by Eileen Price
Spring is here. Summer is around the corner. And I’m busy prepping for another fantastic season at In the City Camp, the intown Atlanta Jewish day camp I started three years ago. I’m hiring enthusiastic Jewish counselors, ironing out the details of the summer’s Jewish theme, and working with activity specialists to weave Judaism into art projects and cooking sessions.
While clicking around a Jewish culture website the other day, I came across yet another article about the strong impact Jewish overnight camp has on forming positive Jewish identities. If you aren’t familiar with the finding, in short, research has shown for years that Jewish overnight camps provide one of the most effective ways to connect kids with Judaism in a way that is positive and lasting.
It’s really an incredible thing Jewish overnight camps do. Even kids who have little or no exposure to Judaism throughout the year leave overnight camp with a sense of pride for and connection to a community that just weeks earlier was not a significant part of their lives. The long-term impact is even more impressive. As adults, Jewish overnight campers are more likely to join a synagogue, donate to a Jewish charity, feel emotionally connected to Israel, have close Jewish friends, and marry a Jewish partner.
Far less research has been done on the impact of Jewish day camp, but the findings we do have show similar outcomes. More importantly, the findings show great potential – especially since significantly more kids attend Jewish day camp each year than attend Jewish overnight camp.
Am I suggesting Jewish day camp provides the same experience as Jewish overnight camp? Absolutely not. There’s something truly magical about spending a summer away from home. It’s a growth experience I’d want for all kids for whom it’s appropriate. From a Jewish perspective, some of my most special memories take me back to Shabbat dinner and services at overnight camp.
What I am saying is that with the right Jewish programming and staff, I’m confident Jewish day camps too can provide a summer experience that produces a strong, positive connection to Judaism, the Jewish community, and Israel. It also seems there is plenty of room for additional Jewish camping options.
Let’s look at the numbers
According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, of the 750,000 camp-age Jewish children in North America, 75,000 attend Jewish overnight camp each summer. We know another 100,000 attend JCCA day camps. Even if we estimate that 50,000 kids attend independent Jewish day camps like In the City Camp, that still leaves 525,000 camp-age Jewish kids who are not attending Jewish camp.
The foundation also confirmed that, due to lack of capacity, many popular Jewish overnight camps have to turn campers away each summer.
That’s right – Jewish overnight camps are turning kids away! What an opportunity day camps have!
Even if twice as many kids were able to attend overnight camp, if my math is correct, that still leaves 450,000 camp-age Jewish kids who could connect with their Jewish heritage, meet life-long friends, and have loads of fun at Jewish day camp.
I think we can all agree that some kids aren’t able or ready to attend overnight camp. Some parents aren’t ready to let them go. Many families can’t afford overnight camp. Some want to start with day camp before trying overnight camp. Many communities don’t have a Jewish day camp nearby. Some otherwise unaffiliated families think Jewish camp – day and overnight – is not for them.
Bottom line, in 2014, Jewish people come in more shapes and sizes than ever before. We need additional options, including high-quality Jewish day camps, that expand the reach of the Jewish camp model we know works.
We all need to work harder to create camp options that suit the varying needs of our community so we can connect more kids to their Judaism and ensure the strength of our community for years to come. We need to make sure our kids leave camp each day feeling excited to be Jewish because of their awesome Jewish counselors who become instant role models. We need to weave Jewish elements into our programming to educate our kids in a way that is fun and impactful and makes kids proud of their Jewish heritage.
Jewish day camp can do all of these things. I know, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes for the past two summers.
 Camp Works, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Spring 2011
Eileen Price is founder and executive director of In the City Camp.