Playing “Ga-Ga ball” is a camp tradition that Josh Shenker, the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s director of child, youth and camping services, looked forward to every year he returned to summer camp at the JCC in Houston.
The game starts with a ball thrown into the “pit,” a ringed octagonal area where the campers hit the ball with their hands, attempting to eliminate other players by hitting them below the knees. The last one standing is the winner.
Shenker smiles and his blue eyes open wide with excitement as he explains the game’s intensity.
His father had always worked at JCCs, so he began going to summer camps when he was fairly young.
From preschool onward, Shenker participated in JCC camps. He spoke mostly about his experience at the JCC in Houston.
“In Houston the bulk of my friends, I met at camp or we went to camp together,” he says.
Shenker stayed at the Houston JCC camp until ninth grade, then he transitioned into being a counselor-in-training at the JCC in Richmond, Virginia.
“I worked at camp every summer because I loved it,” he continues. “Throughout the course of a summer, everyone can come together in a close-knit group and it’s very insular, it feels like you’re almost in your own little bubble.”
He describes his experience with the campers and staff in overwhelmingly positive tones, but Shenker didn’t think he would make camp his career.
He began college with the goal of getting a “real job” in the field of exercise science. Yet, Shenker made a life-changing decision during his freshman year.
“Once I had a reevaluation of what my priorities were and what my passion was, I realized that camp was it for me,” he says.
He set a goal of becoming a director for the JCC camp in Richmond, and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Judaic studies and nonprofit management. He held the camp director position in Richmond for four years before moving to Tucson.
As Shenker leans back in his office chair, he reveals a tattoo on his right forearm: a black outline of a campfire.
Shenker explains that camp helped him throughout his life and provided him with the skills to succeed professionally.
“I think summer camps are uniquely positioned to offer opportunities for kids to grow and learn about themselves, about each other, about the world,” he says.
Shenker is a strong proponent of summer camps for the development of children. He says that camps give children the ability to strengthen skills such as communication, resilience, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.
“I think that at camp, because there is a less structured environment, they learn way more social skills than they do at a structured school environment,” he says.
Shenker is constantly working toward making Camp J an all-inclusive experience, incorporating new trends with traditional camp values.
“As soon as the first day that camp starts, that’s when the planning begins for the following summer,” he says.
From the first day he’s looking to see what needs to be improved, but Shenker is excited for this summer and how it will pan out with a new type of camping experience.
“I am really excited to see how our specialty choice program plays out, this is the first year we are doing it,” he said.
Campers will have different specialties to choose from each week such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities, martial arts, cheerleading, improv, and higher-level cooking classes.
Shenker is keen to give campers the ability to make their own experience, allowing them the freedom to choose what they want to do each week.
“We provide all those things in a safe and open environment. We’re open to all and everyone,” he says.
For more information about Camp J, visit www.tucsonjcc.org or call 299-3000.