It’s time for a New Approach to Jewish Summer Camp

By Eileen Snow Price and Allison Boaz

Research has indicated for years that Jewish overnight camp is one of the most effective ways for our children to develop lifelong Jewish friendships, to grow as individuals, and to form meaningful connections with the Jewish community and Israel.

And while this may in fact be true, there’s one big problem: 90 percent of Jewish children arent going to Jewish overnight camp.

You read that correctly. Only 10 percent of camp-age Jewish children nationwide attend Jewish overnight camp. This statistic begs the following questions: What are we doing to address this reality? How can we bet the Jewish future on the 10% who are attending overnight camp? Why aren’t we doubling down on the 90% who deserve to connect with our vibrant Jewish community?

Let’s look at the realities facing today’s Jewish families.

  • The Jewish community is diverse. Jews of color, Jews by choice, and Jewish LGBTQ families are all seeking community connection.
  • 71% of today’s Jewish children are being raised in families with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent.
  • Only 1/3 of American Jews belong to a synagogue.
  • Nearly half of Jewish families are affected by divorce.
  • More than 50% of Jewish households report income under $100,000.
  • 10% of American youth have diagnosed disabilities.

Bottom line, the world has changed. Jewish families look very different today than they did in the 1960s when many Jewish overnight camps were born.

A Modern Jewish Camp for the Modern Jewish Family

In the City Camp is an Atlanta-based, independent, pluralistic, nonprofit Jewish day camp for children entering kindergarten through 10th grade. Our innovative program delivers the proven results of overnight camp – lifelong friendships, personal growth, and a meaningful connection to the Jewish community and Israel – in an affordable, accessible day camp package that acknowledges the realities of today’s modern Jewish family.

In just six years, since In the City Camp began, camper enrollment has grown 726 percent – from 65 campers in 2012 to 537 campers at two locations in 2017. 20% of our campers come from interfaith families. 30% don’t belong to a synagogue. 66% attend public or non-Jewish private schools. 99% of our day campers and 100% of our counselors are Jewish.

Beyond the numbers, we see overnight camp-style qualitative results in our campers. They long for their five-year t-shirt. They cry on the last day of camp. They save their allowance money during the year to spend at canteen. They sing Hebrew camp songs in the shower. They show up to camp-sponsored school-year events and log on to attend camp online while they are snowed in at home. They stand up a little taller during the winter holiday song performance at school. They freeze with nervous excitement when they run into a counselor at Target and shriek with joy when they see camp friends and staff at our reunions.

Jewish day camp is a natural entry point into a child’s lifelong Jewish journey. Imagine if every Jewish 5-year-old child attended an intentional Jewish day camp like ours. What would our community look like in 20 years? What would overnight camp attendance look like?

We’ll give you a hint: Participation in intentional Jewish day camp leads to increased participation in other Jewish communal experiences including religious school, overnight camp, youth groups, Israel trips, and Jewish college life.

You may be wondering: What does it look like to deliver the benefits of Jewish overnight camp in a day camp setting?

It looks like weaving a pedagogically appropriate, PhD-developed curriculum that teaches Hebrew language, Jewish values, and Jewish and Israeli culture into everything we do.

At In the City Camp, young Jewish campers look up to their Jewish role model counselors like they hung the moon. We gather each day for morning shira to sing Hine Ma Tov, Oseh Shalom, and our very own camp song – complete with all the hand motions. We make Israeli hummus and pita over a fire. Our kindergarteners burst with pride when they complete the ropes course for the first time. We cheer during Maccabiah, learn the Hebrew word of the day, and FaceTime with former counselors serving in the Israeli army. Campers learn Jewish values like kavod, chesed, and tikun olam and strengthen 21st century life skills through fun activities they choose themselves every hour. Our younger campers go on day trips and make surprise slushee stops on the way back to camp. Our Tween campers travel to area Jewish overnight camps. Following our camp-wide Friday Shabbat oneg, campers head to carpool with challah dough to bake at home, extending the Jewish experience to their families. Our ALL-Jewish counselors, who become experiential Jewish educators, call us offering to do whatever we need just so they can spend another summer with us.

From where we stand, the Jewish future is bright.

We have figured out how to deliver the Jewish overnight camp experience in a package that acknowledges and addresses the realities of the modern Jewish family and our parents, staff, and campers simply can’t get enough.

Jewish people come in more shapes and sizes than ever before. We must invest in high-quality, intentional, accessible Jewish day camps that expand the reach of the Jewish overnight camp model we know works.

We have an obligation as Jewish leaders to listen to our community and develop innovative Jewish engagement solutions that produce measurable, meaningful outcomes.

We’re doubling down on the 90% because none of us can afford to do anything else.

Eileen Snow Price IS Founder and Chief Executive Officer, and Allison Boaz, Chief Operating Officer, lead In the City Camp.