A Message From Jordan About His New Job and the Future of Surprise Lake Camp

One of the things I have been known for in the SLC community for many years is compulsively picking up papers off the ground at camp. I do this out of profound love for SLC, and I take pride in having helped create a culture in which hundreds of staff and campers every summer also pick up papers as they walk around. It makes camp look better, and it builds a sense of ownership that makes us stronger.

But there is a thought that has long nagged me, and that is the notion that if the camp director’s eyes are always looking at the ground, then they can’t be focused on the horizon. This is a metaphor, of course. The point is that what would be best for SLC is to have its leader taking a long view, planning for the future, working on making sure that our beloved camp is strong for our children and our children’s children instead of always being consumed by details.

This is the reason why camp, with full Board support, has hired a summer camp director, and why my job description has changed. I wanted to take this opportunity to describe this change in more detail to the SLC world.

SLC has certainly come a long way over the years, and I am not sure that everyone realizes all it has accomplished. Virtually every facility in camp has either been renovated or replaced during my tenure, and we have added the gym, the archery courses, the teen tennis facility, two hockey rinks, the climbing tower and ropes courses, two gaga pits, the golf program, the photo lab, the SLC Museum, the entry building, and, our newest improvement, a solar power array. We obtained free title to the land we operate on—did you know that most of the property was formerly owned by the Educational Alliance and 92nd Street Y? We also obtained ownership of Lake Surprise Road where it runs through camp. For most of camp’s history, this was a town road, and the public, including vehicle traffic, could not be excluded. We have made improvements in enrollment. Whereas we used to start registering campers in January, we now have at least half of our beds filled by the end of the preceding summer—usually with waiting lists in some age groups. We have added Get Your Feet Wet, an introductory program that the entire camping world has emulated, as well as the Teva Learning Center (www.tevacenter.org), widely regarded as the foremost Jewish environmental education program in the world. We have made great strides in camp’s Judaics, carefully tailored to the kinds of kids we serve, including an average of 20 Bar/Bat Mitzvahs at camp each summer and our own Rosh Hashanah program that drew nearly 300 people last year. I could go on.

But I have a vision for Surprise Lake Camp that has not yet been achieved. And it will not be achieved if I must continue to stop work on it, almost completely, every year for four to five months to run the summer program.

The vision is ambitious, but in my mind, absolutely necessary if our generation is to leave SLC healthy and strong for the future.

First, and perhaps most important, we need to increase our scholarship fund from its current size, roughly three million dollars, to at least ten million dollars. Scholarshipping for campers who cannot afford our full fee is the cornerstone of camp’s mission, and while we have worked hard over the years to provide a program that appeals to all families, this aspect of our agency is one that the Board and I are determined to sustain. The problem is that we give considerably more money in scholarships every year than we have, and it creates annual deficits that are stressful and unhealthy. In 2009, we gave over $900,000 in total scholarships, certainly a figure that we can be very proud of. But our scholarship fund only produced about $175,000, Board giving another $100,000 (bless our Board—they are the best in the Jewish camping world!), and the Alumni Drive, yet unfinished, is struggling to reach its goal of $180,000. You can do the math. There’s a gap of over $400,000 there, and this is money that is being sapped from the operating budget. This is unsustainable and unhealthy. The vision is that we will have a Scholarship Fund that can produce enough revenue annually to make our scholarship program self-sustaining.

One of the ways we will do this is through an initiative called the 1902 Society. The 1902 Society is made up of those special SLC supporters who have elected to include a gift to camp in their estate planning. This fundraising method has been successfully used for many years by colleges to build significant endowments. We can and should do the same. When we began this initiative about a year ago, we had 20 members of the 1902 Society. As I write to you today, we now have more than 60! Our vision is that there will ultimately be many hundreds of members in the 1902 Society, and that their collective legacy will help put our scholarship tradition on firm financial footing forever.

There is also much work to be done on our site. While we have accomplished a lot, and while camp certainly “looks good” to the casual visitor, there is a lot of deferred maintenance, particularly in those infrastructure areas that no one sees, but that are essential to camp’s operation, like our electrical system, our water system, and our sewage system. We seem to never catch up on the roofs that leak or the pipes that need to be replaced. We are currently completely renovating the Mainside kitchen, a project that was long overdue. And we have a lot of work to do to achieve our goal of becoming a green institution. Camp’s rusticity is part of what makes it great, and it must be preserved, but our vision for SLC is one in which all of its facilities are in excellent repair, and there is a high quality program in place to keep them that way. On top of this, there are a number of major projects on the agenda, including more lodge renovations to enable increased off season programming, a significant upgrade of our arts and crafts building, a re-landscaping of the lakeside area, a facelift for our Main Building, and a complete renovation of our Health Center.

The vision also includes a commitment to making every aspect of camp’s program shine. We want to upgrade specialty staff and program areas, add travel programs, and increase non-summer programming, both for the SLC community and user groups. Imagine camper programs at SLC during school breaks, Jewish holiday celebrations throughout the year for all ages, and weekend retreats for groups of alumni from various decades.

We also want to develop our exceptional Teva Learning Center. If you are not familiar with this cutting edge program, I encourage you to check out their website. At a time when the entire world is waking up to the threat of global climate change, our Teva program is in a position to make a real difference through its programs that educate about taking care of the environment in the context of Jewish values and traditions and that inspire people and institutions to take action.

The Board of Directors has adopted a Strategic Plan designed to achieve these goals, and more. My job is to make it happen by building the support, raising the money, and moving the various initiatives forward, while at the same time providing supervision to the directors of our various programs to make sure they remain excellent. In this regard, we are fortunate to have a new Camp Director, Sheryl Kirschenbaum, who is of such high caliber and is so well loved by today’s campers and staff.

This is a huge undertaking for me, but one that I embrace with passion and commitment. And I will need your help. In the months and years ahead, we will be moving forward with capital campaigns that will require a number of very large gifts to be successful, as well as broad participation from a much wider circle of supporters at every level. We will be having a gala to celebrate camp’s 110th Anniversary, which will focus on the 100th Anniversary of its magnificent Main Building. I will be reaching out to you more often and in more ways than I have in the past, and I know that those who love SLC will be there when I do.

Surprise Lake Camp is great. It has deeply enriched my life and the lives of thousands of former campers and staff members. Now it is time to take it to yet another level of greatness. That is my job. Let’s make it happen together.

I welcome your questions and comments. May 2010 be a wonderful year for you, your family, and the entire SLC community!

Shalom,

Jordan

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4 comments

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