2021 Covenant Award Recipient

Helene Drobenare-Horwitz

2021 Covenant Award Recipient

Helene Drobenare-Horwitz

Executive Director of Young Judaea Sprout Camps
New York, NY

Helene Drobenare-Horwitz is the Executive Director of Young Judaea Sprout Camps in New York, NY.

Camp Young Judaea (CYJ) Sprout Lake, where Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz has worked since 1999, enrolls approximately 400 campers per summer and explores the values of social activism, pluralism, inclusion, and contemporary Zionist education through joyful Jewish experiences.

During her tenure as Director at Sprout Lake, Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz has strived to renew and revitalize camp culture by inspiring campers and staff members toward acts of chesed and tikkun olam. In 2005, Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz implemented Caravan for Katrina, an initiative that connected 300 Young Judaea youths from the northeast with survivors of Hurricane Katrina to establish a longitudinal support network. The program culminated with Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz and several staff members driving trucks to New Orleans stocked with much needed supplies. In 2006, Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz created the MADIMOW (Making A Difference In My Own Way) program, which has since become integral to the Sprout Lake experience and has formalized the social action initiatives of programs like Caravan for Katrina.

At Sprout Lake, Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz has also focused on creating a culture that accepts and celebrates all Jewish children. She hires and trains staff members to be active participants in fostering a genuinely inclusive camp space while also focusing on the mental health and well-being of the staff members themselves. In 2019, Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz piloted a health and wellness program for staff members which led to a 2020 Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) initiative called Yedid Nefesh. In this program, mental health professionals were hired to support staff cohorts and to create a safe space for members to listen, share, and address the emotional and mental health needs of Sprout Lake staff members.

Simultaneous to her work at Sprout Lake, Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz has spearheaded a new day camping paradigm for the Young Judaea organization. In 2015, she opened Sprout Brooklyn, a pluralistic experiential Hebrew language day camp for pre-K through 6th grade. In 2016, she opened Sprout Westchester, on the site of a former JCC day camp. In the process, Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz created a new hub for Jewish life in Northern Westchester. In addition to summer programming, both camps offer year-round Jewish programming for children and their families, focusing on pluralism and tikkun olam.

Ms. Drobenare-Horwitz serves as an informal mentor to dozens of Jewish camp professionals. In 2019, she founded Think Camp, a think tank that serves as a community of practice for senior-level camp directors that convenes bi-weekly for professional development sessions.

From Her Letters of Nomination and Support

“Helene is an exceptional visionary, a social entrepreneur and a gifted educator. For the past three decades, she has devoted herself to ensuring the most impactful experiences possible for fostering a love of Israel, a commitment to Judaism, and a world of Jewish camping that is accessible, meaningful and provides a springboard for an everlasting connection to the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky
Congregation Beth Sholom Teaneck, NJ

Dori Frumin Kirshner
Executive Director, Matan, New York, NY

“Helene was a pioneer in making inclusion and accessibility a standard for Jewish camps, broadening the circle of those impacted by her program. For Helene, social action and volunteerism are not loose strands in an amorphous attempt to cast a wider concern for universal values in a Jewish context, but rather integral components of a comprehensive commitment to Jewish values and identity.”

Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

“It is the passion for Jewish camping and the willingness to meet every challenge that arises that makes Helene an outstanding Jewish educator. From the moment the Sprout day camps were launched, Helene approached their management and sustainability with as much devotion and dedication as she has always displayed to the YJ camps. Doing “big camp” was just no longer enough; not with the potential to bring the love and experience of Jewish day camp to so many new families.”

Hana Gruenberg
Managing Director, UJA Federation of New York

Q&A with Helene

Helene Drobenare-Horwitz wears a few hats, including Jewish educator, social worker, and change maker. As Executive Director of the Young Judaea Sprout Camps — comprising Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake in Dutchess County, NY, and Sprout Brooklyn and Sprout Westchester day camps — she brings a multi-dimensional vision to these camps, and also more broadly to the Jewish camping movement and beyond. Her impact is both programmatic and cultural, as she elevates initiatives and conversations advancing inclusion, pluralism, social justice, and emotional health at camp and in other communal spaces. In addition, Helene is leading Jewish camping professionals across the denominational spectrum toward the generation of ideas and excellence through Think Camp, a community of practice for senior-level camp directors.

Jewish summer camp appealed to you as a place to make impact. Why?

Basically, someone was going to hand me hundreds of Jewish children and my whole job would be to inspire them. I’d have a blank canvas and everything would be in motion — what, how, and why we were doing things. When I took the job 22 years ago, no one was talking about mental health and family engagement and sustainability and growth. We were just talking about a two-month summer program. The possibilities to build and create were tremendously exciting to me.

How was your own Jewish summer camp experience as a child or teen?

I went to a Jewish overnight camp in New York State at age 8 or 9 and lasted a few days at most. Was I too young? Was the environment too unrecognizable to me? I don’t know, but I didn’t connect, and there wasn’t that one person who realized I might have needed a hand.

Does that experience inform you now as a camp director?

Yes, very much. Camp needs to be structured like Abraham’s tent, so that wherever you are coming from in the Jewish world — whether you speak Hebrew or not, have been to Israel or not, have previously been to camp or not, have challenges or not — you can enter the tent, feel welcomed and embraced, and thrive. There can be no outsiders. I spend a lot of time thinking about intentionality and creating that environment, that tent.

So many adults describe their years at Jewish summer camp as seminal to their identities and worldviews. Why do you think that is?

When I took this job, I had no idea of the enormity of what could happen in a summer. The strong sense of community, and cohesion that intentionally and unintentionally forms, shapes how we grow to view the world and how we want the world to be. By that, I mean solving conflicts, embracing people of all diversity, acting with kindness and compassion, giving back, etc. We talk about this concept a lot.

There are countless points and exposures in everyone’s life that can shift where they end up. So as Jewish educators, we have to make every moment valuable.

Can you describe some of your favorite moments of summer camp joy?

I absolutely love Oneg Shabbat and Kabbalat Shabbat, when I look out and see hundreds of kids all dressed in white and it sounds like a Jewish rock concert. It takes my soul somewhere else. That is my regeneration each week at camp. I also love to sit in on educational team meetings and watch for hours as staff hashes out topics, impact, appropriateness, and intentionality. It’s incredible to watch them struggle because they care so much. That’s joy too.

You planted a social action consciousness into camp, to great effect. Reflect on that.

As a teenager in Brooklyn, I became involved in BBYO. A leader there, a woman in her 20s, had just returned from the Former Soviet Union and was talking about refuseniks and the Soviet Jewry movement, and I realized the world was bigger than my life in Brooklyn. It set a fire in me and was a turning point. I’ve always taught from that point of view and through the lens of making a difference and living our lives in a certain way.

How does that play out at camp?

You can’t have a camp that is all about getting without giving. It’s not the Jewish way of living. It needs to be woven into the fabric of camp so the kids have a new lens upon the world and their responsibilities within it. This is how our MADIMOW (Making a Difference in My Own Way) program came about, with kids learning about social issues within formal educational frameworks and then going out to make a difference. Giving back and gratitude is the salt of our camps.

You prioritize emotional and mental wellness among campers and staff members, mirroring broader societal awareness. What’s your philosophy about this?

During parental orientation, I make the point that every kid arrives in this world already broken, and I encourage parents to be honest about who their child is. Once we embrace that, there’s no stigma.

Kids come in all sizes, shapes, and forms. Some come with learning challenges, some with mental health challenges, some with physical challenges. And staff members are just grown-up kids with some of the same challenges. We need the knowledge, expertise, compassion, and resources to embrace everyone. Not doing so is not an option.

You recently took a family trip to Alaska. What inspired you there?

Alaska is in some ways like camp. At camp, I see wonder everywhere, whether it is laughter or the beauty of something created by one of our kids. In Alaska, too, there is wonder everywhere you look. It all made me realize and remember how much more of it we can create together.

Interview conducted and edited by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation