Jewish camps participated in a tour of each other’s camps. It is the first time that we in FJC have developed a program for the facility directors; one outcome might be that they call on each other for help and learn from each other as they confront facility challenges. As a camp director, I always called other directors; we need to help all camp professionals build connections with each other and escape the silos in which they currently find themselves.

“For camp leaders and staff, our goal is to provide professional development, strategic programmatic support, networking, training opportunities and succession planning. We can serve as an innovation lab,” Harris believes, “working from the ground up.” That means listening to the needs of area camps and trying out new ideas and programs. Instead of striving to develop strategies and solutions directed at the entire camping field, “we can try things out locally to see if they work and are scalable for other places.”

Aware of the critical role of counselors and other staff, Harris plans to focus on training and development. He notes, “The majority of our camp staff are in their late teens and early 20s, and for many this huge responsibility may be their first job. They must be responsible caretakers and positive role models for young people, while using good judgment and taking good care of themselves in an exhausting job. We also want to be helpful in terms of counselor and other staff mental health; already, some of our camps are included in the Yedid Nefesh program,” the Marcus Foundation initiative that addresses the mental health needs of staff members who interact most closely with campers.

Bobby Harris oversees the new southeastern hub of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Southeast Regional Center.

Harris explains that finding the right people and guiding them to be their best is challenging. Not only is the job demanding, but there are other compelling options for college-aged students, such as internships. “We are looking at ways to enhance value for working at camp in order to increase the number of applicants and provide an inspiring work environment that helps staff learn and develop critical skills for their future,” he said.

Harris is eager to foster collaboration between Hillels and camps (there are 18,000 Jewish camp staff who currently attend colleges and universities in North America) in order to expand staff recruitment. Camps may offer job-sharing partnerships with Hillel staff (who may have a lighter summer job load) and even arrange for year-round camp staff to get involved in life on campus. Harris says, “Four Hillel executives on campuses in the southeast, including Elliot Karp of Hillels of Georgia, are already working directly with area camp directors on this initiative. Camp directors and Hillel directors are currently working together to schedule specific Jewish staff recruitment events for the camps in the southeast hub.”

When asked why the FJC decided to open an office in Atlanta and how it came to be located at the Atlanta Jewish Federation, Harris says, “I believe in 2013 or 2014 Mark Silberman (former Union of Reform Judaism Camp Coleman chairman and member of the FJC board) brought the idea to the Atlanta Federation of starting a Jewish camp initiative, and this program became one of the most successful in the country. At about the same time, Eric Robbins became CEO of Jewish Federation straight from his stint at Camp Twin Lakes. Eric has had a long career in camping that started when he attended Camp Barney Medintz during his youth. Eric loves camp and the Atlanta community and deeply believes in Jewish camp. Plus, Ramah, Coleman, Judaea, Barney, In the City and MJCCA Day Camps each have their offices located in Atlanta, which has more camp offices than any other city in the southeast.”

Presently, Harris has assembled a local group of volunteers to be part of the host committee in charge of planning the Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly, scheduled to take place in Atlanta from Dec. 4 to 6, 2022. Harris said, “The Southeast Regional Center’s first year is focused primarily on the Atlanta community, yet we also reach out to communities in Florida and in North and South Carolina. Beyond these states, we want to be as helpful as possible to FJC camps in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.”

Another aspect of Harris’s role with the FJC is his work with a startup, RootOne, whose goal is “to increase the number of American Jewish high school-aged students who travel to Israel. Jewish camps, as an aggregate, send more teens to Israel than any other feeder. We are exploring ways to build upon that and make significant quantitative and qualitative impact based on the Camp-Israel Trip connection.”

This year, four regional camp directors — at In the City Camps, Camp Coleman, Camp Judaea and Camp Barney Medintz — are starting their first years in those roles, bringing extensive experience with them, while Camp Ramah’s director is returning for her second year. Get acquainted with the directors below.

Michael Drucker is the new director of Camp Barney Medintz.

Michael Drucker, Camp Barney Medintz

A native of Massachusetts, Drucker holds a BA in English from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Suffolk University Law School. He was the head student manager for the University of Michigan’s 1989 NCAA national championship men’s basketball team, had corporate roles at a global sports marketing company and was a part-time instructor at Georgia State University Law School. Drucker has been part of the year-round team at Camp Barney Medintz since 2015, first as operations director and then as interim director. He served on the executive board and advisory board of the MJCCA and was a co-chair of the Erwin Zaban Leadership Development Program. The Druckers have three children, who all attended and work or have worked at Barney.

Ashley Conant is the new director of In the City Camps.

Ashley Conant, In the City Camps

After graduating from Florida State University with a bachelor’s in Recreation and Leisure Service Administration, Conant began her Jewish camping career at the Dave and Mary Amber Jewish Community Center in Miami, Fla. From there, Ashley transitioned to Camp Kudzu, a camp for children with Type 1 diabetes here in Atlanta, where she partnered with Camp Twin Lakes and Camp Barney Medintz. Over the years, Conant has gained experience hiring and supervising staff and directing camp for more than 800 campers of varied backgrounds and needs. Ashley loves working with children and helping them thrive in the Atlanta Jewish community.

Amy Smyler is the new director of Camp Coleman.

Amy Smyler, URJ Camp Coleman

Amy has a master’s in Conflict Analysis and Resolution with a focus on organizational design. She served as the NFTY-STR regional advisor from 2001-2003 and as the assistant director of Camp Coleman from 2001-2008. Amy returned to Coleman in 2015 as associate director after spending seven years working as an independent leadership coach and consultant, which allowed her to experience over 60 nonprofit summer camps in action. Having seen, experienced and even created best practices in camping, Amy leads Coleman with a passion for helping young people be their best selves and a love and commitment to Reform Jewish life. Nine months of the year, she lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. with her daughter, Mikayla.

Anna Serviansky is the director of Camp Ramah Darom.

Anna Serviansky, Camp Ramah Darom

Anna Serviansky is camp director and head of education at Ramah Darom. Anna fell in love with Camp Ramah working at Ramah Darom in its early years. After a career as an attorney, she returned to her passion of Jewish education, working at National Ramah and Ramah Nyack. Prior to her current role, Anna served as associate dean of List College for six years. Anna is a graduate of the William Davidson School of Jewish Education where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She holds a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and received her undergraduate degree (magna cum laude) in History and Jewish Studies from Brown University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Anna is married to Danny, and together, they are the proud parents of two sons.

Lori Zeligman is the new director of Camp Judaea.

Lori Zeligman, Camp Judaea

Lori grew up in Augusta, Ga. and has been part of the Camp Judaea family since she was a camper. Her professional career with Young Judaea began as the Southeast area supervisor. She staffed multiple Israel Birthright trips, eventually transitioning into Camp Judaea’s assistant director position. Lori has an undergraduate degree in Judaic Studies, a master’s in Jewish Education, a Human Resources certificate and has studied in Israel at Ben Gurion University. In 2010, Lori was director of Camp Isidore Alterman, and then worked in corporate as a human resources generalist. Her passion for informal Jewish experiences led her back to Camp Judaea in 2018. Lori met her husband, Michael, at Camp Judaea and they share the CJ experience with their children, Molly and Bram. Lori’s favorite activity at camp is rikkud (Israeli dancing) and you can find her every Saturday night, after Havdalah, dancing with campers and staff on the basketball court.

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