Late in the summer of 1987, my parents shipped me off to the Cleveland Jewish Community Center's cleverly named Camp Wise. It was August, the weather was hot, and the little village of wooden cabins with tent flaps for walls was a welcome change from the air-conditioned houses of the city.
I was smitten with camp after my first peek at those cabin-tents -- and that was just the beginning of a six-year-long love affair. Camp Wise sprawled over more than 250 acres of lush East Coast-style woods, which also were home to a pint-sized lake, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a rudimentary ropes course, horse stables and lots of wooden shacks designated for just about every activity you could think of. And, of course, the best part was the campwide Shabbat processional through the woods to our open-air, tree-lined chapel.
Sure, camp is utopia, but even communing with nature can be expensive these days. So, how do families -- who have all of life's necessities plus Hebrew school and bar mitzvahs to think about -- afford such a luxury?
At Camp JCA Shalom, a JCC camp in Malibu, a three-week camping experience can cost almost $2,400, a full summer can run twice that, and these numbers do not include all of the expensive extras -- hiking boots, outdoor gear, sleeping bags, etc. -- that may be necessary.
Luckily, there are a lot of options out there for families on a budget, said Jerry Silverman, the president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. "Talk to the camp, talk to your rabbi, and talk to your local [Jewish] federation -- it is all about asking."
"The end justifies the means," he added. "If you don't ask, your children will suffer."
And Silverman wouldn't want that. He and his organization share the same simple goal: To increase the number of Jewish campers, since it views camp as one of the most powerful ways to build Jewish identity and commitment in young people.
The Foundation for Jewish Camping's Web site has a directory of camp scholarships that will be updated next month to include a more complete list of options for Californians.
Most camps have some sort of scholarship program. Camp JCA Shalom, for example, offers two different financial aid packages -- the Camp JCA Shalom Summer Campership Fund and the Marla Bennett Campership Fund -- to help families afford camp. Although neither of these funds covers the full cost of camp, through the help of The Jewish Federation and individual donors, the camp is able to provide $170,000 in scholarship money each year. Last year, roughly 200 campers received some amount of aid.
Federation allocates more than $500,000 annually to camps, including almost $400,000 to Camp JCA Shalom in 2005. About $160,000 of that total is designated for scholarship programs. California-based Camp Ramah, Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp and Gilboa Habonim D'ror also receive scholarship money.
At The Federation's Summer Camp and Israel Programs Expo on Sunday, Jan. 22, at Valley Beth Shalom, camp discounts will be among the raffle prizes.
The Foundation for Jewish Education is a Beverly Hills-based organization that offers full scholarships for first-time campers whose families are not affiliated with a Jewish school or synagogue. Last year, the foundation sent nine campers to Camp Alonim.
If financial aid is not right for your family, Rachel Grose of the Jewish Free Loan Association, a Jewish Federation agency, suggested tapping the many interest-free loan options available to the Jewish community. For example, she said the Morris Doberne Camper Experience Loan Fund and the Jewish Free Loan Association are two great resources, both of which offer loans of up to $2,000 per camper.
According to Silverman, finding the right financial assistance or loan option is worth doing some research.
"Jewish summer camp is the most undervalued investment in the Jewish community," he said.
He knows this from first-hand observation. When Silverman's 9-year-old daughter, Alison, attended her first year at camp, she fell in love with the intoxicating mix of nature and Jewish culture. Silverman was struck by his daughter's real emotion when she cried for her now-disbanded camp family and when she questioned why her real family does not sing for an hour after Shabbat dinner like she did at camp.
"I am telling you right now, I cannot describe the glow on my daughter's face," Silverman said of his daughter's return.
Phil Liff-Grieff, the associate director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, agreed with Silverman that camping is a wonderful tool for all Jewish people -- namely because it is undiluted Jewish living.
"Rules of the outside world can be left in the outside world," he said. "It is a total experience."
At camp, Liff-Grieff said, every activity becomes an opportunity to teach Jewish life -- even a basketball game. For example, he explained, campers learn how to behave on the court from friends and staff members.
Maybe times have changed, but I seem to remember more healthy competition than moral instruction on the b-ball courts of my Camp Wise childhood. Another thing I can't remember: What financial sacrifices my parents made so that I could go to camp. But I definitely remember the one-of-kind experience of JCC summer camp -- or, as I prefer to call it: utopia.
The Federation's Summer Camp and Israel Programs Expo will be held Sunday, Jan. 22, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Summer programs for all ages and denominations will be represented, plus food, entertainment, prizes and raffles for camp discounts. For more information, call Lori Harrison-Port at (323) 761-8343.
For more information and a directory of camp scholarships, visit the Foundation for Jewish Camping at www.jewishcamping.org. For information on the Jewish Free Loan Association go to www.jfla.org. For information on the Foundation for Jewish education go to www.tfjeinc.org.