Camp Maketh the Man: Leadership Lessons from Winnipeg to Wales

Jason Marantz, Chief Executive of the London School of Jewish Studies 

Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I obviously wasn’t part of BAUK – but after a decade of marriage to proud BAnik Gillian Marks, and having heard so many BA stories over the years that I sometimes forget I wasn’t actually there myself, I think I should qualify for honorary membership. My own years of Hadracha experience at Camp Massad of Manitoba make it easy to identify with the BA stories I have heard at so many Shabbat tables.

Of course, there are significant differences between BA and Camp Massad, particularly with regard to religious ethos, which obviously affects the role of the madrichim. In addition, as Joe Gamse is fond of pointing out in the spirit of friendly rivalry, North American camps tend to have permanent facilities, like cabins and mess halls and sports fields (some of them also have art studios, performance spaces, sailboats, etc) – whereas BAUK madrichim face the challenge of “creating something from nothing in a soggy Welsh field”.

Another difference is that North American camps operate through most of the summer. At Camp Massad, campers come for 3 weeks at a time, and staff are there for 7 weeks. For someone like me, who spent 14 summers at camp, it adds up to a significant amount of time (the equivalent of about a year and a half actually at camp, and then there’s all the thought and preparation beforehand). I emphasise the time factor because I think that although Camp Massad is not strictly speaking a youth movement, and doesn’t organise regular activities during the year, it has had the same effect on my friends’ values and identity that I observe amongst BAniks in the UK.

My own experience of Hadracha had a profound impact on my identity and subsequent career. Like many of my fellow madrichim, I quickly realised how enjoyable and fulfilling working with children can be, and my decision to train as a primary school teacher can be traced right back to my first experiences as a madrich. But Hadracha is as much about leadership as it is about education; with the benefit of hindsight and some formal leadership training, I can now see that camp gave me the opportunity to exercise two different types of leadership.

The first type is known as “positional authority” in the academic literature. Year after year, as I gained experience and emotional maturity, I rose through the ranks of the camp system, culminating in my three-year term as Menahel (Rosh Mechane), with responsibility for 300 campers and 30 staff each summer. My trajectory in schools is similar: from a grade five teacher at a school in Winnipeg, to Department Head, to Deputy Head Teacher (at Avigdor and then at Bell Lane Primary), to Head Teacher of Wolfson Hillel Primary. These hierarchical systems, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, allow emerging leaders to gradually progress to positions of more responsibility and authority, supported and inspired by role models and mentors in the higher ranks. One of the great strengths of camps and youth movements is that your leaders tend to be relatively close to your own age and so easy to relate to, making them particularly influential role models. By the time it is your turn to serve as a Madrich, Sgan, or Rosh, you’ve probably already internalised a great deal about the role, and you can work from your predecessors’ examples, either emulating their behaviour or learning from their mistakes.

Based on my own experience and what I have observed in others, I think that these sorts of leadership positions enable people to develop their organisational and people skills, together with increased self-confidence and a sense of oneself as a leader. This prepares them to tackle the demanding roles discussed by leadership scholar Ronald Heifetz under the heading “leadership without authority”. A quick, non-academic way of categorising this sort of leadership is to say that it leaves you open to the sarcastic colloquial question “who died and made you King/Queen/Boss?”

Of course, this is the very question that Moshe was asked when he intervened in a fight between 2 Israelites:

“Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14).

In these stories of Moshe’s early adulthood, we see him attempting to exercise leadership without authority. He recognises problems (the brutality of Egyptian taskmasters, violence between Hebrew slaves), and in the absence of any other leader (“seeing no man about”), takes it upon himself to deal with the situation, with limited success at best. His third attempt to exercise leadership achieves better results: he defends Jethro’s daughters from the shepherds who were preventing them from watering their flock (Exodus 2:16–18), and is rewarded with hospitality, a bride, and a wise father-in-law who will eventually give him excellent leadership advice (Exodus 18:17). But we never again see Moses exercising leadership without authority. Indeed, he becomes a leader with the ultimate sanction for his “positional authority”, as he is directly appointed by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt – but even this divine sanction is not sufficient to prevent subsequent challenges, as we see from Korach.

Although Moshe was more successful using positional authority than trying to lead without authority, Heifetz highlights the work of transformational leaders who have successfully changed organisations and whole societies without any formal positional authority. Two outstanding historical examples would be Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, but we can also see this type of leadership at work in more mundane settings. According to Heifetz, leadership is not a “set of personality characteristics” but an activity, and that activity is “the mobilisation of the resources of a people or of an organisation to make progress on the difficult problems it faces”. Whenever you attempt to mobilise others to solve a difficult problem that is not part of the explicit responsibilities outlined in your “job description”, you are engaged in leadership without authority. I’m sure if you reflect on your own Hadracha experience you will come up with personal examples of this type of leadership – I’m told you use the term Rosh Gadol to mean something similar.

I would like to share an example of my own. In 2006, after discussions with fellow parents who complained of a lack of places in local Jewish primary schools, I noticed that the conversations didn’t seem to be going anywhere. There seemed to be consensus that it would be a good idea to open a new school in our area, yet nobody was taking responsibility for translating talk into action. But once I took the first step of inviting a dozen or so concerned parents to a meeting, things quickly started happening. Despite the chorus of naysayers – who assured us that there was no need for such a school, and anyway we would never get approval for such a school, and if we did get approval we would never find a building, and if we did find a building and get approval, we would end up with an empty school…within two years of that first meeting, the school opened and today Sacks Morasha Primary School has over 200 children enrolled.

I am enormously grateful for my Hadracha experience, as it laid the foundation for my subsequent lay and professional leadership roles, not least by instilling in me a tendency towards scepticism when told that something “will never work” or is “impossible”. “Difficult” and impossible” are not synonyms! But the most important lesson I learned from Hadracha is the following: having experienced the excitement and engagement of working with a great team, sometimes through the night, to prepare the best possible programs and activities for our chanichim, I realised how important it is to do something that is personally meaningful to you and engages your passions. For some of you, that might mean becoming a teacher or serving the community in another professional capacity; for others, it might mean recognising difficult challenges and taking responsibility for responding to them in ways that exceed your “job description”. In either case, we would all do well to bear in mind some wise advice from Heifetz:

“If you find what you do each day seems to have no link to any higher purpose, you probably want to rethink what you’re doing.” ― Ronald A. HeifetzThe Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

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