Camp connections

Building the Jewish future one bunk at a time

In Short

Summer camps offer more than just a fun way for kids to wait for school to start, they can be a key method of instilling Jewish values and developing Jewish leadership

Prominently displayed on the wall of the dining room at Camp Ramah in the Poconos is a colorful illustration of a tree with leaves bearing the names of donors. “As others have planted for me, so shall I plant for future generations,” reads the accompanying Talmudic quote. The sign reminds us that summer camp does indeed create a deep and lasting commitment to the Jewish future.

When Surprise Lake Camp (Cold Spring, N.Y.) and Tamarack Camps (Ortonville, Mich.) were first established at the beginning of the 20th century, few could have predicted the great impact they – and those that followed – would have on shaping our Jewish community. Almost a century and a quarter later, Jewish camps have grown into a flourishing network of over 300 day and overnight camps across North America. These camps serve close to 200,000 Jewish young people, providing them with positive, impactful and joyous Jewish experiences each summer.

At a time of rising concern about the fraying ties to Jewish community on the part of the younger generations, it is critical that we elevate Jewish camping in the broader philanthropic Jewish community, and work to convey the message that Jewish camps are essential in building Jewish identity, creating lifelong Jewish friendships and nurturing future Jewish leaders. The immersive camp experience was transformative for both of us – and for our own children – in terms of developing our sense of confidence, independence and commitment to Jewish life and community, and we need to bring this experience to as many children as possible, far beyond the 20% that currently attend a Jewish overnight or day camp.  

Camp Works, the landmark quantitative report published in 2011 and based on 26 Jewish federation community studies on the long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp on adult Jewish engagement, confirmed what so many had long believed. Adults who attended camp in their youth were significantly more connected to the Jewish community, involved in Jewish causes and more likely to donate their time and resources to Jewish organizations. Subsequent studies have consistently affirmed these results.

In addition, Jewish camps help young Jews to develop a strong connection to Israel. This summer, a record number of over 1,500 Jewish Agency for Israel shlichim (emissaries) are teaching Hebrew and bringing Israeli culture to young campers. They are forming a living bridge between North America and Israel and are inspiring participants to take advantage of future travel programs to Israel, which for many will be teen experiences supported by RootOne.

Furthermore, studies show that former counselors were even more likely to remain connected to and become leaders in the Jewish community as adults. Leading Edge refers to Jewish camp as a “factory for creating Jewish leaders.” It is striking to us to see how many of those who volunteer across our community or who work as clergy, educators and all other kinds of Jewish professionals attended or worked at Jewish camps. 

A quarter century ago, inspired by their participation in the Wexner Heritage Program, Robert Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner established the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) as an effort to unify the field and to galvanize philanthropic support for Jewish summer camps. Today, FJC’s network boasts 155 overnight camps and 175 day camps in the United States and Canada, and that number continues to increase. In particular, the day camp space is growing rapidly, with Chabad, Ramah, Young Judaea and other organizations creating opportunities beyond the long-standing JCC-based day camp model.

Jewish federations have long recognized the critical importance of supporting Jewish camps.  Many communities partner with FJC’s One Happy Camper program to award incentive grants to first-time campers. Typically, support comes from annual campaign allocations, designated giving, and/or endowment funds. The program, which began in 2007, has now helped over 118,000 young people experience camp for the first time. 

Jewish camps thus continue to be an enormously successful social experiment in creating joyful, immersive Jewish experiences. Yet for far too many Jewish families, the cost of camp has increased beyond their means, which has made camp a philanthropic priority on the part of federations throughout the country.? Given the rising concerns over the lack of connection that so many young Jews have to our community, and the continued rise in costs, we need to double down and invest even more in summer camps as one of our most effective ways to deepen Jewish engagement from a young age. ?

We have three main recommendations to ensure that camp continues to safeguard the vibrancy of the Jewish future:

First, we believe Jewish day camps play a critical role by meeting families with young children where they are. Day camps represent a natural extension into summer of early childhood education programs and fulfill a childcare need for many working families. We hope other communities follow the lead of UJA-Federation of New York by investing in these gateway experiences.  

Second, not only do we need to continue to invest in One Happy Camper incentive grants, but we must also help address affordability. We are thrilled that a number of federation partners in Chicago, Los Angeles, Greater MetroWest, Boston and Atlanta have continued to lead the way raising significant funds for camp scholarships. But much more can be done, especially in the area of accessibility for middle-income families.

Third, working as a camp counselor remains a critical experience in one’s Jewish leadership trajectory, in addition to learning valuable college, career and life readiness skills. We need to find innovative ways to make it more attractive to spend the summer working at Jewish camps.  One model which shows great promise is the Cleveland Federation’s Mandel-Myers Fellowship, which awards returning staff members with substantial funding for college tuition and provides enhanced leadership development training. We believe this and similar efforts could and should be replicated; after all, today’s counselors will become our future communal leaders – both lay and professional.

The future of the Jewish community is, to a large extent, dependent on our ability to strengthen and expand the immersive summer camp experience. Greater and more targeted investment will pay huge dividends in terms of Jewish life. We must continue to build flourishing Jewish communities one bunk at a time.?

Julie Platt is the board chair of Jewish Federations of North America. Jeremy J. Fingerman is the CEO for the Foundation for Jewish Camp.