What the Specialty Camp Incubator Signals to the Field of Jewish Education

Incubator camps attract middle and high school youth who wouldnt otherwise attend Jewish camp.

Photo courtesy URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy

By Michele Friedman and Ellen Irie

Five years ago, Foundation for Jewish Camp, with the support of the Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI Foundations, launched the second cohort of Jewish Specialty Camp Incubator. With the conclusion of the grant period late last year, an independent evaluation (viewable as Executive Summary and Full Report), conducted by Informing Change, shows many of the same important, positive outcomes as were seen in the first incubator: Incubator camps attract middle and high school youth who wouldn’t otherwise attend Jewish camp; The camps’ specialties drive camp enrollment and help keep campers coming back; With Incubator staff guidance, the four camps quickly developed the infrastructure necessary for organizational growth and stability; Incubator camps infuse Jewish content into the camp experience in many ways and shape the lives of campers regarding their Jewish growth, specialty growth, and personal growth; among other outcomes.

We don’t want to focus on these positive outcomes here, as excited as we continue to be about them. Rather, we want to share some of the insights from the evaluation that are relevant not just to the incubator camps, but to the broader field of Jewish camping, and even to the overall field of Jewish education and engagement.

1. The Importance ofNew

The opportunity for a new experience is especially appealing to Jewish teens. Teens have many competing interests for their summer time: school, work, internships, spending time with family and friends. To make camp appealing to them, Incubator camps need to continue marketing their newness, both to first-time campers and returning campers who want to do something different from last summer – what we call an “aspirational arc.” As an example, URJ Sci-Tech Academy not only has added new specialty tracks each year – such as Forensics; Bio-Zone: SciTech MD; and Earth and Sky: Astronomy and the World Above” – but also builds in new elements to its existing specialty tracks as campers progress from youth to teen sessions. These strategies help to counter an attitude of “been there, done that” that returning campers may have as they age and run out of summers to have new experiences before they leave home for college or to start their careers. This challenge is as present for camps as it is for any organization engaging this audience.

2. The Value of Data

Similar to existing organizations, new organizations (camps included) need data of many types to inform strategic decisions and monitor early activities to identify strengths and weaknesses for course correction. And while start-up organizations have many demands pulling on their time, data collection should be prioritized. The Incubator provided camps with data from their campers and families, benchmarked against the other Incubator I and II camps, as well as other Jewish camps in the field. In addition, Incubator staff and camp stakeholders measured each camp’s organizational capacity semi-annually to ensure that progress was being made, so the camps are on track to exit the Incubator out of the startup stage, on a path to sustainability.

3. The Importance of Filling Out Staff

Directors need staff support, especially from a strong assistant director, early on. Starting any business can be a lonely (even with the support of a cohort) and challenging endeavor; bringing together a professional team early in the process provides a much needed support system. Incubator II camps benefitted from having an assistant director selected well before the first camp summer so both the director and assistant director could participate in Incubator activities as they developed the camp concept into reality. This support was invaluable to the directors and facilitated many of the organizational development achievements in the early years.

4. Get the Campers

Any organization with an earned income model must make recruitment among its top priorities even when the program is not fully developed. Focusing on enrolling campers in early years allows for quick and efficient testing of the program elements and operations; this focus also is the best path to quicker sustainability. Camps with lower enrollment in the first year never quite caught up with their own initial goals and with the other camps. Campers from the first year or two also help with word-of-mouth recruitment, as seen with many parents deciding in later years to send their children to camp after hearing about it from a friend or family member.

5. Integrated Jewish Learning

Nearly all Incubator campers and their parents say that camp had a positive influence on campers’ Jewish lives. The way Incubator camps approach integrating Jewish learning, values, and reflections into their programming is working, regardless of whether the Jewish content is fully integrated with the specialty throughout the entire day, or partially integrated at select times. What is most important is to find a model and tailor the Jewish curriculum to meet the end user at their level so they better engage with it.

6. A Business Model Designed for Sustainability

For long-term sustainability, a new Jewish camp – specialty or not – needs to enroll, at a bare minimum, an average of 80 campers per week during their summer season. Camp leaders need to be mindful that giving away camp for free – or at deeply discounted rates – is not the way to reach this enrollment goal. Scholarships and discounts may help bring campers early on, but can also set the camp back on its journey toward financial sustainability. Finding the right balance of enrolling campers and making a profit is crucial for new camps and organizations.

7. Location Matters

Location affects recruitment and the camp experience. Incubator camp directors identified locations to support their specialty and fit their budgets. The financial implications of location include the facility costs, operating costs of running that site, and recruitment costs of traveling from that site to meet with new families. Simply, the location needs to be attractive and accessible to enough of the target market that they enroll.

With these positive outcomes and insights, specialty camps have created an exciting spark in the Jewish camping field, pushing all Jewish camps to think creatively and to maximize their reach and Jewish learning. In fact, traditional camps are beginning to create and implement specialty tracks within their regular offerings in an effort to retain older campers and to attract campers who may want to specialize in a particular activity. Some traditional camps also are rethinking session length influenced by the Incubator camps’ models, recognizing that shorter sessions may attract campers who have a “packed” summer. And more and more camps of all kinds are beginning to gather data to inform their marketing and fundraising strategies.

Already, the experiential Jewish education curriculum and training protocols designed by the Incubator team are the basis of and being used by FJC’s Hiddur initiative – which helps camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff – and by the Jewish Coaching Project targeting day camps funded by UJA-Federation of NY. We are confident that other funders and organizations in the field will make use of these and other resources emanating from the Specialty Camps Incubator, and the insights and learnings presented here. With Incubator III underway, the structure of the initiative continues to be fine-tuned, taking an already strong and proven model to even greater heights. We will continue to be transparent in our learnings and outcomes, with the heartfelt belief that the entire field of Jewish education and engagement will benefit.

Michele Friedman is Director of New Camp Initiatives at Foundation for Jewish Camp. Ellen Irie is Principal at Informing Change, a strategic learning firm dedicated to increasing the effectiveness and impact of people who are working to make the world a better place.