By Natalie Jacobs
Although Camp Mountain Chai has been operating in San Diego and the mountains of the San Bernardino Forest since 2004, the camp is still considered one of the newest in the country, with some of its more established neighbors boasting tenures 50 years or more. The camp, now transitioning from infancy to adolescence, has brought on a new executive director to support this development.
“We’re calling this Camp Mountain Chai 2.0,” says Zim Zimmerman, the camp’s leader since mid-March. “It took the first seven or eight years to get established in the community and find our base, develop a staffing structure for the camp, and now we’re trying to move the entire organization forward.”
Zimmerman comes to Camp Mountain Chai from Colorado, where he was director of Shwayder Camp, owned and operated by the Denver Reform synagogue Temple Emanuel. Though he attended both Ramah and Shwayder camps as a child, he didn’t go directly into camp administration – he came back to camp and work with Jewish youth after running a highly successful computer networking company in the Denver area.
“I kind of missed having the people factor in my work,” Zimmerman says of his decision to enter the world of Jewish camp. I had been doing the computer networking for about six years. I was very successful at it but it was paying the wallet, not paying the heart, not doing anything for the soul.”
While working with computers, Zimmerman continued volunteering with youth, particularly the URJ’s North American Federation of Temple Youth, so when he realized he wasn’t feeling satisfied, he weighed his feelings in both directions. When the scales tipped pretty heavily toward the youth work, he called up Temple Emanuel, got the job at Shwayder and switched his life around.
After 11 years with Shwayder, he’s uprooted his life again, but this time only geographically. He has spent the past few months at Camp Mountain Chai getting familiar with the San Diego Jewish community and restructuring some of the ways the camp operates. This year, registration for summer sessions opened in October as opposed to December, and they’re working to make sure the community knows that the campgrounds are available as a retreat center when not being used in the summer for camp.
“The Jewish community here [as opposed to others that I have been a part of] actually seems to function with many more partnerships,” he says. “I think partnerships here are absolutely the key to success. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been welcomed so warmly by so many other executives who have reached out to me and sat down with me and helped me learn about the community. It’s just an incredibly welcoming place. People are very cooperative in their approach to Judaism and they celebrate our differences rather than letting them get between us.”
To learn more about Camp Mountain Chai, visit campmountainchai.com.