Our moment is now

When I was about to start my role as the primary fundraiser of the largest Jewish camping agency in North America, a well-meaning future colleague asked me a hard question: “How will you raise money from people to send someone else’s children to camp?”

The question was operational — tachlis, as we say — but I tried to make my response aspirational: Simply getting Jewish children into Jewish camp is not the destination but rather the vehicle. Our goal, our destination, is to play a small part in securing a vibrant Jewish future. Study after study shows that Jewish camp can play a significant role, helping to build a strong Jewish identity and deep, personal connection to the State of Israel. 

These last few years, our children have experienced so many hardships: rising anxiety, COVID-19, and now Oct. 7, all of which have disrupted childhood normalcy in unfair ways. 

Camps were created as a safe haven where children could get away from life’s challenges, experience nature and develop independence. In this challenging world, we need to reframe how we view Jewish camp. It must no longer be seen as a luxury afforded to the rich, or something in which only the most affiliated Jewish kids participate. 

We need more Jewish children in Jewish camp, now. This is our moment, and we cannot miss it. 

At camp, Judaism and Israel are not theoretical — they are tangible. Our campers live Joyous Judaism 24/7. They make lifelong friendships with Israelis and other Jewish peers, learn Jewish values that guide their lives, and eventually become Jewish leaders. And, most important to our campers and staff, they also have fun! 

But not enough of our children are in Jewish camp. The 2023 Census of Jewish camps estimates that only 150,000 children participate in Jewish overnight or day camps, but there may be as many as 1.6 million Jewish children in America, according to a Brandeis study. Less than 10% is a deeply concerning number. 

There are other great vehicles for building Jewish identity. The “three pillars” of effective Jewish youth engagement are day schools, Israel trips and Jewish camps. Good news can be found: Jewish day schools are seeing a surge in interest post-Oct. 7. At the same time, youth trips to Israel are being cancelled due to the war. 

Enter Jewish camp. 

If our kids can’t go to Israel, it is that much more important that we bring Israel to them this summer. Each summer, NJY Camps welcomes hundreds of campers and staff from Israel; and this summer we are especially proud to be participating in Campers2Gether, an initiative to bring Israelis displaced by the war to camp this summer.  This summer is a critical period, following a scary school year where many Jewish youth have not felt safe expressing their Judaism due to the explosion of antisemitism. At camp, they will be welcomed into a safe and loving Jewish community that has their back, a place that inspires them to be their best selves and to stand up and speak out on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

Besides scholarships, what does Jewish camp need? Modern facilities, innovative and ever-improving programming, investments in staff training and retention, and security infrastructure, just to name a few top priorities. Our camps must be attractive products to secure the attention of the many Jewish families — those with means and those without — considering non-Jewish camps or no camp at all. Families are either going to choose more Jewish engagement or less, and right now many Jews are open to increased engagement

This is what makes Paula Gottesman’s recent $2 million matching grant for NJY Camps especially important. 

Paula and her late husband, Jerry, z”l, have been pioneering philanthropists in making Jewish day school and Jewish camp more affordable. Their generosity is legendary. The Gottesman family has created meaningful endowments to help secure the future of several Jewish organizations, NJY Camps included, but Paula recognized that support in this present moment is equally important. If we don’t get more Jewish youth engaged in meaningful Jewish life now, our future looks much less certain.

In our many conversations on this topic, Paula expressed a deep concern for what Jewish children and young adults are experiencing. She worries that the surging antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment will harm Jewish youth (and she is right to be concerned), and she feels a sense of responsibility to help Jewish families as much as she can.

I once mentioned to Paula that our family is considering day school for our own kids.  Weeks later, Paula called me to check in and ask how those considerations were going and to make me aware of the affordability programs that exist in our community. I was unbelievably touched that a woman as important as her, literally changing thousands of Jewish lives, wanted to make sure our little family was okay. And she has since checked in on the topic again! Typical of her extreme humility, Paula declined to mention that her family are the founders and funders of the very affordability programs that became a model for day schools across the country.

It should come as no surprise then that Paula wanted no name recognition for the gift to NJY Camps, even though, as the largest gift in our 104-year history, it would be very deserved. This lack of pursuit of personal recognition extends to the fact that one of our local day schools bears her family name but she still refers to it as “the Hebrew Academy of Morris County.”

Early in my career, a donor who had once served as chairman of one of the largest Jewish Federations in the country told me, “The best form of giving is anonymous, but Jews love plaques!” It was a funny quip that spoke to how we often look to receive personal recognition or direct benefit or secure our or a loved one’s legacy.

There is nothing wrong with wanting your name associated forever with a place you love, especially when doing so encourages others to give. A matching gift like this one, however, requires immediate action from others and a sense of collective responsibility, appropriate in this moment when we urgently need to get more Jewish families into meaningful, participatory Jewish life. 

We need philanthropists who follow Paula’s lead: Think big and be generous, thoughtful and humble. Remember that “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” all of the Jewish people are responsible for one another — so yes, we need people’s help to send more Jewish children to camp!

Will Eastman is the chief development officer of NJY Camps.