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Camp Twelve Trails: A Robust, Intentional Summer Experience that Inspires Passions, Fosters Learning, and Realizes Community

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
In collaboration with

Camp Twelve Trails is at its very heart a collaboration. It is a consortium of three different community based organizations, and every aspect of the formation and implementation process has included cooperation, culture building, a shared vision and mission, and more. The logo on our shirts this summer says: 1 + 1 +1 = 12. Please see the attached business plan for details on the formation of this collaboration and shared vision for its success. Collaborating with the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood are JCC on the Hudson and The Riverdale YM-YWHA.

Prize category
1 – 3 years
Target audience
Environment/Outdoor Education

Camp Twelve Trails™ is a new concept in Jewish day camping that gives children ages 5-16 the best of both specialty camp and contemporary day camp programs that is accessible to a broad range of families – including families with children who have special needs – at an affordable price. It is comprised of five “Neighborhoods” – Play, Create, Explore, Discover, and Grow – that allow campers to strengthen skills in their favorite specialty, while also encouraging them to explore new areas. Deep friendships, Jewish identity, character education, and 21st Century skills evolve as they engage with others who share their interests.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Three New York City Jewish Community Centers that utilize the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in Pearl River, New York –YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood, JCC on the Hudson, and The Riverdale YM-YWHA – came together to develop a model for a regional Jewish day camp that: increases the quality of the camp experience; maintains affordability for, and maximum access to, families; and improves long-term financial sustainability of each center’s camp programming, while ensuring that each community center is able to maintain the integrity of its unique identity in service to its Jewish mission and local community.

From this vision, we created a camp that will grow to become the experience of choice for youth from around the New York region, as well as offering a key link in the developmental continuum each of community center’s local programs throughout the year that inspire young people to live a life rich in Jewish character, and derech eretz. Every camper will internalize and learn to model the following Jewish values that are core to Camp Twelve Trails:

• We welcome new friends and difference (Hachnasat Orchim/B’Tzelem Elohim): Culture at camp embodies Hillel’s summary of Torah. Through intensive, retreat-style trainings that build community amongst our staff and provide a deep understanding of the techniques that will allow them to structure our welcoming and accepting culture effectively, our team implements daily teambuilding activities, enforces and reinforces expectations for positive camp behavior, including supporting peers with special needs, and routinely celebrates behaviors and actions in each neighborhood that embody this Jewish value.

• We take care of our bodies (Shmirat Ha’goof): Every camp knows the truth in the Rambam quote that the wellbeing of the soul can be achieved only after that of the body has been secured! Beyond basic safety, our program underscore these criticals Maimonides lessons about prioritizing a healthy body, from learning to properly stretch and exercise in Play, to learning the basics of first aide in Explore!, or how the body processes certain foods in Discover.

• We are keepers of the Earth (Shomrei Adamah): Across each neighborhood, we prioritize the mitzvah that is conservation. Each of our campers and staff learn to look after the environment wherever they encounter it, whether through learning about composting in Grow, or practicing “Leave No Trace” principles in Explore. Our participants leave our campground as pristine as we find it after each and every day at camp.

• We foster a love of learning and the pursuit of knowledge (Ratzon): Like Bezalel, each of us has unique gifts and talents to discover at camp through participating in programming in each of our neighborhoods with skilled specialists in developmentally appropriate activities. For all participants – campers and staff – the summer is structured with intentionally chosen goals that allow them to truly ascertain their passions, develop a love of learning, and their ratzon: their purpose and reason for being.

• We value community and reflection (Shabbat): How can campers learn to live a life of Heschel’s radical amazement? They begin Fridays at camp with a different structure that will allow for reflection, as well as the celebration of accomplishments. Our Shabbat experience is a day of collaborative rituals and innovative riffs on Jewish practices including songs, performances and craft making. We use this day as a bookend as each Monday we will bring our community together for a Havdalah experience that frames each week.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Camp Twelve Trails was designed for accessibility, having been built around the following imperatives:
1) A high-quality experience for campers and their families is the primary driver behind this endeavor. This includes a holistically integrated and clearly articulated Jewish vision and Jewish cultural program, but delivered in way that honors the multicultural communities served by all three agencies; an excellent, well-trained staff; a diversity of exciting programs that fosters skill development; and clean, well-maintained facilities that support the program. Because the three agencies have come together to share the cost of the enhanced facilities and the specialists to help deliver programs, Camp Twelve Trails brings day camping to the next level, making programs more competitive with private and specialty camps and thereby allowing the consortium of agencies to reach new audiences.
2) An affordable experience for the predominantly middle-income, working parents who frequent the JCCs (for whom camp is an essential childcare service, rather than a luxury). For the most part, camp families at all agencies are price sensitive. Agency directors all agreed that “a regional camp must be affordable and sensational.” While agencies anticipated opportunities for cost savings and synergies on the administrative side, none are willing to compromise a “small camp feel” that is achieved through a low camper-to-counselor ratio.
3) Guided by Jewish values while honoring the diversity of our communities and families, with a particular focus on campers with special needs.

The values that Camp Twelve Trails embodies serve as powerful lessons that we believe double as 21st Century skills connected to positive youth development, and long-term success in middle school, high school, college, and beyond. The exploration of Jewish values at camp through our five neighborhoods of programming allows young people, families and young adults to realize a life rich in Jewish learning, with meaningful connection to their everyday passions and practices, and a community of friends with whom they are proud to celebrate Jewishly.

To ensure accessibility and applicability, we have codified the educational vision for our camp and adapted a pedagogical approach developed by The Curriculum Initiative that creates experiences at camp that holistically interweave Jewish values and learning, through the Neighborhood specialty area model we have developed:

• Play (Sports and Fitness): Redefining what it means to be an “athlete,” Play utilizes former and current professional athletes and coaches as role models and guest educators to foster campers’ gross motor and athletic skills, their love of sports and exercise, and healthy lifestyles. Through daily instruction and games, we foster a culture in which each camper’s fitness level and capabilities will be respected, including an Adapted Physical Education program for campers with special needs.

• Grow (Farm to Table): Grow presents our campers an attainable vision for healthy bodies, healthy communities and a healthy planet. Through the Yomawha farm and Country Day Kitchen, our campers will garner an appreciation for practices from gardening and fermentation, to farmer’s market entrepreneurship and the culinary arts.

• Explore (Outdoor Adventure): Explore takes “camping” back into the woods! This neighborhood includes such program areas as high ropes, low ropes, climbing tower, archery, boating, hiking, orienteering, and outdoor cooking to inspire campers’ confidence, outdoor competence and sense of adventure. Campers, including those with special needs, also have the opportunity to practice their skills on canoe/rafting, hiking and camping trips.

• Discover (Science and Technology): Using the outdoors as a classroom, campers have the opportunity to master STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills, and foster a love of curiosity-inspired learning. Green sciences drive a curriculum that empowers young people to build projects each summer that impact camp, like a garden drip irrigation system. In addition, our indoor lab spaces allow construction projects, and experimentation in our maker spaces.

• Create (Arts and Drama): Our camp is ultimately about building identity. As a result, the arts provide critical opportunities for campers to express themselves through a myriad of modalities, including music and rhythm, spoken word, theater, dance and crafting. With opportunities each week to showcase their work in a safe environment, campers collaboratively and independently put performances and exhibitions together.

Given our commitment to an inclusive environment at camp, Camp Twelve Trails provides a very low staff-to-camper ratio that successfully integrates campers with special needs into all of areas of camp, allowing camp staff and programs to be flexible and to individualize programming as needed. Campers with special needs are fully included for most of the day, but begin each day in their own “neighborhood” where they will work on developing social skills, independence, confidence and flexibility. Because of this model and intentional, supportive design, Camp Twelve Trails is attracting families for whom there are few alternatives.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

The agencies collaborating to bring families Camp Twelve Trails have developed and are implementing an evaluation strategy that is rooted in the goals of Camp Twelve Trails and tracks participant outcomes over time. Developed in partnership with Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, our assessment considers quantitative data collection methods from sources, such as enrollment data and likert-style parent surveys, and qualitative methods such as open-ended survey questions and focus groups to uncover the deeper meaning behind statistical data, particularly on questions of identity development.

Across all programming, we consider three potential levels of impact:
Cognitive: What will campers learn?
● recognize our talents, gifts and opportunities for expression
● make positive choices in relation to ourselves and others
● have greater appreciation for our own and others’ identities within a diverse community
● ...I can make the world a better place every day
● ...I am stronger in community; I can do more in collaboration

Affective: how might campers feel?
● ...confident that we can try new experiences in a safe environment (and learn from them)
● ...curious about experimentation and its results
● ...wonder for the magic in the world
● …a part of a sacred community
● ...valued and supported by peers and adults

Behavioral: What might campers do as a result of this program?
● ...routinely express gratitude and appreciation
● ...treat others with respect and kindness
● ...stand up for others who need support
● ...keep trying
● ...find avenues to express their joy

We are nearing the first summer of offering Camp Twelve Trails (aspects of the program were piloted last year), and we are witnessing campers and staff embracing the values they are learning as their own, as evidenced by their modeling behavior based on these values. Other data demonstrating the impact of Camp Twelve Trails includes a close examination of our impact in the following regards:

• Camper Care
• Exposure to Jewish Values
• Staff Development

While we are still gathering data from summer one, and organizing our overall assessment, early returns speak positively about each of these areas, with a large majority of staff, parents of campers, and campers speaking to the achievement of an environment at camp that allows for young people to try new things, express themselves, and assure their needs are met. We have also seen a strong indication of facility and connection to our Jewish values, across the board with all youth groups at camp, as well as a comfort on the part of all staff to meet the needs of a diversity of young people in differing circumstances and age groups.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

Camp has always been sold as "magic," but in reality, camp is about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) – which is finally being recognized as important. Jewish camp is arguably more impactful than secular camp because adding the Jewish lens brings real intention to the exploration of SEL. Thus, applying "Jewish wisdom," becomes a win-win for us in the camping market place. We are also discovering the crossover with 21st Century Skills, that the learning goals and benchmarks for such skill development align with Jewish wisdom. As a Jewish organization, it is exciting to see this crossover.

In implementing programs like the Y in Washington Heights’ Jewish Caravan program – which provides children an exciting exploration of values-based experiential education that offers them tools to open their minds and hearts to the world around them – we have also learned that our approach to the use of applied Jewish wisdom attracts unengaged Jewish families. Our approach: 1) encourages everyone, Jews and non-Jews, to participate; 2) prioritizes activities that children love, and want to participate in, like the arts, sports and movement programs, and green programming; and 3) uses universal Jewish culture, wisdom and values in ways that developmentally engage, and feel meaningful, to young people.

For Camp Twelve Trails, this manifests in several ways, including:
• Engaging campers’ total environments: From activities, to group meetings, to field trips, to signage, to terminology – camp becomes a Jewish classroom, rather than limiting Jewish learning to a single isolated session. Given the opportunity to format a new camp, and larger campground space, Camp Twelve Trails’ founders are taking full advantage in summer, empowering campers and staff to plaster our Jewish values and related texts, both Jewish and non-Jewish, across campus through everything from arts and murals, to a new entry gate at camp. Opportunities also present themselves in terms of the curriculum across each neighborhood, including making choices like planting the seven species of Israel in our farm, or our counselors using Mussar traits as benchmarks for their growth as educators over the summer.

• Prioritizing “emergent” curricula: Programs that are rooted in campers’ interests and experiences often have greater appeal and relevance for learners. Our approach therefore includes the design of content and experiences that align with our campers’ emerging interests. In Discover, for example, if our younger campers are interested in renewable energy, we will learn about the work the Arava Institute has done on this subject, inviting an alumnus of the program to visit camp, and utilize their model of innovation and peacebuilding at our location. Similarly, if find older campers in Create are inspired by a future “song of the summer,” which coincidentally embodies several themes from one of the summer’s Torah readings. This then offers an opportunity for creating a mashup song, or spoken-word piece that campers perform in their own words.

• Creating an intellectual discourse open to all, including Jewish campers (regardless of prior knowledge) and their friends: This camp intentionally serves a multicultural population, including blended Jewish families, by applying Jewish content to universal interests, dilemmas, and values that allow us to engage deeply with specific Jewish content while cultivating a space for other participants to bring their own identities to the conversation. This work would be complicated for young, or inexperienced staff, which is why we have placed a major emphasis on recruitment and hiring experienced individuals for our key leadership, specialty and counselor staff. Additionally, our training process emphasizes staff members’ ability to scaffold “teachable Jewish moments” based upon the programmatic topics for exploration in each camp neighborhood. Our camp is one where the vast majority of staff see themselves as Jewish educators, driving rich content in all areas of camp and creating a holistic Jewish feel throughout each day and each program.

• Grounding Jewish learning in multicultural theory and practice: As our campers live in a multicultural world, and the Jewish community itself is multicultural, our camp prioritizes access to Jewish global culture, with an emphasis on Israel. In addition to Israeli Shlichim, we look to bring in other international Jewish staff in order to paint a broader picture of Jewish multicultural life for each and every camper. This also affects our programming, as cooking projects in Grow explore far beyond the traditional Jewish meals of Ashkenaz, and instead explore what a Moroccan feast might look like for a summer chag, or choosing sides in Play based upon the teams in the Israeli Basketball Super League.