Foundation for Jewish Camp says new research supports its focus on mental health; census shows mixed trends for camps

Data from over 300 camps shows that enrollment is up — back to pre-pandemic levels — but so are staff turnover and financial strains

The trick to having happy campers, it turns out, is having happy counselors. 

That’s the takeaway from a new study by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and the American Camp Association, which was published last month, focusing on mental health at camp.

It’s a lesson the leaders of Camp Ben Frankel in Belleville, Ill., have long been preaching: One of their central mantras, the camp’s director, Aaron Hadley, told eJewishPhilanthropy is, “When staff thrive, campers thrive.”

This mission begins with rigorous hiring standards for all staff, especially counselors, he said, and continues with a daily meeting of the camp’s Community Care team “to assess the well-being of each individual member of our community, every staff member and every camper, and ask ourselves whether anyone needs additional support.” The camp also provides its staff with training, ongoing coaching and support throughout the summer. 

“Once staff members begin to trust that their input and ideas are valued, they start to make more suggestions,” Hadley said. Many of the camp’s initiatives have emerged from counselors’ input and feedback, he noted.

The study, which appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Youth Development, found that when staff felt supported and were given adequate training to meet campers’ mental health needs, they felt more satisfied in their work. Consequently, their campers’ parents were also more likely to express satisfaction with the camp and report that camp is a positive environment for their child. 

“The results of this study suggest that camp is a setting that can support young adult and youth well-being, and, more specifically, that supporting staff well-being also benefits youth well-being at camp,” wrote the researchers behind the article, “Mental, Social, Emotional and Spiritual Health.”

The study used data from 80 Jewish overnight camps in the U.S. and Canada, including 3,524 camp staff and 9,210 parents or guardians.

“When young adult staff feel supported and listened to, valued and heard, it leads to a more supportive environment for campers,” said Nila Rosen, FJC’s director of learning and research, who co-authored the mental health study. 

Having multiple mental health professionals on staff is becoming more common at Jewish summer camp, thanks to funding from the Yedid Nefesh Initiative, which launched in 2020 to provide monetary support and staff training to over 100 day and overnight camps in the FJC network. 

Funded by The Marcus Foundation, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and now operating in about 100 camps, Yedid Nefesh focuses on making mental health a central consideration at Jewish summer camps. 

“Camp is full of new experiences. Trained mental health professionals can be there to help build a safe container,” so that youth and young adults can “try new things and be under different contexts and environments and social situations and take healthy risks,” Jill Goldstein Smith, FJC’s senior program manager, told eJP. 

“While camp is not a place for therapy, or therapeutic intervention, more and more camps, and FJC, have been working with the Network for Jewish Human Services, to help camps connect with their Jewish family service, locally or regionally,” Goldstein Smith said, noting that as campers grow and learn more about their identity, mental health professionals at camp “is one piece of this much larger ecosystem.”

Mental health professionals can also help empower young adult counselors to better understand their role in their campers’ well-being, giving them “life skills that [they] get to implement and feel a sense of ownership [of].”

This week, FJC also released its 2023 Jewish summer camp census, with data from 158 overnight camps and 166 day camps. The census indicates that the state of Jewish camp is strong but needs additional support, according to FJC. Camp enrollment has continued to grow, especially in day camps, which returned to pre-pandemic enrollment levels — 73,000 overnight campers and 75,100 day campers attended Jewish camp in summer 2023, the census found.

The “leadership pipeline,” which was severely compromised during the pandemic, continues to be a staffing challenge: The census identified increased turnover of Jewish camp professionals, with 66% of the overnight camps and 58% of the day camps reporting they had professional staff leave their positions between fall 2022 and fall 2023. 

Financial aid is being requested more than ever, with overnight camps reporting about a 30% increase in the amount of financial aid that families asked from their camps. These demands come on top of camps’ growing expenditure on their facilities.

For both sleepaway and day camps, the census data — collected prior to Oct. 7 — showed that camps’ top projected need was an increase in mental, emotional, social and spiritual health resources for campers and staff alike.

The Yedid Nefesh advisory board of experts is beginning plans to identify and fund needs and innovations for the coming years, Rosen told eJP, adding that because camps may differ structurally, in terms of physical capacity or in myriad other ways, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health care in Jewish summer camps. Camps may implement different models for staff training based on their capacity and need, she added. 

The FJC Learning and Research Team, which is supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation, is hosting two upcoming webinars for camp leadership, lay leaders, and board members, on how to use the census data to benefit the camps they represent. 

Rosen said her department is also working on the Character at Camp Initiative, which aims to understand and elevate camp practices that help young people and young adults who work at camp to develop character, specifically relational virtues, with a focus on “how they strengthen the muscles of kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, through their experience living together at Jewish overnight summer camp and how that relates to Jewish values.”