For Grace Lefton, Jewish summer camp is a happy place where she grew up and learned to be self-sufficient. However, before she heard about Cincinnati’s new camp grant program, she was on the fence about going back to work at camp for a third summer. “This fellowship allows people to keep going back," she said.
Jewish summer camps nationwide are struggling to hire and keep staff. According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp's 2022 Trends Report, staffing has become one of the biggest challenges. The report also found declines in counselor retention rates since the pandemic. In response to these findings and to support Jewish camp counselors and staff, Cincy Journeys proudly introduced a new grant program in 2023—the Camp Counselor and Staff Fellowship. This program supports the professional development of Cincinnati young adults as they fulfill the staffing needs of overnight Jewish camps and become tomorrow's Jewish leaders.
Since 2011, Cincy Journeys has provided grants for Cincinnati-based campers to attend Jewish overnight summer camp. Now, it has expanded its grants to encourage Jewish young adults to work at these camps. Cincy Journeys is a joint program of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati and the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.
The Cincy Journeys Camp Counselor and Staff Fellowship is available for the summer of 2024 for Jewish young adults from Cincinnati, ages 18 to 26, to work at an approved Jewish overnight camp in the United States or Canada. The fellowship offers a $1,200 stipend to new counselors or staff and a $2,400 stipend for returning counselors or staff who work for at least eight weeks. Prorated grants are provided to those who work for at least four weeks. In addition, the fellows receive professional development training. The application portal is now open for the 2024 camp cycle.
"I enjoyed working with the Camp Fellows this first year of the initiative," said Christine Ngeo Katzman, Community Building Associate for Cincy Journeys. "And I'm glad Cincy Journeys and the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati can build relationships with these wonderful young adults—we are all bonded by a love for Jewish overnight camp!"
During its first summer in 2023, the new fellowship program helped 27 young adults. The fellows worked at Camp Livingston, Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI), Camp Wise, Camp Kol Torah, Camp Moshava Wild Rose, Camp Nageela Midwest, and Camp Stone. The fellows held many camp positions including counselor, climbing tower and high ropes director, photographer, videographer, head waiter, and program coordinator.
"I was able to say yes to a lot more work this summer that was outside of my job description because I felt fairly compensated," said Dustin Rabin, who worked at GUCI this past summer. "On paper, my only job this summer was to be the wilderness and the fitness specialist. By the end of the summer, I ended up planning both color wars, and I took care of the Israeli staff members throughout the summer. I was able to have the positive attitude that I always wanted to have at camp. It made my experience and the experience of everyone around me better."
For her third summer working at Camp Livingston, Leah Leonard had the dual role of counselor and head lifeguard. She liked that the fellowship guided her to reflect on the summer experience. For her final project, she created a video that showcased counselors and the camp director. The stipend from the grant was also important to her.
"I love that Cincinnati offers this to us," Leonard said. "It was nice to get extra money for the hard work that we put in, and the higher amount for returning staff is a fitting reward."
Grace Lefton is grateful she returned to GUCI this summer as the assistant office administrator and recognizes that having Jewish experiences is rewarding. "During the school year and my busy life, I don't take the time I should to explore my Jewish identity and what it means to me, so it's nice to have a space to do that with other people my age," she said.
"Since I can't work in law my first year in law school, and camp salaries aren't always competitive with the rest of the job market, I was weighing my options," Lefton said. "But when I heard about the fellowship, it pushed me to a yes. This fellowship allows people from our Cincinnati community to keep going back to camp by offering extra support."
To receive the grant, fellows are required to complete pre-camp professional development, conduct an informational interview or shadow a senior staff member during camp, attend post-camp professional development, and complete a reflection project (in written or visual format) upon returning from camp.
The pre-camp professional development focused on setting goals, understanding work expectations, practicing conflict resolution skills, analyzing strengths, team building, gaining strategies for working with neurodivergence and learning games without materials. The post-camp session involved discussing successes and challenges, building a resume, and updating LinkedIn. The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, JVS Careers, Mayerson Academy, Camp Livingston, and GUCI led these professional development workshops for the fellows.
The Cincy Journeys Camp Counselor and Staff Fellowship has been renewed through 2026. All new professional development sessions have been planned with a focus on networking opportunities.
Since 2009, Cincy Journeys has also offered grants for youth and young adults to travel to Israel. Cincy Journeys celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2024.