Social and Emotional Learning and Camp: A Perfect Fit

Leaving her career in television for soul-filling work in the field of Jewish camp, Jill Goldstein Smith embarked on graduate work in Jewish education and discovered how social and emotional learning could help nurture stronger, more resilient learners and communities. The relationship-based approaches she experienced growing up and which she later explored academically at the William Davidson School have helped her deliver new, proactive initiatives that benefit staff and campers alike.

“Seven years ago, I was not a Jewish professional or student; two years ago, I was not a parent,” said William Davidson School MA candidate Jill Goldstein Smith, who also serves as senior program manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). “We bring new identities to our lives and work as we evolve over time.” A core principle of social and emotional learning, self-awareness, runs like a theme in the way Smith sees her own career and individual growth—and in the way she incorporates these strategies into her professional role.

Just a few years into her dream job in television production, Smith, a native of South Florida, realized that she had reached her goals “faster than anticipated,” she said. As an undergraduate she had studied journalism and Jewish history at NYU, leading to a job at NY1 News. She moonlighted as a teen youth advisor at a Reform synagogue, building on her own love of her youth group and summer camp experiences. (She attended URJ’s Camp Coleman and Kutz Camp).

Wondering about her next professional challenge, Smith realized that “everything I learned about being a supervisor I learned at Jewish camp.” She found herself looking for more meaning in her work and left TV for FJC in 2015.

“FJC provides lots of support for professional development, and as I considered the areas where I felt I needed to grow, I sought out opportunities in Jewish education that would broaden my network, provide the credentials I had not yet achieved, and allow for the interpersonal exchange of ideas.” She knew she wanted online learning so she could continue working at FJC, and she liked the idea that the William Davidson School MA program was based in New York to allow for meeting classmates and faculty in person at times.

Smith said that she was attracted particularly to the fact that William Davidson School students are cross- denominational. As co-president of NYU Hillel in college, Smith knew the value of multidenominational environments. “I find it helpful to learn in settings where people come from multiple perspectives,” said Smith.

Enrolling in 2016 in the Educational Leadership Track, Smith has found her classes and professors accessible and relevant to her day-to-day work. “The camp setting maps seamlessly on many of the strategies of social and emotional learning,” said Smith. “When I studied the practices of Responsive Classroom techniques, for example, I immediately connected morning circle to the flagpole ritual that takes place each day at many camps.”

In 2017 FJC piloted the Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum with several camps with support from Neshamot Women’s Impact Philanthropy at UJA-New York. Smith, who had no formal background in mental health, made a connection to her William Davidson School class with Jeff Kress on social and emotional learning, one of her favorite classes. Character development, one aspect of social and emotional learning, had already been an area of focus for FJC, where Smith’s colleague Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow created an interactive Making Mensches Periodic Table and related resources.

“Mental health started getting more attention in the field of Jewish camp, and I spoke up about how important I felt it was,” said Smith. “We need to be proactive about providing for staff and campers’ emotional and social well-being just as much as we are reactive to times of crisis.” Smith and her colleagues learned that the existing Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum needed to be adapted for the camp setting, and in 2019 they opened a New York area community of practice for camp mental health professionals.

With generous support from The Marcus Foundation, FJC then launched the Yedid Nefesh initiative with Smith’s leadership, which provides financial and programmatic support for camps to address mental, emotional, social and spiritual health (MESSH) in holistic ways – supporting camps’ hiring of qualified mental health professionals to serve on their staff, enhancing counselor training, integrating wellness programming into activity areas, and developing other ways to create cultural change within their camp communities year-round. “Yedid Nefesh adds the spiritual component to what we know about mental health and social and emotional learning,” said Smith. “At camp, we are aware of the extra opportunity to build resilience through spirituality.”

The overarching goal of mental health and all the MESSH strategies is to acknowledge and make accessible opportunities which will ultimately lead to stronger, resilient, thriving communities, said Smith. “We know that camp isn’t therapy, but it can be a safe space for kids to explore who they want to become.” In the first year, pre-pandemic, over 90 camps applied for 30 spots in Yedid Nefesh, and in January 2022 a second cohort of 30 camps will be announced.

Smith knew from a young age that educational leaders convey a lot more than content. At 13, Smith lost her mother, an educator and elementary school speech pathologist, to cancer. “Many of the teachers from my middle school knew her, even though we were in a large school district, and rallied to support me. The educators at my synagogue, especially our Youth Director, really stepped in to support me and my dad,” said Smith.

“This time in my life is one I think of often when I think about teaching character development, Jewish community, and hidden curriculum. My friends during this time period were also learning, following the cues of the adults around them, showing up to pay shiva visits, and engaging me in meaningful activities beyond the house.”

Smith’s identity as an educator comes in no small part from her mother. “Just like a lot of kids, I wanted to be like her when I grew up – helping people and especially kids. While I also wanted to be a Rockette, Broadway singer, lawyer, and other professions, being an educator was the one that stuck,” she said. “I love helping people show up and be seen as they want, to model that for camp staff who can model that for their campers.”

Through her work at FJC, she promotes a relationship-based model of educational impact. “We take for granted the value of Jewish community and relationships. Jewish education needs to move from ‘community over content’ to ‘content is community,’” she said.

Read more about how summer camp informed Smith’s career.