Well-traveled path from Jewish camps to Jewish careers

Jamie Najmark was a shy 8-year-old when she and her family left New York and moved to California. They arrived on a Friday, and on Monday Najmark started camp at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center.

She settled right in and began to blossom, eventually becoming a counselor, art teacher and administrator. Today, at 26, Najmark is still at OMJCC, as director of operations for camp and family programs.

Najmark has no doubt that her early thriving years at camp were responsible for her self-growth and, ultimately, her career path.

"I was a really shy kid. The camp counselors were instrumental in changing my life over the course of the summers. I learned it was OK to not be the best at something as long as you enjoy doing it," she said.

"I wouldn't have taken as many chances and become so confident without them."

For example, having developed a babysitting business at 12, Najmark decided at 14 to interview for a camp counseling position. She French-braided her hair, put on makeup, dressed in a suit and high heels she'd worn to a bar mitzvah and got the job.

"The camp director didn't know how young I was until we celebrated my birthday in August," she said.

Najmark garnered a full range of professional experience through her camp positions. She learned about the strategic planning and hierarchy of organizational development that are so crucial in her current position, but as an art teacher she was also able to foster her creative side, and she has subsequently taught beading and jewelry making in local shops.

In a similar situation, the broad range of experience acquired at camp by Stephanie Levin, 24, led directly to a job offer. And like Najmark, Levin is currently a Tikea Fellow, participating in a program for educators of Jewish teens run by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

In an intense 20-year run, Levin was a camper and counselor at Camp Swig in Saratoga, a counselor for special-needs youth at Camp Jaycee near La Jolla, a camp administrator at a Learning Forum Super Camp in Illinois, and program director, assistant director and staff supervisor at the Peninsula JCC Camp in Belmont.

When she was about to graduate from Mills College with a degree in women's studies, Levin couldn't imagine facing a summer without camp.

"I'm graduating, and I have to find a job. I wish I could still be at camp," she thought.

Then she "got really lucky," she said. The PJCC Camp created a position for her, and she stayed on until recently, leaving the job to consider her options for the future. She currently works as office administrator at Berkeley Hillel and is thinking about attending graduate school in Jewish education. Wherever Levin's career goes, all those years at camp will no doubt follow.

Jessy Gross, 23, likewise learned at camp what she wanted to do with her life. She was a young JCC camper in Virginia before attending and working her way onto the staff at Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania as cabin counselor, sports specialist, supervisor and program director. Gross said she "has been on a rabbinic or educational track" since age 12, and in her current position as campaign associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater East Bay, she is learning about necessities of "the business side."

Gross said that she will be "connected for life" to the Jewish camp community that fostered trust in her, security, faith and confidence. Facing daunting personal challenges — her dad had come out as gay, her mom was ill and her parents had separated — she knew that when each May arrived, she would have camp to get ready for

As she came to recognize the enormous contributions her counselors made to her well-being, she knew that she wanted to return the favor at camp and on her future professional path.

"I want to instill the love for Judaism. I realized the impression you can make on the clean slate of child and I want to give back," Gross said.

Phil Hankin, 35, couldn't agree more. Like Gross, he wanted early on to be a role model and "give back" the sustenance he received at camp.

"I'd always had a dream that I wanted to be a camp director since I was 8 years old," said Hankin, another Tikea Fellow; the local program is financed by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

"I grew up at Camp Swig, and it was a no-brainer to go back every year. I still remember the programs to this day. In educational lingo, there are 'memorable moments' — experiences that have a lasting effect and you draw upon it. My whole camp experience was a memorable moment."

Hankin became a counselor in high school, and during college he served on the staff over summer breaks. After a stint in retail management, he earned a master's degree in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College and reconnected with camp culture at Camp Swig, Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania. Today, he is youth educator at Temple Sinai in Oakland during the school year and camp director at Camp Kadima at the Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek during the summer.

Hankin said that the comfort and camaraderie of the camp community offer a more organic setting than a religious-school classroom for "cementing" a Jewish identity in young people.

Rachelle Padgett, 23, knows about having a message soak in, and she now hopes to incorporate into her career path the lessons she unwittingly assimilated.

Growing up, Padgett was active in the youth organizations at the Richmond JCC in Virginia, and because she had always loved children, she became a counselor at a JCC camp during high school. She and 15 first-grade boys "had a blast" swimming, canoeing, playing sports and communing with nature, and she loved it so much that she continued to work there during any school break when she "needed a job."

She loved making a difference in her campers' lives and especially loved coaching the troublemakers.

Meanwhile, her mother had always been a "hippie renegade" organic gardener and ecology teacher. But as much as Padgett enjoyed outside activities, she hadn't shared her mom's activism.

When Padgett was about to graduate from the University of Virginia with a major in women's studies and a minor in Jewish studies, it dawned on her that through her mother's role modeling and through her time spent outdoors at camp she had developed a passion about environmental issues.

Padgett came to the Bay Area and landed a temporary position as campaign coordinator for a Sierra Club ballot initiative. Then she found fulfilling work as program coordinator at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, but she lost the job in March when the local COEJL office suddenly "closed its doors for lack of money."

Padgett is putting her women's studies and Jewish studies to good use in her current position as Volunteer Action Center program associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater East Bay. But she also wants to do further work in environmental education and advocacy. She loved her recent experiences — reminiscent of her camp days — sharing ecological restoration projects and presentations with groups of students.

Padgett emphasized that "whether they're 6 or 16, even if it seems that the kids are sometimes spacing out," she knows from experience that her lessons are sinking in on one level or another, and she knows that it's important to keep teaching.

"You've got to start at the root, and kids are it," Padgett said.