Under a plan that leaders of two local organizations view as historic, the Jewish Community Center Day Camps will be “powered” by Tamarack Camps through a managed services agreement approved last month by the boards of both groups.
This means Tamarack Camps has operational control over the JCC Day Camps in close consultation with JCC leadership. JCC Day Camps Directors Jenny Morgan and Liam Grandidge will be hiring staff and managing the day camps under supervision from Senior Managing Director Randy Comensky, who was recently hired by Tamarack Camps. He will also supervise overall day-to-day operations, staffing, budgeting and programming.
JCC day campers will notice the difference during sessions this summer.
“Tamarack intends to build upon the JCC’s already-excellent programming that’s been established over many decades,” said Steve Engel, Tamarack Camps CEO. “We can now take the best practices from both agencies and deliver a higher level of excellence in programming, staffing and facility enhancement.
“Together, we plan to add new and creative program opportunities over time, including day trips and overnights to Camp Maas (in nearby Ortonville). And, of course, we will infuse that Tamarack ‘magic’ and energy into all our programs.”
JCC CEO Brian Siegel added, “Tamarack ‘magic’ is hard to describe, but includes enhanced Jewish programming and traditions including music, games and all-day camp activities that Tamarack employs quite successfully.”
By working together and through further development of the JCC day camp’s physical site in Phase II of the plan, leaders of both organizations say the outcome will be a “world-class day camp program for the betterment of the community.”
Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp based in New York City, says he has been advocating for this type of collaboration for several years and has been in separate talks with the JCC, Tamarack Camps and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Both organizations are under the Federation umbrella.
“For several years, I have been speaking about building on the strength of Jewish summer camp ‘brands,’ especially in Detroit, where Tamarack has been a fixture for 116 years,” Fingerman said. “I am very pleased to see it finally come to fruition. This kind of partnership makes so much sense.
“We have been encouraging more intentional connections between summer camping brands. The Tamarack brand is synonymous with excellence in Jewish summer experiences and the Detroit JCC facility and grounds are of the highest quality and offer great potential.
“I agree that this is an historic agreement in the sense of long-standing youth-oriented communal institutions collaborating together in an effective and efficient way,” he said.
“We will be monitoring the progress closely and hope this will serve as a leading example of the power of collaboration and partnership, not only for the field of Jewish camp, but also for our entire Jewish community,” he added.
Engel and Siegel agree and are enthusiastic about the collaboration for similar reasons.
“The move is historic because in many communities around the country, resident camps and day camps are part of a single organization,” Engel said. “In this instance, we have taken two separate organizations with nearly 200 years of experience and we’ve agreed to break through silos to collaborate.”
Siegel said, “In this world of shrinking resources, the JCC/Tamarack collaboration is an important example of how institutions ‘wired’ to behave protectively can work together to exceed community expectations in a more efficient manner.”
Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO, agrees. “Along with the recent combining of the JCRC and the American Jewish Committee operations, Tamarack and the JCC working together is another important step in creating a more collaborative and stronger community,” he said.
“There are tremendous opportunities for synergy, and I am especially appreciative to the lay and professional leadership of both organizations.”
Forging A Partnership
“When we were first approached with this idea, it made us all pause,” said Stacy Brodsky, Tamarack Camps president. “We had to change our mindset and think closely about our business model and our mission. We purposely took a very methodic approach to this decision. We listened to our board, answered questions and engaged in many discussions over the past year.”
Tamarack sent past Camp Maas associate director Debbie Landau to the JCC Day Camps last summer to observe and talk with staff. They also formed a task force headed by Michael Cooper as well as hired Collaborative Strategies Inc. of St. Louis to study the collaboration quantitatively.
A Tamarack Camps spokesperson addressed the 2015 incident at the JCC Day Camps with a counselor posting indecent photos of young boys in his charge online.
The incident was “really a non-issue, as we felt the JCC has moved on from it in a positive direction with 100 percent new leadership. The bigger issue we discussed was the two different brands. If we combined them, how would it affect each brand individually?”
On the JCC side, Rick Zussman, JCC president, said, “Our seven-point strategic plan included this partnership with Tamarack. We feel Tamarack’s involvement and expertise will enhance the experience for our JCC campers, which is paramount to the JCC.
“This new relationship is a natural fit. We are combining the JCC’s mission of enriching Jewish unity, continuity and life with Tamarack’s goal of providing enriching Jewish camping experiences for children and families. Clearly, the children of our community will benefit from the JCC’s joint venture.”
The JCC also had well-known camp architect/master planner Richard Parker of the national firm Brandstetter Carroll Inc. tour the northwest portion of the Applebaum Jewish Community Campus that will be developed in Phase II after a multimillion-dollar private donor campaign. Parker told the JCC the site is “the best day camp opportunity I have ever seen.”
Possible upgrades may include a new rustic lodge, fishing docks, kayaking launches, an aquatic center and miles of new walking and off-road biking trails.
Tamarack Camps, which sits on 1,100 acres near Ortonville, about 35 miles from West Bloomfield, hosted 1,316 campers last year in all its programs. Of that number, 95 percent are Jewish, but many come from mixed families and different backgrounds. Campers range from those entering grade 2 to 11th-graders and beyond.
JCC Day Camps is on the 200-acre Applebaum Jewish Community Campus, which has 80 more acres to be developed.
In 2017, total camp enrollment was 508, including 52 in the special needs program. Enrollment was down from previous years, but the JCC declined to give exact numbers.
Consistent with national trends, Siegel says, 70 percent of JCC campers are Jewish. Specialty camps typically cater to the broader community audience. The camp serves ages 2½-17.
Both camps receive annual Federation allocations, which will remain the same. For the fiscal year 2017-2018, Tamarack Camps received $493,242; the JCC received $1,722,459, both figures include the Annual Campaign and Challenge Fund.
Representatives from both camps say the partnership will not affect the cost to campers.
Under the managed services agreement, Tamarack will be paid a commercial management fee based upon a percentage of sales under supervision. The exact percentage is confidential, Siegel said.
Engel says no money will be saved with the agreement. However, an earlier JCC document said there could be joint marketing and recruitment efforts as well as joint staff recruitment and training, among other ideas.
“The goal of the partnership is not to save money, but rather serve more campers and provide a best-in-class camp experience,” Engel said. “It is well known that Jewish camps can instill and advance Judaism at a very cost-efficient manner and provide a great return on investment.”
Yet, there is an expectation the partnership will help the JCC camp grow so additional revenue can be realized.
The day camps bring in about 7.5 percent of the JCC’s $15 million annual budget, and revenue for the camps was up last year over the previous year, Siegel said. Traditionally, day camps are an important positive revenue source for JCCs, including Detroit’s, he added.
The agreement will be in place for three years. The intention of both parties is to continue the partnership indefinitely.
Siegel and Engel will have oversight of the agreement, and a new day camp committee will be formed with representatives from both organizations.
Heather and Steve Rosenberg of West Bloomfield have three daughters — Brooke, 8, Hannah, 5, and Julia, 1. Brooke will be starting her third year at JCC Day Camps and her mom says Brooke can’t wait until summer.
“This is her third year; she absolutely loves it, especially swimming, the weekly Shabbat and meeting new friends,” Heather said. “She became more confident. I love that it’s a beautiful campus close to home with the Jewish aspect as well. It’s a good fit for our family.”
Brooke first went to the JCC day camp in 2016, the year immediately following the counselor and photographs incident.
“I went to multiple meetings and asked lots of questions to the then-director. It was probably the safest camp around because I felt the staff and director were going to be extra attentive. The JCC alleviated my concerns and I trusted they went through the proper education for their staff and my child would be safe. That’s been the case 100 percent. It’s been a great experience.”
Still, Heather says, the JCC Day Camps’ reputation could use a boost.
“The biggest way to choose a camp is by word of mouth and, even before the counselor incident and, for whatever reason, the JCC had some hiccups that caused it not to be as popular. But changes that were made and continue to be made are positive, and I don’t waver about sending my kids there, and I tell others.”
In speaking about the diversity of the camper population at the JCC, which includes about 30 percent non-Jewish campers, Heather said, “If those families are open to (the Jewish programming) and understand Shabbat, a diverse group of attendees is a good thing, a nice component.”
Siegel says he expects the Jewish nature of the day camp programming to be enhanced by the alliance with Tamarack.
“We will continue to serve both Jewish and non-Jewish campers,” he said. “Through the relationships and experiences both parties bring, we hope to be more competitive and garner more market share in this highly saturated marketplace.”
Results of the upcoming Jewish population study sponsored by Federation should reveal information about the future cohort of children. If the cohort is shrinking, it could mean fewer Jewish children for both camp programs.
Siegel already plans to tap into some Tamarack families through the partnership. He said about one-third of Tamarack campers are non-affiliated and that the synergies from the partnership could help increase awareness of JCC Day Camps to this group of families who might not have considered the JCC in the past.
Heather Rosenberg is looking forward to seeing what the partnership brings to her daughter’s JCC camp experience.
“I never went to Tamarack as a kid, but my husband did,” she said. “The Tamarack program is an incredible one and can only benefit the JCC, the campers and the staff.
“That connection will create a smooth transition from day camp to the overnight camp world. And to have the input from both staffs is a great way to collaborate and to improve their perspective programs.
“I don’t see any down side. I think it can only benefit both camps.”