Parents send their children to summer camps for a variety of reasons. Some want their kids to gain the confidence of being “away from home” and learn self-reliance in a new situation. Other parents might want their children to receive skill-building instruction in horseback riding or water skiing — things children might not experience in their daily lives. Still others may want to strengthen their child’s Jewish identity by choosing a Jewish camp.
In their 2002 study of Jewish camps, “Limud by the Lake: Fulfilling the Educational Potential of Jewish Summer Camps” (AVI CHAI Foundation), Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe describe the “magic” of camp: captivating children’s imaginations, building strong camp memories and winning lifelong devotees.
Choosing the right camp can have a significant impact upon your child’s life. Along with Jewish day school education and trips to Israel, a Jewish camp experience is one of the strongest determinants of whether a child will grow up to seek out a Jewish spouse and live a Jewish adulthood. “The fun of camp makes campers open, available to Jewish practices that they might scorn at home,” according to Sales and Saxe.
The following are aspects to consider when choosing a Jewish camp:
Level of observance. The biggest difference among Jewish camps is the level of observance. Am I choosing a camp that has predominantly Jewish campers (but is nondenominational in practice), or am I choosing a Jewish identity camp where the Jewish education is woven into the fabric of the camp? Is Jewish life compartmentalized into one activity period? Is Shabbat set apart from the regular camp week? Is there daily tefillah (prayer)? Is the camp kosher or kosher-style? Your question as a parent should be: Do I want my child to experience more, less or similar Jewish practice at camp than we practice at home?
Staff. Sales and Saxe write that “a camp’s goals for Jewish education are shaped by the camp’s sponsorship, leadership, population and history.” So is the director of the camp a Jewish educator or rabbi? Is this important to me? Besides the Jewish professionals, are the bunk counselors and specialty staff Jewish? If most of the staff is not Jewish, then those “teachable moments” that occur outside of shiur (Jewish study period) are lost.
Geography. If you’re from Southern California and would like your child to experience a whole new group of friends, you may want to consider a camp in Northern California, the Midwest or on the East Coast. California features at least 10 Jewish residential camps, each with its own level of observance, activities and leadership. Jewish identity camps are mostly co-ed, while Orthodox camps are almost uniformly single sex.
Affiliation. Most Jewish camps affiliate with a particular branch of Judaism. Because they have a mission to form summer communities that complement their respective communities at home, there is consistency of Jewish practice and values. Camp Ramah in California is affiliated with the Conservative movement. Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu are affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. NCSY has a camp in the Midwest appealing to Modern Orthodox families, and the Orthodox Union sponsors some more religious, single-sex camps on the East Coast.
Nationwide. there are agency camps, affiliated with Jewish community centers, federations and other organizations. These tend to be the most pluralistic, trying to appeal to all branches of Judaism by having common characteristics of kashrut (kosher) and Shabbat observance. Most of these camps are subsidized by agencies, making them a more affordable alternative than private camps. Unaffiliated, pluralistic camps also exist, like Camp Mountain Chai in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Research. There are other questions to consider when choosing a camp, like health and safety, trips and activities. When you are ready to investigate camps, there are many ways to do your research:
• talk to camp directors;
• visit a camp (many camps have family weekends when camp is not in session);
• talk to a camp consultant (they make visits to camps in summer and can give you insight beyond a brochure or DVD);
• talk to other children and parents (referrals from other families with camp experience is a great way to get the real scoop);
• attend a camp fair (the Summer Opportunities Fair at Marymount High School is on Sunday, Feb. 7, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (310) 202-8535).
Sales and Saxe sum up the need for Jewish camps when they write: “The camp setting is an ideal place for realizing the full potential of informal Jewish education and for experimenting with programming that makes Judaism an organic part of everyday life.” If this is your goal, then a Jewish camp is the right answer for you. Happy camping.
Jill Levin (West Coast) and Jenny Wolkowitz (Midwest) are advisors with Tips on Trips and Camps (tipsontripsandcamps.com ), a free camp advisory service. For more information, call (310) 202-8448.