It may not be the only panacea for the Jewish community, but Jewish summer camping is where it’s at! (see my sermon “Looking to the Summer to Find Our Priorities“)
Here is a great article written by JTS Rabbinical Student Dan Ain about Camp Ramah and Jewish summer camping:
Summertime And The Learning Is Easy
Jewish camps a major ingredient in nourishing Yiddishkeit.
Dan Ain – Special To The Jewish Week
Jewish camping may improve a swimming stroke or a softball swing, but it also helps mold Jewish identity.
Illustrating the latter point are various surveys conducted by Jewish foundations like the Avi Chai, as well as the publication of the book “How Goodly are Thy Tents” by Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe.
And it’s been credited with helping to spur a dramatic increase in philanthropic donations earmarked for Jewish camping.
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national Ramah director, said he has “definitely seen an increase in charitable giving over the last decade, over the last few years in particular. I think a lot of it has to do with more and more community exposure to the concept of camping.
“When I speak to businesspeople, they want bang for their buck, they want to see measurable results. Study after study is showing … that intensive Jewish camping, next to long-term programs in Israel, is probably the most significant predictor of strong Jewish identity.”
Rabbi Cohen added that Ramah in the past decade has received its first seven-figure gifts.
“The message is getting out,” he said. “If you look at the Conservative rabbinate, and philanthropists are going to have close ties with rabbis, … such a high percentage of Conservative rabbis and other senior educators and lay leaders have Ramah experience.”
Jerry Silverman, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, agrees. His foundation was started in 1998 from seed money provided by Robert and Elisa Bildner after they looked “back on their own experiences and realized how important … and impactful Jewish camping was.”
Silverman said Jewish camping began with the concept of fresh air and getting the kids out of the city.
“As it evolved,” he said, “the whole opportunity of infusing Jewish education and Israel … was going on from a sense of isolated camps taking a leadership or innovative position in evolving their programs.”
The foundation, according to Silverman, was established to serve as an “umbrella entity that could provide resources and excellence from a sense of bringing all the camps together and convening to evolve camping into a movement.”
This was “an amazing investment by them, to look at the whole playing field and do something that was so overlooked,” he said.
“The quantifiable data that has come out so powerfully in the last 10 years talk about how 65 percent of Jewish professionals came out of Jewish camping,” Silverman said. “When you look at people who went to Jewish camps versus those who didn’t, the data is amazing and startling that supports that camping is one of the key experiences that we have to give our children.”
After spending 25 years in the corporate world, including a stint as the president of Stride Rite and Keds, Silverman decided to become involved in camping after driving his 9-year-old daughter home from Ramah.
“I’ve never seen such a glow before in my child,” he said, “and the whole way home, her comments were — ‘I only went four weeks, next year I can go eight weeks.’ ”
Camping, he said, “has that ‘wow effect’ and creates this compelling community that stays with you for a lifetime.” Silverman said he regularly talks to people in their 40s and 50s who are still in contact with their bunkmates.
However, according to the study “Limud by the Lake,” conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation in 2002, “more could be done to extend the attractiveness and feasibility of a summer at a Jewish camp.”
The study said that unlike Jewish day schools and Israel trips, which have been heavily subsidized, “Jewish camps spend only a small fraction of their budgets on scholarships and support a limited number of campers.”
One foundation attempting to address Avi Chai’s call for increased scholarship money is the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, a philanthropy group based in western Massachusetts.
According to Program Director Israela Levine Kahan, the Grinspoon Foundation established a “campership incentive program” in 1995 to provide non-need-based subsidy grants “to get rid of any cost barriers and encourage [kids] to go to Jewish overnight camp.”
In its first year, the program funded 46 campers, giving $775 to first-time campers and $385 to returning campers. Last summer it funded 134 campers, giving $900 to first-time campers and $500 to returning ones.
Kahan said the foundation recently conducted a “survey and found out that one of the main reasons that people aren’t sending their kids to camp is because of monetary reasons.”
“From 2003 to 2004, camping prices have gone up approx 5 to 11 percent,” said Kahan, noting that a four-week session to the most of the popular camps costs from $2,500 to $3,625.
As a result of these studies, Kahan said, Grinspoon will put more money into its campaign program for 2005 and developed a new formula to make first-time campers eligible for 50 percent of the cost up to $1,500 and 50 percent for returning campers up to $1,000.
Kahan said the scholarships are important because “the experience that you have in camp is unlike any other experience you have. You are totally immersed in Jewish life, and the impact that you have can be greater than any other Jewish experience.”
Citing the book by Sales and Saxe, she said “the environment of camp is really intense … it really helps shape a child. You know how you come back feeling that much more grown up? The same is true in terms of your development as a Jew.”
“If price is the deterrent,” Kahan said, “then Harold Grinspoon wants to take that deterrent away.”
Rabbi Cohen also suggested a “snowball effect” with the increased giving.
“Thirty years ago, if you would’ve asked someone to give a 500,000 or a million-dollar gift to camping, they [would have looked] at camping as a whistle and a clipboard in the summertime with a kickball and said ‘what do you need my money for?’ ” he said.
However, he said that “when some people start to put their stamp of approval onto camping as a major source for philanthropic dollars in the Jewish community, the most effective source, I think other people look at that and say they want to stay with a winning horse.”
Another approach to raising money, according to Silverman, is to invite donors to camp and have them talk to the staff, some of whom are former campers now in leadership roles. They’ll see that it is the “best insurance policy that you can buy.”
An “insurance policy for continuity, for their spirit, and their celebration for being Jewish.”