Not just sleepaway

Jewish day camps work. Are they in your investment portfolio?

In Short

Donors and communal leaders are realizing that day camps are already a key way to get people involved in the community and can get even better with proper funding

Another camp summer has just come to a close, offering everyone a chance to reflect on the many successes that we had and to begin thinking ahead to 2024. 

Three summers ago I authored an eJewishPhilanthropy opinion piece headlined “Passion Perseverance and Grit: the Untold Story of Jewish Day Camps 2020.” The premise was that families desperately needed camp that summer and that our Jewish day camps met this critical need, opening over 100 camps throughout North America despite an active pandemic. These efforts became a turning point for Jewish day camps to be recognized for the impact that they have on campers, staff, families and their communities. Since 2020, Jewish day camps throughout North America have seen increasing investment, growth and operational success, but is it enough and what must be done to turn the spigot to a stronger stream? Tom Rosenberg, American Camping Association (ACA) president and CEO recently said, “Day camps are the place to be right now.” So exactly how did day camps go from what some have perceived as the forgotten stepchild of the Jewish camp world to becoming a hotbed of activity and interest? Much of the answer is investment. 

Great Jewish day camps build kehillah (community) and are a proven entry point for all Jews regardless of denomination. Using day camps to engage with Jewish families is an effective short- and long-term strategy for Jewish communities. For decades, Jewish day camps have generated millions in revenue, which often helped support the budgets of their parent agencies. In truth what more and more people are realizing is that their impact far exceeds what is measured in dollars alone. But what some may not have realized is that taking revenues out while not prioritizing investment into talent, program and facility was limiting the potential to accomplish even more. Fortunately, we are seeing this pattern shift and that is purely because people are coming to the realization that day camps work as a robust product line in their own right. Simply put — the impact is significant, which in turn attracts greater investment and that allows for even greater magnification of outcomes.

In 2013 JCC Association authored a publication entitled “Complete Guide to JCC Day Camps.” In it, six “key investment indicators” were identified that were necessary for a successful Jewish day camp. These included executive and lay leadership who understand and value day camp; professional year-round camp leadership; a board and committee structure that prioritizes the needs of camp; technology that supports camp operations; investment in facility and capital needs; and creating a culture of giving for camp. The guide was a blueprint for camps to follow. 

Though it has taken time to move the needle, Jewish day camps have stepped up to create excellence and improve the field. More camps are hiring full-time camp directors (and assistant camp directors); increasing program quality and upgrading facilities; recruiting, hiring and training stronger leadership team members, counselors and specialists; and investing in their technology infrastructure with camp-specific data management systems, communication apps, scheduling programs and more. Another key investment indicator is the increasing number of Jewish day camps that have or are seeking American Camp Association accreditation, the gold standard for best practices, camp safety and supervision. 

High-end capital projects, once unheard of at day camps, are now popping up everywhere. Examples in 2023 alone include a new ropes adventure course at MJCC Camps (Memphis, Tenn.), a camp lodge and arts center at Camp Davis (Gordon JCC Nashville, Tenn.), Ravi’s Bimah, a covered stage project at JCC Camps at Medford, N.J., that enables over 2,000 campers and staff to gather together, and a major Sportsplex project at the Bender JCC in Rockville, Md., with a state-of-the-art inclusive pavilion structure designed and equipped with outdoor accessible restrooms for campers and members of all abilities along with outdoor recreational and program facilities. 

Foundations and donors have taken notice and are rapidly coming on board. Jewish day camps have found a partner for these capital investments in a number of places, including for the past three years, JCamp 180, part of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which has allocated over $1.75 million to Jewish day camp capital improvements for 98 projects. In 2023, JCamp 180 increased this to $750,000 from $500,000 the prior year and their number of grants awarded from 30 to 39. A myriad of day camp projects are in the works for summer 2024. 

The formula is relatively simple and people are catching on — the more you invest in these core and essential programs, the greater the returns appear. Again, if we are singularly focused we could say the revenues increase (which they do), but what is equally important is the connectivity to the community these programs create and the entry point they represent. If it were only about the money then it’s good, but because it is about building community — it is spectacular. 

Continuing to create Jewish day camps of excellence will again be a focus at the third annual Fall Jewish Day Camp Conference in October in Baltimore. Created by Jewish Day Camp Network in partnership with JCamp 180, Foundation for Jewish Camp and JCC Association, the conference has already surpassed the registration of the previous two and will be the largest Jewish Day Camp Conference ever to take place. 

For those who have yet to see the power and potential of Jewish day camp, the term “Ten for Two” is a popular expression in the camp world, as we work tirelessly for 10 months to ensure an amazing two months. Let’s use the beginning of these 10 months to determine what we need to do to ensure Jewish day camps of excellence and then put these ideas into action. Please also make sure you then use the “two” to get out and see not only the fun and excitement but the many examples of the serious impact that our camps have each summer. 

Aaron Greenberg is the CEO of Jewish Day Camp Network (JDCN), an organization fully dedicated to the success of Jewish day camps.