Why I Am Supporting Nonprofit Jewish Overnight Camps Right Now

Daryl and Jim at the Newman Gala in their honor; courtesy.

By Daryl Messinger

My husband, Jim Heeger, and I owe much of our success as leaders to the Jewish summer camps we attended as children and young adults. It is the very reason countless families – mine included – have invested together in camps for decades. Whether camp occurs this summer or not, we know this summer will be different for all our families, staff, and communities that look to camp as their home away from home.

Because Jewish summer camp is foundational to our Jewish ecosystem, now is the time to invest. We must work together to ensure camp will continue to create a vibrant Jewish future. Jim and I are joining with Harold Grinspoon to support camp, and we are encouraging everyone who understands the magic of camp do so as well.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation quickly recognized the threat, and it is leading the way. Its matching-grant program, All Together Now, is a commitment to provide up to $10 million in matching grant funds to the approximately 100 participating Jewish overnight camps affiliated through its JCamp 180 program. For every $2 dollars given to the camp, the Foundation will contribute $1. All grant money is unrestricted; it can be used for operating expenses, which may include family and camper engagement strategies for this summer and throughout the year and enrollment and recruitment strategies for 2021.

Anyone who has attended camp will tell you that it is much more than a place or summer activity. Our camps provide community, meaning and purpose to campers, counselors, faculties, staff and families. The thousands of young people who are joining our virtual campfires, song sessions and bingo nights during this pandemic ably demonstrate what the Foundation for Jewish Camp and JCamp 180 have long proclaimed: CAMP WORKS!

Time spent at a Jewish camp is a fantastic predictor of lifelong engagement in Jewish life.

Seventy percent of our Jewish professionals (rabbis, cantors, educators and non-profit executives) attended Jewish summer camp. And the legions of lay leaders who fill the boards of our congregations, JCCs and other Jewish nonprofits often get their start as leaders at camp. In 2019, more than 93,000 campers and counselors at nonprofit Jewish overnight camps – almost 14,000 of which were at URJ camps – benefited from the leadership, camaraderie and continuity that camp provides. This will not be the case in 2020.

By investing now, we are helping to make certain camps will welcome campers and young adults in summer 2021. Most Jewish nonprofit camps, no matter their size or affiliation, rely primarily on camper tuition to cover their expenses. Tuition is our camps’ lifeline. As tuition and fee payments arrive, the funds are used to plan and prepare for the summer. They support the year-round professional team, office space, site maintenance, insurance, utilities, and more. At this point in the year, most camps have already invested as much as 50% of anticipated camper fees into staff and camper recruitment, program planning and supplies. With greatly reduced tuition collections, camps will need to significantly cut expenses, which could derail efforts to rebuild camp once the pandemic risk has passed.

We also know that many families will not be in a position to afford camp in the future. Those of us who can need to step up now so those families know that their dream of sending their children to Jewish summer camp will be feasible, regardless of their ability to pay next year.

I know we are up to the task, because I personally have experienced what can happen when we band together. In October 2017, the camp in which Jim and I had invested our time and treasure, URJ Camp Newman, burned to the ground during a vicious northern California wildfire. What we experienced in the aftermath was the definition of arevim ze l’ze: we are there for one another. Our Newman camp family was aided in countless ways – financial, emotional and spiritual. Contributions poured in from all corners of the Jewish community to help our staff and our families. Kids from around the country donated money raised from lemonade stands and bake sales; 13-year olds sent us their bar mitzvah money. That is the power of camp.

Camp is a transformative experience for families across the US and Canada. My own family is proud to join the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to support camp, but we know we can’t do it alone. Together, our investment in Jewish camps will pay dividends for the Jewish community. Every dollar is critical. Join us, so we can bring the magic of camp to future generations.

Daryl Messinger is the immediate past chair of the Union for Reform Judaism. Together with her husband, Jim Heeger, they have each served as chair of the URJ Camp Newman Advisory Board. Jim is also the current vice chair of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the chair of the San Francisco Jewish Federation. The family is a bicoastal camp family; their sons have attended URJ Camp Newman and URJ Eisner Camp.