Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.
Jewish camps in New England are examining their hiring procedures following a recent incident at Camp Young Judaea. Although most camps operate background checks on all employees, at least one director stressed the importance of tightening up their hiring processes.
Last week, an employee of Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, N.H., appeared in district court on charges concerning pictures that he allegedly created by digitally altering nude photographs. The employee will appear before a grand jury in superior court later this month.
Most Jewish educational overnight camps in New England are members of the American Camping Association, which enforces standards on staff hiring as part of its accreditation program. “From our perspective, there’s a several-step process,” said Cathy Scheder, the manager of learning resources for ACA, in an interview with the Advocate. “A written application, a reference check and verification of previous work history, a criminal background check or voluntary disclosure statement, and a personal interview with the camp director.”
While ACA standards are set by a national commission, there is no federal regulation governing the staff members at camps. Access to a background check, what information a check might uncover and whether a background check is required varies by state. Since 2002, Massachusetts state law has required a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) check for all professionals who work at agencies that commonly have access to children.
One element that’s missing from both the ACA standards and the state laws is direction for proceeding once the background check has been completed. “We ask for an explanation the best we can,” said Pearl Lourie, executive director of the Eli and Bessie Cohen Camps Foundation, an organization operating three camps in New England. “It’s on an individual basis, and the way the background checks come, especially in Massachusetts with the CORIs, it’s very specific. You just need a lawyer to help you with the abbreviations.”
Lourie noted that minor infractions such as speeding tickets can show up on the check, but even these can open a conversation with a potential staff member. “If there’s something excessive and we’d question whether they’d use good judgment, we’d have more dialogue with them. If it’s something black and white that comes out, then it’s a closed case for us.”
Louis Bordman, the senior director of the Union for Reform Judaism Northeast Camps, oversees both URJ Crane Lake Camp and URJ Joseph Eisner Camp. “I’ve not had very many red flags [on CORI checks], which has been good,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I think Massachusetts was very smart. The people you’re hoping to weed out aren’t going to apply to Massachusetts camps, because they know that this stuff is going to come up on the record.”
In fact, URJ was so impressed with the Massachusetts system that they’ve adopted it for all 12 of their North American camps. “If everyone that’s interviewed is told they’re going to go through an arduous background check,” Bordman said, “I believe that causes the people we’re most concerned with not to apply.”
Jerry Silverman, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, also praised New England camps. “Because the New England Jewish camps have such amazing programs and leaders, the number of staff that they hire who are alumni of the camping program is significant,” he said.
While staff retention is significant, it doesn’t solve problems. Scheder said: “We don’t stipulate how often [the camps] have to check, but we do recommend to the camps that they have a protocol in place for those checks.” She noted that year-round employees may not require repeated checking the way seasonal staff does because they are in constant contact with the camps.
URJ Camps take re-screening one step further. “We have them go through a re-interview process, so everyone needs three written references, everyone writes an essay about why they want to work at a camp with some specific questions to answer,” Bordman said. “Then we go through an interview process with them and we verify again with their references by phone.”