by Abigail Pickus

Enrollment in nonprofit Jewish summer camps in North America is steadily increasing – and there are more innovative Jewish camping experiences than ever before, according to the recently released strategic plan of The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

In addition to surveying past years, the plan focuses on the strategic direction for the next five years (2011-2016) with the goals of increasing affordability; fostering greater connections between camps and Jewish schools, communities and synagogues; increasing awareness and creating innovative programming.

“Jewish summer camp is higher on the communal list today across the country than ever before and a lot of that is because of the great work being done by local Federations and synagogues,” said Jeremy Fingerman, FJC’s Chief Executive Officer who succeeded Jerry Silverman, now CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. Fingerman formerly headed Campbell Soup Co.’s U.S. Soup Division and the management group for Manischewitz foods.

FJC works with camps from all streams of Jewish belief and practice, offering financial resources, leadership and management training and guidance and support for increasing awareness and enrollment. With a budget of $20 million (2011), FJC serves 150 non-profit Jewish camps, annual summer populations of 70,000 campers and 10,000 counselors in North America.

Thanks to a more advanced and accurate system of data collection launched in 2006, FJC estimates that between 2006-2010, over 139,000 children in North America experienced overnight Jewish summer camp with enrollment figures trending upward until the economic crisis in 2008-2009, when enrollment stabilized. According to the plan, this is in marked contrast to private camps, which have seen an overall decrease of 10% during the same period.

The majority of participating nonprofit Jewish summer camps are in the Northeast with a market penetration rate of 8%. FJC intends to address the growing Jewish populations in the South and West with a market penetration in these regions at 4% and 7%.

The high price tag for Jewish summer camp, which averages $1230/week, is a significant deterrent for many families. FJC works to offset costs through incentive programs such as the One Happy Camper program (OHC), which supplies first-year campers with a need-blind financial incentive grant and the JWest Campership program that awards financial incentives to first-time campers entering 6th, 7th, or 8th grade.

Incentive programs have brought 24,000+ new campers to Jewish summer camp over the last five years. Without these incentives, 55% of these new campers would have stayed home or attended a non-Jewish summer experience, according to the plan.

The aim of these incentives is awareness and outreach to youth who not otherwise consider Jewish camping. “It is a marketing coupon to generate a trial and not an answer on affordability,” said Fingerman. “Our focus on affordability is to design a lower cost option that does not require the same level of scholarship funding or financial assistance from the get-go. It’s not going to be easy to design and do it in a way that is separate and distinct from the current camp format, but if we are able to do it will be a homerun for the field.”

Directed fundraising for local camps is the key to affordability, according to Fingerman, with “Federations saying this is an important piece of our communal agenda to help raise more ‘passion directed’ money for the camping world within the local Federation.” Fingerman also cited instances of congregations funding families in need to attend local Jewish camps and expressed a desire to increase this trend.

FJC also launched Project SABABA, a feasibility study measuring the interest in and viability of more accessible models of camps. The findings of this study will serve as the basis for future plans.

One major accomplishment highlighted in the plan are the five camps participating in the Specialty Camps Incubator, a program based on the business incubator model that is supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation. The participating camps, which cover the spectrum from outdoor adventure and Jewish environmentalism to intensive sports training, received guidance and support from the FJC as they launched new models of nonprofit Jewish specialty camps in non-traditional settings. Over the past two summers these incubator camps have served over 1,000 campers, 60% of whom are attending Jewish camp for the first time.

“FJC launched these five specialty incubator camps two years ago and every one was a success, not only in re-enrollment but also in the fact that each camp has started to raise its own money and have improved their programs from the first to the second year,” said Fingerman, adding that incubator support ends in 2013 and then the camps will be on their own.

“I anticipate continued success for each of them,” Fingerman continued. “Our intention is to continue this process and to create more specialty camps. There is a lot of interest out there. These five camps were able to attract new kids who had not attended Jewish camp before and probably wouldn’t have attended Jewish camps were it not for these options. They have reinvigorated the field and have made it more relevant for today.”

The specialty trend is also rubbing off on the more traditional camps through the incorporation of environmental practices like composting or the infusion of lessons of Jewish values into sports program, according to Fingerman.

Future goals for FJC include increasing camp enrollment by 25%, increasing camper retention rate from 75% to 80%, opening more camps and training more staff. To achieve these goals they seek to increase their annual program revenue from $15M to $20M.

The plan also references recent studies in the Jewish world that show a direct link between Jewish summer camps and an increased involvement and commitment to Jewish life, practice and leadership roles within the Jewish world.