By Julie Wiener
NEW YORK (JTA) — Nostalgia about summer traditions notwithstanding, Jewish camps have changed dramatically from a generation ago.
Camp’s value for Jewish education and identity-building is now a major focus of communal attention. Major Jewish foundations, federations and organizations are investing heavily in the sector.
Many camps have become more intentional about incorporating Jewish learning, Shabbat and Israel into their programming. They’ve also evolved to meet families’ changing expectations and demands: offering a wider range of choices of all kinds (from food, to activity, to session length); providing more frequent updates and communications to parents; accommodating numerous medical requirements and allergies; and placing greater emphasis on safety and security.
At the same time, the Jewish camping field is becoming more professionalized. The job of camp director has been shifting from a seasonal gig to year-round career, and counselors are receiving more intensive training.
With all this change in the Jewish camp world, here are 10 specific trends we have noticed:
1. Shorter sessions
Once upon a time, summer camp meant the entire summer, with the majority of campers attending for seven, eight or even 10 weeks. Now it is the rare child or teen who spends the full summer at camp (or at one camp), and most programs offer multiple sessions, ranging in length from just six days to seven weeks. “Our three-week session has always sold out more quickly than the four-week, and our new two-week session has been a quick hit as well,” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y.
2. Specialized programs
Whether a child’s passion is sports, the environment, outdoor adventure or science and technology, there’s a Jewish camp for that. An incubator under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp spurred the creation of five specialty camps in 2010 (including Eden Village, which is focused on the environment) and another four that will open this summer. The idea is to attract kids who might not otherwise consider a Jewish camp and to show them they can combine their passion with Judaism. Increasingly, established general-interest Jewish camps are adding specialty tracks and electives. For example, the New Jersey Y camps offer a science program and various sports programs, while Ramah in the Poconos has run basketball clinics and a tennis academy.
3. Healthier food
Serving healthy, locally sourced food is a part of the mission of some specialty camps like the new health-and-wellness-focused Camp Zeke and was a component of Ramah Outdoor Adventure from its beginnings in 2010. In addition, many established Jewish camps have been redoing their menus to make them more nutritious and environmentally friendly: adding salad bars, replacing “bug juice” with water, offering more vegetarian fare and even planting their own organic vegetable gardens.
4. More affordable options
The Foundation for Jewish Camp recently introduced a new program called BunkConnect that enables first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families to search for a variety of discounted Jewish summer camp options. While BunkConnect is currently only available in the Northeast, New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, the foundation hopes to expand it in future years. In addition, most Jewish overnight camps offer financial aid. The One Happy Camper Program, initiated in 2006, offers grants for all first-time campers regardless of need. So far 50,000 children have received One Happy Camper grants.
5. Broadening definition of camp
While rural settings and rustic accommodations are still the norm, two specialty camps — the Union for Reform Judaism’s Six Points Sports Academy and Six Points Science & Technology — are located on boarding school campuses, and another, the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC, is in the middle of Manhattan. Passport NYC, in which participants choose among tracks in culinary arts, film, fashion, musical theater and music industry, and live in air-conditioned dorms, and Six Points Science blur the boundary between “camp” and “summer program,” while programs like USY on Wheels and Adamah Adventures, which operate under the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s umbrella, blur the boundary between “camp” and “teen travel.”
6. Day camps brought into the tent
While the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah has long operated both day and overnight camps, Jewish day camps generally haven’t interacted much with overnight camps, nor have they received the same level of attention from Jewish communal leaders or philanthropists as their sleep-away counterparts. That is changing as this year, for the first time, leaders of Jewish day camps are being included in the bi-annual Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The foundation is finalizing plans with UJA-Federation of New York to establish an incubator developing six specialty day camps in the region. In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism is opening its first day camp this summer. Meanwhile, the philanthropic group Areivim is funding Hebrew-immersion day camps throughout the United States.
7. Inclusion of children with disabilities
An estimated 13 percent of children have some sort of disability, but only 2 percent of Jewish campers do, according to research conducted last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Jewish camping world is looking to make the camping experience accessible to more children with disabilities, including them at regular camps wherever possible, rather than segregating them at separate facilities. The foundation is currently working to raise $31 million for a multipronged effort to serve more such children by offering relevant staff training, revamping physical facilities to make them accessible, and creating vocational education and life-skills training programs at multiple camps.
8. Year-round programming
Growing numbers of camps are offering educational programming during the school year through partnerships with institutions like synagogues and day schools. Such partnerships often involve sharing staff members, under the auspices of new programs like Ramah Service Corps and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Nadiv initiative. In addition, camps within easy commuting distance of major metropolitan areas and ones in temperate regions or with winterized facilities are increasingly hosting a range of family/community programs in the off seasons: Eden Village, just 50 miles north of Manhattan, runs a home-school program and weekend family/community programs throughout the year, while nearby Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, N.Y. even runs High Holiday services and Passover seders. Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia runs a weeklong Passover retreat.
9. Family camp
Family camps have been around for decades, but now virtually every Jewish overnight camp offers at least one family-camp session, usually a three-day weekend, each year. A number of camps “got into the business just trying to use the facility more, but it wound up being a great recruiting tool,” said Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman. Several camps also host sessions specifically for families of children with disabilities. While traditionally marketed to camp-age kids and their parents, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national director of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah network, said several Ramah camps are considering adding sessions for Ramah alumni with younger children. “It’s a relatively inexpensive family vacation,” he noted.
10. Pew-fueled camp enthusiasm
In response to last year’s much-discussed Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, a wide range of Jewish communal leaders have offered their prescriptions for engaging more youth. While these leaders may differ on many issues, almost all have cited Jewish summer camp as something that “works” and is a worthy investment. Jewish camps are already popular with funders, but all the pro-camp buzz will likely generate even more dollars for the field.
Jewish camps welcoming more children with disabilities
By Julie Wiener
NEW YORK (JTA) — In the late 1960s, when husband-and-wife team Barbara and Herb Greenberg first decided to create a Jewish overnight summer camp program for developmentally disabled children, it was hard to find a camp willing to host it.
Camp directors thought such a program would make other campers and staff uncomfortable, and that parents of non-disabled children would see the presence of disabled children as a potential danger.
But in 1970, the director of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah of New England agreed to try it, and the Tikvah program was born. Now Tikvah serves 250 children in nine Ramah camps throughout North America and offers family-camp and vocational-training programs.
While Ramah was a pioneer in the field of inclusion — serving disabled children at regular camps rather than segregating them at separate facilities — today more than 50 Jewish overnight camps, including all Ramah and Union for Reform Judaism camps, accommodate some children with disabilities, mostly serving kids with cognitive impairments and autism.
A Foundation for Jewish Camp study last year found that approximately 2,500 children with disabilities attend Jewish overnight camps.
The foundation recently hired a full-time professional, Lisa Tobin, to focus on special needs and is hoping to increase significantly the numbers of children with disabilities served over the next decade. While the 2013 survey found more campers with disabilities attending camp than the foundation had anticipated, the disabled population — an estimated 15 percent of children — is still considerably underrepresented among the 75,000 North American children attending Jewish overnight camp each summer.
The study also found that 93 percent of parents of special-needs campers were satisfied or extremely satisfied with their child’s Jewish camp experience, but that most camps do a poor job of marketing and publicizing their programs for children with disabilities.
“Even if you say that a nice proportion of the camps are offering opportunities for kids with disabilities, it’s a handful of kids each session,” said Abby Knopp, vice president of program and strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “People’s hearts are in the right places, but we’re not doing enough as a field. We know from parents that there are not enough opportunities.”
The foundation is working to raise $31 million to implement a multipronged initiative focusing on staffing and training; making more facilities physically accessible and supporting the development of more camp-based vocational education and life-skills training programs for young adults with disabilities, such as one offered at several Ramah camps.
Knopp said the foundation would like to double the number of children with disabilities attending Jewish camps over the next five years and ultimately have children with disabilities make up 10 percent of the total campers.
To reach that goal, the foundation plans to provide grants enabling more camps to hire senior professionals with expertise in special needs, while also helping them train their entire staffs in best practices in working with children with disabilities.
“Some models are, you have one expert at the camp who deals with all issues related to disabilities, and that’s not a good situation,” Knopp said. “The whole staff needs to be well trained.”
The foundation also wants to provide funding for accessibility-related capital improvements and equipment at 15 camps and to create 10 new camp-based vocational training/life-skills programs.
“What we’re hearing from camps and families is that children are aging out of the programs that do exist, and the big question on the minds of a lot of camps is what to do now for them,” Knopp said. “Other teens are moving on to leadership training and Israel trips, and there are no opportunities for their peers with disabilities.”
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, whose Tikvah program has vocational training programs at several camps, said participants perform a variety of camp jobs depending on their abilities, ranging from setting tables in the dining hall to helping in the office to assisting in baby-sitting programs for the children of camp staff.
At the Ramah camps in California and Wisconsin, participants are placed in jobs in nearby towns, giving them training and experience that will help them find year-round jobs.
“It’s extraordinary to watch them interact with their employers,” Cohen said. “They’re thrilled to do jobs other people see as drudge work but that make them feel productive.”
When asked about the Foundation for Jewish Camp initiative, Cohen said, “It’s fantastic that the foundation has dived into this area.”
For many children with disabilities, camp is one of the few places where they are able to receive a Jewish education and feel part of the Jewish community, he said.
Tikvah parents, he said, frequently tell him, “I sent my child to your camp so they’d have fun and make friends. I didn’t realize you’d be nurturing his soul and sending him back as a committed Jew.”
But the children with disabilities and their families are not the only beneficiaries of inclusion programs, he said.
“It has a sensitizing effect on people and makes an important statement about the community you serve,” Cohen said, noting that tutoring a Tikvah girl for her bat mitzvah inspired his daughter to pursue a career in special education.
“Once you’ve run a program like this, you realize you don’t have an alternative,” he said. “You must. It’s just a responsibility.”
ADVERTISEMENT: Visit OneHappyCamper.org to find a Jewish camp and see if your child qualifies for a $1,000 grant.
New Reform camp combining science and Judaism
By Julie Wiener
NEW YORK (JTA) — At most Union for Reform Judaism overnight camps and youth programs, girls account for at least half, if not more, of the campers.
Outside the Orthodox community, Jewish institutions often struggle to attract and retain boys.
But finding boys is not a problem for URJ’s Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, one of four new Jewish specialty camps opening this summer. (The others are a business and entrepreneurial camp, a nutrition and fitness camp, and a sports camp.) The biggest challenge facing the camp in Byfield, Mass., is recruiting girls: Of the 70 campers registered so far, fewer than 20 are female.
“One of the things I’ve been shouting from the rooftops is that this is a program for girls, too,” said Greg Kellner, Sci-Tech’s director.
At Sci-Tech, located on the campus of the Governor’s Academy boarding school, participants choose from four tracks: robotics and engineering, video game design, environmental science and digital media production. The camp is open to children entering fifth through ninth grades.
It is believed to be the first Jewish summer camp focusing on science, so children “don’t have to choose between science and a Jewish program,” Kellner said.
“My passion lies in making sure that when the children are at camp that they can learn that science and Judaism are not exclusive of one another,” he said. “You hear a lot of people say, ‘I’m a scientist, so I don’t believe in God.’ But you can have both. Judaism can inform our decisions as discoverers and explorers. We can use robotics in a discussion about repairing the world because robotics is being used a lot in medicine and in creating prostheses.”
Despite the science focus and the academic setting — the children live in dorms rather than cabins — Kellner says Sci-Tech is more camp than summer school.
“When the children get up in the morning, they’re going to have morning singing,” he said. “There will be traditions in the dining hall, athletic programs, evening programs, campfires, special days and trips. It will have a camp feel, and certainly we’ll celebrate Shabbat with dinner, song and dancing.
Kellner, who served as assistant director of URJ Camp Eisner and senior assistant director of URJ Crane Lake Camp, both in Massachusetts, emphasizes that Sci-Tech is not just for science whizzes and that beginners are welcome.
“We want to encourage children to explore,” he said.
ADVERTISEMENT: Visit OneHappyCamper.org to find a Jewish camp and see if your child qualifies for a $1,000 grant.