The summer he attended a Christian day camp for free made a lasting impression on Allen Alevy, age 7 at the time. "They said I'd go to hell," he recalled of an attempted conversion.
His father, a naval shipyard laborer, could afford little else. The nonobservant family of second-generation Russian immigrants lived in a subsidized housing project, Truman Boyd Manor. None of their neighbors were Jews.
Having pulled himself out of poverty through hard work and two California real estate booms, Alevy, 67, said he doesn't want other cash-poor Jewish families, particularly those in the military, to be guided by their pocketbook this summer.
Alevy is a 25-year financial supporter of Huntington Beach's Hebrew Academy, which in summer becomes one of the area's most affordable day camps. In June, he established an open-ended fund for full or partial camp scholarships to permit the children of Jewish military families to attend camp, which has a second location at Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita.
Over the course of five two-week sessions, about 850 children, ages 2 to 14, enroll between the two locations. Traditional camp activities include sports, swimming, drama, dance, cooking, computers, ceramics and fabric art. Each week also has a Jewish theme. The cost is $150 per week.
Last year, about 20 percent of camp enrollees received some financial help, amounting to about $20,000 in subsidies, said Rabbi Zalman Marcus, director of the south county camp.
"There are plenty of Christian camps, and every Jewish institution is short of money," Alevy said. "I may as well spend it while I'm here."
The number of requests for camp assistance "is a silent epidemic afflicting our community," says a financial appeal issued in May by Marcus, also rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Mission Viejo. "It's definitely more desperate than in the past. I didn't realize how widespread it is."
His appeal describes the long summer tedium confronting two sets of young children, their parents buffeted by desertion, job loss and injury.
"Those are true stories," said Marcus, about working parents for whom camp is not an indulgence or enrichment, but an unaffordable necessity. Parents will typically forgo work rather than leave their children alone, he said. "They're really up a creek."
"The kids will go out of their minds," with both boredom and envy, Marcus said.
Many of their more affluent playmates confront a different dilemma: scheduling and selecting from among the ever-increasing array of specialty day camps locally available. These include the Jewish Community Center's day camp held at Irvine's Tarbut V' Torah Community Day School. For nonmembers, its cost ranges from a three-day, $310 kindercamp to $700 for a three-week theater camp.
The needy are not so obvious here because many people superficially retain an image of affluence, Marcus said. "People are embarrassed; they are in cars they can't afford or don't have health insurance. They're just making it; they're not going into the street. But camp is a luxury."