Growing up in Danbury, Conn., Prissi Cohen didn’t give much thought to Judaism until she started going to summer camp at age 9. Then, the eight weeks she’d spend immersed in friends, sports and Hebrew songs became a thrill she looked forward to year after year.
“Camp was the best,” said Cohen, 49, now of Marina del Rey. “It strengthened my Jewish identity. It helped me develop friendships with other Jewish people, with whom I have wonderful, lasting relationships.”
This summer, Cohen wants to introduce her daughter, Tillie, 8, to her first sleep-away camp experience. But the hefty price tag of most overnight programs is making her think twice.
“Financially, it’s tough,” said Cohen, who runs her own small business. “The cost is prohibitive.”
Scores of families are in the same bind as registration gets under way at camps across Southern California: Parents want to give their children a sun-drenched summer spent among Jewish peers, but many fear the economic climate will continue to chill, even as the weather warms up. Most camps cost between $800 and $1,000 a week.
In response, camps are ramping up outreach this year to hold onto returning families and recruit new ones. Many camps offer discounts for early-bird registration and sibling enrollments. Most also give out need-based scholarship awards, or “camperships,” that can take a sizeable bite out of tuition. In addition, camp officials are urging first-time campers to take advantage of various incentive grants made available through a partnership between The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the national Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).
So far, the range of financial aid options has helped stem the loss of campers from West Coast facilities.
“We’re actually doing better than we expected,” said Randy Michaels, business director for Camp Ramah in California. Although Ramah officials had been expecting a 12 percent drop from 2008’s total of 1,350 kids, enrollment is only down about 30 kids from this time last year.
To accommodate cash-strapped families, Ramah added an extra $75,000 to its scholarship pool this year, bringing the total to more than $300,000 — a 25 percent increase over last year’s fund. “We are encouraging families, even if you think you can’t afford it, apply anyway,” Michaels said. “We do not want to turn campers away for financial reasons.”
Neither does Camp Alonim, the long-running summer program at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley. The nondenominational camp advertises an array of cost-cutting measures on its Web site, including a two-week option in lieu of the full three-week session and scholarships of up to 50 percent of tuition through the Arthur Pinchev Camp Alonim Scholarship Fund. The camp also offers a unique 10 percent “Jewish professionals discount” to parents who work for local Jewish organizations or schools — just mail in your business card with your application.
While enrollment is strong so far, Camp Alonim Executive Director Jordanna Flores fears some families might pull out before the summer.
“What we’re hearing is, ‘I’ll sign up now to save the spot, but I’ll wait and see how much scholarship I’m going to get,’” she said.
Nationwide, the number of families seeking aid is rising between 10 percent and 20 percent this year, according to Jerry Silverman, executive director of the FJC, a national organization that offers support to for more than 150 nonprofit Jewish overnight camps.
“Every camp has felt an increase in requests for support from families in need,” he said. “Camps really understand the financial shifts that have occurred and are very sensitive to families and ready to work with them.”
On top of discounts at individual camps, families enrolling their children in overnight camp for the first time can take advantage of special financial incentives through the FJC and The Jewish Federation. The JWest Campership program, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, awards grants of up to $1,500 to first-timers in grades six to eight attending sessions of at least three weeks.
The incentive grants have been “a savior” this year for Camp Gan Israel-Running Springs, a Chabad-founded overnight camp located in the San Bernardino National Forest.
“I was scared, like everyone else, that enrollment would be down this year,” said Rabbi Hertzie Richler, director of CGI-Running Springs.
“But the grants are helping people that previously wouldn’t think of going to camp.”
More campers than in previous years will be on financial aid this summer, but Richler is hopeful that with the boost in sign-ups, the camp won’t have to cut programming.
While some families may opt for a less pricey day came option, for Cohen, who still recalls years of “color wars” and singing a special melody of “Adon Olam” with her peers, nothing can replace the joy of overnight camp. She is considering taking an incentive grant to give her daughter what she believes is “a gift.”
“I want her to be exposed to the beauty of camp, so the experience is a memory for her,” Cohen said. “I want her to have the same opportunity that I had.”
Foundation for Jewish Camp and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles incentive grants: The FJC and The Jewish Federation have partnered to offer incentive grants of up to $1,500 to first-time campers of all ages. The JWest Campership program specifically targets kids in grades six to eight enrolling in Jewish overnight camps for a minimum of three weeks. For more information, visit www.onehappycamper.org.
Second-year FJC and Jewish Federation grants: Families who received first-timer grants last year are still eligible for smaller, second- year grants of $500 to $1,000. Visit www.onehappycamper.org for more information.
Lowy Conservative Movement Affiliation Incentive: At Camp Ramah, $1,000 tuition grants are available to first-time Ramah families who sign up for a four-week session and are members of a Conservative movement synagogue. These can be combined with FJC/Jewish Federation incentive grants. Contact your synagogue for a nomination.
Jewish Free Loan Association: JFLA, a nonprofit lending organization, offers interest-free loans for kids to attend Jewish summer camps in the L.A. area. Families can receive up to $2,000 per child — multiple loans per family are allowed — that are good for either day camp or overnight camp. One or two co-signers may be required. The average appointment takes 20 minutes. Visit www.JFLA.org.
IRS child and dependent care tax credits: In certain cases, day care expenses can be considered dependent care services and paid with pretax dollars, according to the American Camp Association. The IRS allows an income tax credit of up to $6,000 for dependent care expenses if families have two or more dependents (up to $3,000 for one dependent). The amount of the credit is based on adjusted gross income and applies only to federal taxes. Qualifying day camp expenses count. For more information, visit www.fsafeds.com/fsafeds/index.asp.