Cornerstone is an elite North American fellowship of third-year cabin counselors to raise retention in bunk leadership and peer mentorship within the counselor cohorts in camps. Ten of the 13 URJ Camps, including Camp Coleman, were represented this week. 277 fellows in total from 51 Jewish camps attended, sponsored by Foundation for Jewish Camp. As one of the original camps to participate in the program for the last ten years, Camp Director Bobby Harris was invited to reflect on the program and its impact on our staff for the Foundation’s ‘Campfire’ blog.
When the Cornerstone Fellowship first was announced in 2002, I was more than thrilled. Finally, our counselors would be able to see that they were not the only Jewish camp counselors in the world, that Jewish camp counseling was actually a “professional job,” and that the best camp counselors possessed certain skills and knowledge that made them excellent at what they do. As our own singular camp we had been hosting several similar mid-year seminars like this but we only gathered our own Coleman people and never could, almost by definition, quite get out of our own box.
With an illustrious, creative Cornerstone Seminar faculty and the energy contributed when hundreds of counselors from many different camps come together, the Cornerstone program helped take our camp to a new level. Based on their positive and inspirational experiences at the Cornerstone Seminar, staff who, prior to Cornerstone, would have never led a discussion about God returned to camp and led a program and conversation about God. Staff who would have never led a nature hike fused with Jewish prayers returned and did exactly that. Consequently, our campers began to experience and think about Judaism in a different way than they ever had until that point. Though, as a Camp Director, I have a nice rapport with so many campers, I am far removed from their everyday bunk experience. Their bunk counselors, however, are the ones who are significant role models and can have a large influence on the campers. When these bunk counselors are trained and inspired to “step up” and take hold of their own Jewish identities (as they are at Cornerstone), they help our young people do the same.
Because of Cornerstone, our campers now have nightly bedtime rituals fused with Jewish content, take away mementos from the summer that help them remember their incredible summer, a mentoring program for 1st year counselors, and a larger and cooler staff lounge that is utilized more frequently by our staff than it used to be. Prior to the start of the Cornerstone program, Camp Coleman rarely, if ever, had 3rd year counselors. Now, it is uncommon if 15 to 20% of our counseling staff is not in its 3rd year. Cornerstone even inspired many of our URJ camps to pilot the Olim Fellowship program for counselors who make a 2 year commitment to work at camp after graduating high school–the Olim actually serves as a feeder for Cornerstone. There is no question that Cornerstone has enabled us to provide our campers with an even more mature and experienced leadership.
This year is the first year that we have also brought a cohort of 4 returning Coleman Israeli staff to the seminar….we are excited to see the benefits that will emerge from this and we are sure that it will further solidify an already strong bond that exists between our North American and Israeli cohorts.
So, 10 years later I am still thrilled that Coleman has been with Cornerstone every year since the beginning and know that it has helped us grown into an even better camp that helps our staff and campers to joyfully learn about and live Judaism.