May 25, 2000
Local camp directors share ideas and information to enrich the Jewish camping experience.
When Mark Miller arrived in Los Angeles to become the associate director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple's camps and conference center, he expected to find fierce competition among Southern California's Jewish summer camps. Instead, he's been pleasantly surprised by the spirit of cooperation that exists within the local camping community. At a recent breakfast meeting that brought together the heads of L.A.'s major Jewish sleepaway camps, Miller could comfortably ask his colleagues for help in filling a staff position: "Does anyone have an extra ropes course guy?"
This informal network of camp directors meets every few months. Its members include Miller and Howard Kaplan of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (which operates both Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp); Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center (under the auspices of the Jewish Centers Association of Greater Los Angeles); and Brian N. Greene, executive director of Camp Ramah in Ojai. Arthur Pinchev, who directs the Brandeis-Bardin Institute's Camp Alonim, and Nitzan Barak, shlicha of Habonim Dror's Camp Gilboa, also participate. They discuss policy, staffing and security issues, as well as how best to utilize the shlichim, or leaders, who are sent by the Jewish Agency to bring the spirit of Israel into American summer camps. As a result of one such meeting, Bill Kaplan has borrowed word-for-word Camp Hess Kramer's standards on tattoos and body-piercings to use at his own Camp JCA Shalom. The directors also tour one another's facilities, partly so as to be able to guide children toward the camp that's right for them.
One reason for the lack of competitiveness lies in the recognition that, as Nitzan Barak puts it, "each of us has a different and unique Jewish camp environment." Her camp, sponsored by a Zionist organization, reflects the ideals of Israeli kibbutz life. Camp Ramah has close ties with Conservative Judaism, while Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps lean toward the philosophy of the Reform movement. (Currently, there is little in the way of overnight camping for Orthodox children in Southern California.) The camps also vary widely in terms of their locations and their recreational offerings. For instance, Camp JCA Shalom has come to specialize in nature study; Camp Alonim boasts a stable of horses.
Directors also feel free to cooperate because, in Brian Greene's words, "at this point, there are plenty of children to go around." There was a period, from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, when the Jewish camp population dipped so low that some local camps sold off their property. But today's strong economy, a need for child-care among households with two working parents, and the ongoing drive to promote Jewish continuity through informal education have all contributed to what is frequently called a "Jewish camping renaissance." The result is that most Jewish camps in Southern California are now bursting at the seams. As a result, the directors face the challenge of how to accommodate more camperswithout destroying what makes their programs special.
Camp Ramah, full to capacity for the last five years, has just broken ground for three new bunkhouses and has purchased the ranch that abuts its Ojai campsite. Says Brian Greene, "We're trying to expand carefully to meet the need that's out there. We're tired of wait-lists and having to turn away campers." Other camps are working to renovate and enlarge buildings that may be 30 years old. But Mark Miller cautions that expansion is not a simple matter. When bunks are added for additional campers, the infrastructure too must grow, to support staff housing, greater septic demands, and other practical needs. That's why travel camps and other off-site experiments are gaining favor: they put less strain on existing camp facilities and can easily be scaled back if the economy takes a downturn.
What unites all the camp directors is a common belief in the value of Jewish camping. They see camp as a place where havdalah marks the end of a real Shabbat, and where children live their Judaism 24 hours a day. (One synagogue's education director quietly agrees that "a kid will get more out of two weeks at camp than a year at religious school.") But while these directors are thrilled by the current camping boom, they wish that some major philanthropist would step up to the plate, as Charles Bronfman has done on behalf of Israel trips for young Jews. Referring toBronfman's Birthright Foundation, which has recently given thousands of college students free trips to the Jewish homeland, Bill Kaplan admits that his ultimate dream is "to see every Jewish child have a camp experience as a birthright."
The sad fact is that, even in these boom times, fewer than 15 percent of Jewish children attend Jewish camps. If there were more money, Nitzan Barak would choose to spend it on outreach, to attract those parents who don't know from their own childhood experiences the joys of Jewish camping. Brian Greene speaks wistfully of scholarships to make camp more easily affordable: "I don't want camping to be something that is for an elite." All agree that the time is ripe for a big spender who can help make summer camp a reality for Jewish children across America.
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