Woe to the contemporary Jewish summer camp if it thinks it can do what camps did decades ago and succeed. Nice surroundings. Nice counselors. Nice programs. And the kids will come.
Not so much, not anymore. Camps need to be more, to offer more, to have more. Such as an arts center, a 30-foot indoor climbing wall; or, boldly, a screen-free, cell phone-free, environment.
This, amidst much else, is the soon-to-be realized goal at Camp Shwayder, at the base of Mt. Evans. It is Colorado’s (maybe the West’s) oldest major Jewish camp.
The camp leadership dropped into the IJN office to explain how its most recent renovation aspires to carry Camp Shwayder into the next two generations.
Jodie Abrams is in her seventh year as director and 17th year at camp.
Francie Miran is director of development at Temple Emanuel, to which Shwayder Camp was bequeathed in the late 1940s. Her development duties at Temple include the camp.
David Foster is the chair of the current Camp Shwayder capital campaign.
Michael Staenberg is the redoubtable citizen of St. Louis who has taken a major philanthropic interest in the Denver Jewish community, most visibly at the JCC, but with no less enthusiasm and persistence at Camp Shwayder.
In Omaha, Staenberg’s father died when he was 14. An anonymous donor, whose identity Staenberg does not know to this day, sponsored him at Camp Shwayder that summer. The way Staenberg sees it, he is paying back the camp and the donor by taking the lead in the renovation of Shwayder.
Before 1998, when Camp Shwayder was last renovated, its capacity was 80 campers. After the 1998 renovation the capacity grew to 120. Now, when the current renovation is completed in a few weeks, capacity will be 150.
But it’s not just the size that is changing.
The old, very bumpy road up to the camp from Highway 103 has been widened and smoothed over.
This has enabled the import of pre-built pieces of large modular cabins built in Minnesota.
It also means that the kids now arrive at camp in coach buses from Emanuel. Yes, to attract campers to Shwayder today, it’s coach buses, not the open air truck beds of yesteryear.
These are only a few elements of a new vision for Camp Shwayder that began five years ago.
“David [Foster] said I should go and look at the camp,” says Staenberg, “and I did. I didn’t like what I saw. It was a little too rustic for my liking.”
Rustic? That was the camp ideal — long ago. Now it doesn’t sell, at least for most families.
Foster: “We had a much smaller, less visionary approach. We were trying to figure out how to reconstruct, rebuild cabins for these kids. The cabins were 50 years old. Michael gave us the vision and the opportunity to think bigger than just new cabins.”
As the discussion proceeded, the vision for the next two generations emerged. It may be summarized as centered around community; being intentional with the built environment and the natural environment.
All the new cabins now have decks so that kids can gather together.
There will be a new center for the camp, with a fire pit, an outdoor seating area, pavilions, an outdoor kitchen. The idea is to create a place for the camp to gather as one community, or for individual groups within the camp to gather, rather than just a “cabin” or “bunk” community.
The new center will be used every day as the main gathering spot for the camp. Who came up with this idea? Each person in the IJN offices cannot quickly enough attribute the idea to someone else. It was, they settle on, a “collaborative idea,” embracing themselves and the lay camp committee at Emanuel, which first saw the need for a new vision.
“Nice surroundings.” A sina qua non for a successful Jewish summer camp.
Which camp in the country has nicer surroundings than Camp Shwayder? At which camp can one build a fire and camp overnight at 12,000 feet or higher?
Turns out, it’s not so simple. Camp Shwayder is the only major American Jewish camp without a lake or a swimming pool. To attract campers, it needs to maximize its use of, and add to, its natural advantages.
Parents expect more.
“The reality is that Camp Shwayder has to compete,” says Foster. “Kids can go to science camp and all over the country to specialized camps. In the 1970s and 1980s there weren’t that many choices. We need this new vision for Camp Shwayder in order to compete.”
About 40% of campers are from Temple family members; about 30% from throughout Colorado; and 30% from out of state.
The camp enjoys a strong alumni connection. Parents who went to Shwayder now send their kids there. Shwayder does a lot of recruitment in cities where it has a history, such as Omaha, Kansas City, Park City, Salt Lake City and elsewhere.
Shwayder director Jodie Abrams is full time with the camp all year round, supervising all the recruitment and the plans that need to be put in place for the summer to work. She has one full-time assistant.
Staenberg loved his summer at Shwayder. “It was first time I ever went to camp. The horseback riding. The mountains. You had a chance to be a kid by yourself, without outside influences except for who you were. Camp allowed you to grow up.”
He says he expects from Jewish camps four Ps: Place. Programs. People (lay and professional). Purses.
“And I need all four.
“Before this renovation, I didn’t have the first P — the buildings, which limited the second P, the programs. So now we have the new cabins, and an art building, an outdoor soccer field and a rec center.
“We fixed the dining hall and have areas of spirituality, including a Beit Knesset. But it rains a lot at camp, so our rec center was built so we can pray inside and look out over our beautiful mountains.”
Staenberg feels the leaders of Shwayder were handicapped because they didn’t have the places for the innovative programs that campers now demand. “Campers have a lot of choices and we couldn’t offer the programs,” he says.
The lay camp committee at Emanuel focuses on strategic planning and is instrumental in fundraising. It was the first group to identify the need for a new vision for the many improvements the camp needed and put forward the initial plan.
The committee of 10 people meets every other month, though during the current construction it met every couple of weeks.
The construction took three years. It’s a tricky deal. The entire area is closed in the winter due to the high altitude mountain weather. Then, with a potential construction season of mid-Aril to October, eight weeks are camp time, and the camp is also used by BBYO, which holds its fall convention there; by NFTY, whose fall event is at Shwayder; and by ECE teaching training. Shwayder is closed with the first major snowfall
That is why it has taken three years for the new construction, virtually all of which is expected to be completed by visitors day on June 9, with camp opening next day.
“Parents’ standards are different today,” says Abrams. “Helicopter parents need helicopter counselors. There is much more supervision at summer camps today.
“We want to provide kids the space to be kids. To connect to people again. No electronic devices are allowed at camp. We have no cell service. No WiFi. The staff also has a better experience because of this.
“A lot of the staff grew up at camp. We still need to recruit staff from outside of Colorado. We also have staff from Israel.”
Staenberg calls the new Shwayder a “gem,” based on a $5.5 renovation budget, which “saved substantial money by doing it ourselves, without a general contractor.” The “ourselves,” adds Foster, includes Staenberg’s company, whose personnel served in a general contractor position; and Francie Miran’s development efforts.
Staenberg is on the board of the National Foundation for Jewish Camp.
He calls Camp Shwayder one of the top 10% of about 275 Jewish summer camps.
“We are proud of what we accomplished at Shwayder.”
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News