December 13, 2007
Summer activities push camps to offer variety
Ruth Berkowitz, mother of five, has two manila folders stuffed with camp brochures, schedules and a pencil-drawn spreadsheet compiled of summer activities for her five children, including a column for each week. |
Berkowitz, an Orthodox Jew, has sent her children to both Jewish and nonsectarian summer camps, including the Paul Young Sports Club, Destination Science at Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, pottery camp, Fitness by the Sea in Santa Monica, Los Angeles Zoo camp, LACMA camp, Beverly Hills Library programs, Brentwood Art Center and Camp Yavneh, among others. Her oldest, who is 11, attends sleep-away camp on the East Coast.
"It's like a race to get each kid to camp," she said.
Like many parents, Berkowitz wants to expose her children to as many activities during the summer as possible, because, as she said, they are cooped up in school all year with their schedules pre-determined. Opting for shorter summer camp sessions allows children to pursue a multitude of options, and while some camps still offer long, full-summer sessions, recent studies indicate that Southern California parents have a tendency to crave a bit of everything, in contrast to larger scheduling blocks dominant in the rest of the country.
Within the past few years, Jewish overnight and day camps in California have incorporated multiple activities, as well as shorter sessions to accommodate the changing trend.
They know there is much at stake: Positive Jewish exposure during the summer, especially at overnight camp, can strengthen kids' long-term Jewish identity better than most other Jewish educational endeavors.
Camp JCA Shalom has offered one-week sessions for younger campers for about 15 years, but this year the nondenominational Malibu camp is offering seven one-week sessions for second- to sixth-grade campers who are not ready to spend four or six weeks at sleep-away camp.
"The goal is to get Jewish kids into camp so they will come for the longer sessions," said Bill Kaplan, Shalom Institute's executive director.
But some camps worry that one-week sessions are not long enough for effective Jewish-identity building.
"It's like running a marathon. Do you want to get somewhere fast or build the skills to become a good runner?" said Glenda Saul, director of Camp Simcha at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a day camp.
Saul said it is much more effective for children to stay in camp for an extended period of time rather than just a week, so the shortest program camp Simcha offers is a two-week session.
But even a short stay has benefits.
"It only takes one positive experience in the Jewish camp setting for a child to feel the magic of camp," said Jenn Arnold, assistant director of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, which has been offering one- and two-week sessions for about 15 years. "We often have staff apply to work who only attended one summer at Alonim as a camper. Despite that single experience, and the years taken off in between that one summer and their staff application, they attribute that time as a major influence for their connection to Judaism. A short time can have a great impact," Arnold said.
For 16-year-old counselors in training, the camp plans to offer the option of four to six weeks, rather than the full eight weeks because, Arnold said, teens want the option to do other things during their summers, as well.
Paul Young Sports Club for boys, which caters to the Orthodox day school population, has a more traditional approach to camp. Sessions typically last around four weeks, but director Paul Young said he will prorate two to three weeks if a family plans to go on vacation or if kids are going to specialty camps for a week or two. Still, two weeks is the shortest option he offers. "Younger kids take longer to acclimate to the situation," he said. "One week is not enough."
Many of these changes come in response to trends documented in a study of the Southern California Jewish residential camping market published in 2006 by the Foundation for Jewish Camping (FJC). That study, conducted by Hebrew Union College research professor of Jewish social policy, Steven M. Cohen, found that Jewish kids are twice as likely to attend nonsectarian camps as Jewish camps, and that a high percentage of kids attend multiple camps in one summer, some of them Jewish, some of them nonsectarian specialty camps.
"There are juggling camps, magician camps, spaceship camps and more," said Jerry Silverman, president of the FJC, noting the significant competition in summer entertainment.
Jewish camps are also investing more in using skilled specialists to enhance various programs, and the FJC has worked hard to increase the number of kids attending Jewish camps and to improve the quality of those camps.
Silverman said that in 2003, 46,000 children attended Jewish nonprofit camps, and this year it is up to 70,000, due in part to more innovative programming and activities.
"Camps have opened their eyes to the competition," he said.