Jewish Journal

More Jewish Parents Picking Secular Path to Camp

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Aug. 10, 2006 at 8:00 pm

Most of the 4,500 campers returning from Jewish overnight camps this month will come home tired and dirty, with a suitcase full of laundry, a head full of memories and an address book full of new friends. Many will already be counting the days until next summer.

But according to a new study, only about 40 percent of the kids' families say they intend to send them back to Jewish camp the following summer -- compared to 60 percent who intend to return to non-Jewish camps. That is one of the surprising findings that camp directors and lay leaders will have to grapple with as they analyze and incorporate into their marketing and programming a study of the Southern California overnight camping market commissioned by the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camping and supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The report found that twice as many kids from Jewish homes attend nonsectarian overnight camps as attend Jewish camps, numbers in keeping with national averages. The vast majority -- about 70 percent -- of Southern California Jewish families with camp-age kids are not familiar with any Jewish camps in the region.

So while insiders swear by -- and population surveys confirm -- camp's ability to foster lifelong positive Jewish identity, most Jewish families haven't ever thought about Jewish camp, and a fair number who tried it for a summer or two didn't go back, despite an 80 percent rate of satisfaction among families who chose Jewish camps.

The data in the report both confirm, expand upon and challenge long-held perceptions.

"Our images of Jewish camping are formed by people who are heavy Jewish campers, but there are lots of people who are light Jewish campers and campers at non-Jewish camps, and this study accessed their views on Jewish camping," Steven M. Cohen, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion sociologist who authored the study, told The Jewish Journal. "I think we learned that there are diverse incentives and obstacles to participation in Jewish camping."

Cohen will be in Los Angeles in mid-September to meet with lay leaders, communal professionals, camp directors and representatives from the Foundation for Jewish Camping to parse the data and discuss the implications and strategies of the findings.

The study of the camp market was the first of its kind, and the Foundation for Jewish Camping hopes to replicate it in other parts of the country. Last summer, when the study was conducted, there were 60,000 campers and 12,000 counselors at 120 Jewish overnight camps in North America.

The Southern California market includes Camp Ramah in Ojai, Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop in Malibu, Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley and Habonim Dror's Camp Gilboa in the San Bernardino Mountains. This summer two new camps were added to the list: Camp Mountain Chai near San Diego and Chabad's Camp Gan Israel in Running Springs -- the first Orthodox camp in the area for more than a decade. The Reform movement's Camps Newman and Swig in Northern California and Camp Tawonga near Yosemite also pull from this market, as does Camp Moshava in Wisconsin, which attracts more than 100 Orthodox Angelenos every summer.

Camp's ability to foster Jewish identity -- as well as maturity and independence -- is well-documented.

The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey found that attending Jewish overnight camp positively impacts rates of in-marriage, synagogue affiliation, ritual activity and attachment to Israel -- leaving a much stronger impression than up to six years of religious school.

It's not hard to figure out why. For kids who like camp (and there are those who just can't get past mosquitoes and camp food and dirt and being away from mom and dad), Jewish memories are created in an atmosphere that is intensely fun and unique. All those positive feelings engendered while singing atop a mountain after a long hike or warming by the campfire under the stars are intertwined with associations with Shabbat Torah study and Israeli dancing .

But while the number of Jewish campers nationally has increased steadily over the past several decades, the study found that only 30 percent of Jewish kids in Southern California have ever attended a Jewish summer camp.

One of the main obstacles is cost, which in itself isn't surprising. But what was unexpected was that the cost barrier seems to be higher for Jewish camps than it is for non-Jewish camps. Families with lower income were more inclined to pay for non-Jewish camp than they were for Jewish camps, even though private secular camps often cost a lot more than the average $900 a week Jewish camps cost.

Families who had sent a child to Jewish camp were less likely to think the cost was prohibitive than families who had never attended camp.

While the idea that Jewish camp isn't "worth it" doesn't sit right with Jordanna Flores -- as an alumnus and now director of Camp Alonim she can attest to its value -- she has incorporated the findings into the camps ongoing strategic planning.

"We're working on bells and whistles, so when a family comes for the open house and mom says to the little boy, 'Do you want to come to this camp,' he says, 'Yeah I really do,' because we've got a zip line into the pool or a skateboard halfpipe," said Flores, who reviewed preliminary findings of the study in March at the Foundation for Jewish Camping's conference.

Camps are also looking at increasing scholarship availability.

"One of the clear messages was that cost is an issue and impediment to going to Jewish camp," said Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. "The L.A. community should have some type of campership program which gives an opportunity to every Jewish kid to go to a Jewish camp."

Silverman cited programs in Chicago, Boston and western Massachusetts that offer significant relief for camp tuition. San Francisco, through its federation, funds campers up to 50 percent from a $300,000 fund.

As part of its 50th anniversary strategic planning, Camp Ramah in Ojai is working on increasing its campership endowment and finding ways to stabilize and even decrease the cost of camp, according to Julie Platt, Ramah California's board chair. Camp Ramah has increased its disbursements of scholarship money from $120,000 in 2002 to $225,000 in 2006.

Planning also involves improving the facilities at Ramah and hiring top-notch specialists. That move comes in reaction to a quirk in the Southern California camping market: Most West Coasters patch together a motley summer schedule -- two or three weeks of Jewish camp, two weeks of drama camp, a week of tennis and some time at Jewish day camp.

Competing in that market means im proving the camp experience, something the Foundation for Jewish Camping has been working on since it was founded in 1998.

This year, it launched the Executive Leadership Institute to give high-level training to camp directors. For the past several years, its Cornerstone Fellowship has offered training and support to veteran counselors. Southern California camps are involved in both those programs and benefit from the resources, seminars and consulting offered by the foundation.

Chicago's Harold Grinspoon Foundation also launched a successful matching funds initiative this year, disbursing nearly $2.8 million to 26 camps, which raised a combined $8.2 million on their own -- 95 percent of it from new donors. All of that money will go to improve facilities -- part of an attempt to combat the reality that families who are not already highly connected to the Jewish community do not consider Jewish camps on par with secular camps.

Right now, Jewish camps are filled primarily with kids who come from highly affiliated families. Families who attend synagogue, are not intermarried and are giving their kids a formal Jewish education are nine times more likely to send kids to Jewish camp than unaffiliated families.

Interestingly, families where one parent has converted to Judaism are more likely than in-married families to send their kids to Jewish camp. Kids who go to Hebrew school three times a week are the population most likely to go to Jewish camp and are the only group more likely to go to Jewish camp than nonsectarian camp.

While parents who send their kids to Jewish camps rate having a positive Jewish experience high on their list of desired outcomes, those who don't attend Jewish camps are more interested in their kids having fun and growing and maturing over the summer. At the same time, parents who once opted for Jewish camp and then didn't re-enroll their kids were most likely to report that they wanted their kids exposed to a more diverse population.

Yet even within the highly affiliated population, only one in four synagogue members with camp-aged kids opts for a Jewish summer experience.

So there is room both within the highly affiliated population and the unaffiliated population for enormous growth. Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, believes it can be achieved, in part, through two-pronged marketing as camp directors and community leaders gather in September to strategize.

"When you use the word 'Jewish' with camping, it is like the 'Jewish' is synonymous with yeshiva -- meaning that it is educational, traditional, about study and services and prayer and spirituality and not fun," said Silverman, formerly president of the Keds Corp. "We need to strategize about how we get across the message that camp is a place for kids to have an enormous amount of fun through sports and arts and creativity, and it's a place to celebrate being Jewish."

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