A Reason to Stay: Staff Retention at Jewish Overnight Summer Camps

November, 2018

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 84:4, 389-412


Veteran staff members play a key role in a camp’s success. They preserve camp culture, maintain traditions, and serve important roles in the peer-training environment that camps depend on. It is not surprising, then, that camp counselor retention is important to the business of camping. This study focused on five counselors from Jewish camps in the United States, all of whom were about to return for a fourth summer. The research explored common phenomena of young adults’ experiences as counselors, how they made sense of their experiences, and their motivations for returning to camp. The data offer insights to camp directors interested in increasing counselor retention.

For those who grew up as campers at summer camp, working as a counselor for one summer (usually immediately post high school) is a natural step. It is a first job for many and often feels like a continuation of the camper experience. Returning for a second summer can also be easy because counselors want to spend one more summer with their camp friends after their first year away at college. The third summer, however, presents a different challenge. Those who come back for a third summer are more likely to be making a choice over alternatives such as internships, spending the summer with new friends, making more money at a “real job,” and so on. This third summer has the biggest drop-off in counselor retention (Finkelstein, 2013). If camping professionals knew more about what motivates counselors to return for a third, fourth, or even fifth summer at camp, they would be better equipped to target their retention efforts, and would succeed at building a more stable and better trained staff for their camps.

The purpose of this research was to discover what motivates camp counselors at Jewish overnight camps to keep coming back to work as counselors beyond the first 2 years and, in particular, for more than 3 years. The specific research question asked was, what are the experiences of veteran camp counselors at Jewish summer camps and how do these veterans make sense of their experiences as they relate to their motivations for returning to work at the camp beyond 3 years? This study should contribute to a better understanding of successful staff retention.


Camps demand a great deal from their counselors: long hours, low salaries, and the need to perform well under pressure with little sleep. In addition, camps offer a lack of personal privacy. It is not surprising that most counselors move on with their lives after a summer or two. What motivates the rest to return? According to the data gathered in this study, the best predictors of staff retention are well-aligned staff career goals. When staff members (and their parents) see camp as applicable to their future selves and in line with their career goals, they will be more likely to return. In other words, counselors are effectively recruited through the explicit advertisement of specific leadership skills that they can develop while at camp (Garst & Johnson, 2005). This identifies a strategy (career development) and a set of tactics to increase staff retention.

However, skills themselves are not the only issue. Those interviewed in this study clearly stated a common fear that even a long list of 21st-century skills on a resumé won’t get you far if the title of Camp Counselor is on the line above it. While it is true that experience as a camp counselor offers relevant skills to many professions, if camps want to attract specific counselors back to camp, they should consider assisting those individuals in sculpting internships or externships either before the summer season or as part of their job at camp. This would allow camps to provide job titles other than Camp Counselor that staff members could legitimately include in their resumés. These could take many forms and could focus on child development, sports and recreation, music, and any of the other activities offered at camp. It might even be possible to have the business and accounting-oriented counselors assist with ordering summer supplies and keeping track of the summer budget if this would satisfy their need for relevant work experiences. While the curricula would have to be structured and would require satisfactory supervision and oversight, it may be possible to implement such programs with minimal adjustments to the current staffing configurations at camp. Infusing camp counseloring with specific resumé-enhancing tasks (and titles) is likely to greatly improve counselor retention.

Jewish camps can and should use their strong alumni connections to generate a community job network, and to create specialized internships for their counselors, as well as any other career-specific advantages that could be offered through the alumni connections that are already in place within the camp communities.

The skills learned and honed by any excellent camp counselor are, no doubt, 21st-century skills applicable to any work environment and any career path: creative thinking, problem solving, planning, improvising, analyzing social situations and considering alternative solutions before choosing a best path to follow, and so on. For this reason, it is important to also say a few words about the acceptance of, and perhaps necessity of, diversity among the professional aspirations of emerging adults within the Jewish community. The Jewish community generally recognizes the fact that not every Jewish young adult is seeking to become a Jewish educator or Jewish professional. If all our campers grow up to be Jewish professionals, who will teach math and science, who will be doctors, lawyers, clothing designers, and retailers? Who will be musicians and dancers? We need to believe that these professions, too, will benefit from a background of the kinds of nurturing and organizing and improvising and problem solving that are inherent components of the camp counselor’s portfolio. It is natural that many emerging adults with a variety of professional ambitions will decide to not return to camp. But that may not mean we “lose” them. We gain, as a greater community, the professional skills they developed over the course of even one or two summers.

This study shows that individual staff members’ decisions to return to camp are influenced by multiple factors, not all of which are located within the camp. This requires a reexamination of the field’s approach to staff retention, which recognizes its contribution to camp success while also using it as a measure of camp success. If 100% staff retention is both unlikely and undesirable, the question becomes, what is the optimal level of retention for a camp to achieve its goals? Staff retention rates can serve as one gauge among many to measure the general climate at a camp.

Updated: Jan. 30, 2019