Summer camp blues

Survey finds rising operating costs are main challenge facing Jewish camps this year

Report also identifies mental health and anxiety, among campers and staff, as a major struggle

Rising operating expenses are the most significant challenge facing Jewish summer camps this year in light of growing inflation and high insurance rates, according to a new study by JCamp 180.

The report, which was sent to the camps who participated in the survey before being released publicly, surveyed 177 individuals from 99 camps and camping organizations, asking them to rank the significance of 25 different trends on a scale from one to five, and answer a number of open-ended questions about issues related to camping.

Rising operating costs garnered an average score of 4.4, followed closely by “high levels of anxiety and mental health challenges amongst campers” and “pressure on young adults to earn income and build their resumes,” which each received a 4.3, and “high levels of anxiety and mental health challenges amongst summer staff,” which received a 4.2.

This was the first time that the survey, which has been running for four years, included the trend of rising costs in its list of options, making it somewhat unclear where it would have been ranked in the past. However, the authors of the survey and an official from one of the polled camps said that this is indeed an emerging issue, in light of both inflation in the general economy and the rising costs for insurance.

“Camps have been really hit by four major cost areas: Insurance has really increased a lot; food prices have really increased; transportation has increased; and there are a lot of pressures to increase compensation for staff. Plus, of course, general inflation,” Michael Miloff, a consultant at JCamp, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Lisa Wertheim, chief development officer for California’s Camp Tawonga, said that her camp has particularly been hit by high insurance fees.

“We have had exorbitant insurance due to being at a camp in California that has wildfire threats,” she told eJP. “Just in the past couple of years, it has tripled the cost [of insurance],” she said.

Also high up on the survey’s list of trends were “helicopter” and “snowplow” parents – the former hover over their children carefully monitoring them, the latter bulldoze obstacles and challenges out of their children’s way – as well as rising costs for living Jewishly, competition with other summer offerings and the pervasiveness of digital technology.

The “focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion for LGBTQ+ people,” which was the sixth-ranked trend last year, dropped to 12th place this year out of 25. The survey’s authors credited this to two main developments: the rising significance of other issues and the implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion programs in past years  coming to fruition.

Miloff stressed that for camps, this issue had not been resolved or forgotten, but rather that it was simply being outranked by more immediate concerns. “It’s not that it’s over. They’re continuing to do [these DEI programs]. I think that there’s a bunch of urgent issues related to cost and parents and other things that took precedence this year,” he said.

In addition to Miloff, JCamp director Sarah Eisinger, consultant Herschel Singer and senior program manager Kevin Martone worked on the survey. JCamp 180 is a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which also provides matching grants to camps.

Though official numbers will not be reported until the end of the summer, the survey authors said this year appeared to be on track to surpass pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

“We are anecdotally hearing about wait lists and full sessions, both in day and overnight camps, but we won’t know yet until the end of the summer,” Eisinger said.

Miloff said this may be because of the COVID-19 pandemic, not despite it. “We think that COVID-19 highlighted for people the value of camp, of outdoors, nature, community, to that being an antidote to being indoors and isolated, and it really helped people appreciate the deep contribution that camp can make to people’s well-being,” he said.

This year, for the first time they also asked respondents to say what brought them joy in their work and what sucked joy out of camp.

“Most respondents to this question were camp professionals, and most of them derived their joy from seeing the joy of their campers,” the survey said.

What “sucked the joy from camp” for many respondents was the “increasing pressure to produce more with less.” Miloff said that in the past, camp staff focused primarily on catering to campers and their parents, but now – as economic and regulatory changes have occurred – camp leadership is having to also focus on more business- and logistics-related issues, creating “unprecedented demands on the professional leadership.”

Wertheim from Camp Tawonga noted that her camp was in the midst of a significant hiring effort to both relieve some of the responsibilities from existing staff and to allow the camp to expand its offseason capacities.

One of the trends that the surveyors also identified was the growing need for camps to increase their fundraising and other moneymaking strategies in light of these growing economic challenges. This was necessary as they said camps could not simply raise their prices in light of these rising costs as this would likely prevent some campers from being able to attend.

Eisinger said the Harold Grinspoon Foundation was pushing for camps to grow their donor bases, particularly by looking to alumni.

“A hallmark of what characterizes our grant making at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation is that we provide matching challenge grants,” she said. “So for every dollar that Grinspoon gives, we’re asking the camps to raise it three times. And the overnight camps get a bonus of $10,000 if they raise our base grant four times. So for us, we’re really interested in the camps growing their donor base.”

In that vein, Wertheim said Tawonga had just completed a capital campaign to make improvements to camp infrastructure so it could be used year-round. Wertheim said funders included “a lot of individuals who are alumni and parents of staff and campers, as well as individual family foundations that care about the perpetuation of our Jewish community.”

While the survey found a number of major issues facing camps – from newly rising operating costs to the constant challenges of dealing with seasonal staff – Eisinger stressed that JCamp 180 still sees Jewish camps as being a “great investment” for the Jeiwsh community.

“While there are a lot of threats and challenges, we also fundamentally believe in the power of Jewish summer camp and think it has an incredible return on investment both financially and then for the Jewish people,” she said.