The Value of Jewish Summer Camp
by Paul Lewis
Summer is over and the kids are back from overnight camp. After 17 loads of laundry you discover your child lost two pair of shorts, a towel and three shirts. But fear not, he gained three pair of sweatpants and a jacket with other kids’ names printed on the tags.
What else did your child bring home? If you sent her to a Jewish overnight camp, you hope she returns with an increased sense of Jewish identity, perhaps Jewish friends for life and maybe even a deeper understanding of, and commitment to, Jewish tradition. That is, after all, what Jewish camps promise.
In 2011, the Foundation for Jewish Camp released a study called Camp Works – the Long-Term Impact of Jewish Summer Camp that makes the case for Jewish summer camp as an effective way to assure Jewish continuity. They analyzed recent population surveys in 25 American communities, comparing attitudes and behaviors of adults who attended Jewish overnight camps with adults who did not.
The results were striking. Adults who spent summers at Jewish overnight camp were:
- 10% more likely to marry a Jewish partner
- 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important
- 26% more likely to belong to a synagogue
- 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles
- 25% more likely to give to Jewish charities, and
- 55% more likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel
During the first weekend in August, I returned to Camp B’nai B’rith (now Perlman B’nai B’rith Camp) in Lake Como, PA, where I spent my summers back when Richard Nixon was president and a group of kids got together for a little party at Max Yasgur’s farm not far away.
I was there for the 40th reunion of the Pioneers of 1972, our ultimate season as campers. We were 15 and 16 years old and lived in tents across the lake from the main camp. We all spent three, four, or even seven years as campers. Many would return in subsequent years as counselors.
A few had remained in contact with each other through the years and were still extremely close. Others had lost touch completely as life intervened, so it was special to reconnect, remember and relive that critical time in the shaping of our adult selves.
A lot has changed in 40 years, including waistlines and hair color, but it didn’t take long for dormant memories to be awakened. The stories and laughter flowed easily revealing a connection that felt barely interrupted. Memory is a funny thing, though, and rival claims of victory in Color War (issued with absolute certainty) had to be revised when someone produced the team rosters from four decades ago.
Some looked unmistakably the same while others would have been unrecognized, except for the booklet with current photos produced in advance of the reunion weekend. In addition to being asked about our family life, professional accomplishments and leisure pursuits, we were asked to describe our Jewish life and if camp had an impact on our Jewish identity. These were open-ended questions and not meant to be a scientific survey. Still, it’s interesting that the responses seem to align with the data from the Foundation for Jewish Camp report.
At a time when intermarriage is around 50 percent, a large majority of 1972 Pioneers have Jewish spouses. Most said they celebrate major Jewish holidays and, at some point, belonged to a synagogue where their children became Bar or Bat Mitzvah. A majority are currently synagogue members but involvement varied widely.
A few indicated they felt camp had no impact on their Jewish identity. Some, including me, felt CBB was reinforcing but not their primary Jewish influence. Overwhelmingly, the responses credited summers at Jewish camp with having a significant role in their Jewishness.
“CBB did have an impact on my appreciation for Jewish identity. Going to services there and Israeli dancing fostered the joy in it all.”
“I truly did not have a formal Jewish education. I did fall in love with candle lighting every Friday night and the delicious challah.”
“… so many memorable experiences … Friday night Israeli dancing … Kibbutz Day, Tisha B’Av , Havdalah, Motzi and Birkat … I have lifelong friends from camp days.”
“(Another Pioneer) and I spent a summer in college traveling to Israel, an idea planted while we were at CBB.”
“Unbeknownst to me at the time, attending Jewish camp probably had the greatest impact on me with regard to my Jewish identity.”
Several, but less than half, sent their own children to a variety of Jewish summer camps. I sent my three daughters to Camp Ramah where the Judaic component is significantly more intense than I experienced at Camp B’nai B’rith. My kids all describe their own camp experience as absolutely the key factor in their strong Jewish identity.
There are more than 150 non-profit Jewish summer camps today in North America, representing all the major movements and a wide variety of cultural and Zionist traditions. It’s not inexpensive, with full summer tuition running to $8,000.
Parents have every right to question if it’s worth the cost. Certainly, there are no guarantees; we all know examples of adults who came from committed Jewish homes, had the best of Jewish educations, including day schools and Jewish summer camps, who are today unengaged in any Jewish life. Still, if you are asking “is it worth the high cost to send my child to Jewish summer camp,” the answer is yes. As the Foundation for Jewish Camp report sums up in its title, Camp Works.
Paul Lewis is Director of Community Development for the PJ Library, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. PJ Library sends more than 100,000 Jewish books each month to children throughout North America. In the past, he has been a TV news reporter and executive. He lives in West Hartford, CT, with his wife and is the father of three grown daughters. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.