Day schools are fine for school days. Synagogue is great for Shabbat and High Holidays. But for those weeks when children are in cabins, singing and laughing with friends, Jewish camp is a singular experience of 24/7, full-tilt boogie Judaism.
"Although I attended religious school, summer camp is where I first became connected with being Jewish," said Fred Reisz, a Brentwood attorney and father of two toddlers who was a Camp Hess Kramer camper from 1975 to 1979, then a camp staffer from 1980 to 1985. "I think it's important to realize that these summer camps are 'Jewish summer camps' as opposed to summer camps for Jews; you get a sense of your heritage and it instills a pride and joy in being Jewish."
Howard Kaplan, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, said Jewish summer camps are, "probably the most powerful engine for Jewish continuity that the community has. They're living in a Jewish environment. Even if they play basketball, it's in a Jewish environment. What I tell parents is, 'It's where it gets in their bones.'"
"For a certain number of kids, especially post-bar mitzvah, this is their Jewish life," he said. "Here's the reality; it's not inexpensive, but you know going in that it's value."
But all the costs of Jewish community life, including camp fees, can be burdensome. Jewish summer camp fees in Southern California now average almost $3,000 for four weeks at places such as Malibu's Camp Hess Kramer or Camp Ramah in Ojai, similar to weekly fees at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute's Camp Alonim in Simi Valley.
"Even an upper-middle-class family with two kids struggles to put kids through the system," said Ron Wolfson, a University of Judaism (UJ) vice president and director of the UJ's Whizin Center for the Jewish Future. "I think people would have more children if they can afford more of these things."
"Trying to send my kids to a Jewish summer camp will be an expensive proposition but I think it has so many rewards with it," Reisz said. "Choosing to send my kid to camp is something that is always contemplated and that is saved for."
According to the Foundation for Jewish Camping in New York, there are about 110 "not-for-profit sleep-away" camps near Jewish urban populations in the United States and Canada. While Jewish camp can be a character-building chapter in many lives, the foundation's Web site states that a total of 50,000 kids attend Jewish camps each summer -- "less than 8 percent of the 650,000 Jewish children believed to be of camp age." Most of these camps nationwide are at full capacity this summer, with long waiting lists
Gina Gross, a licensing consultant in Beverlywood, will have her two young daughters in summer activities such as day camp and art school for the older one, and swimming and ballet classes for her younger one. It's affordable and within the budget she and husband have set, but Gross knows that many Jewish parents fret over being able to give their children meaningful summer memories.
"There are tons of people who have struggles with it," Gross said. "What do you do with your kids for the summer? I think the struggle is for those parents who are not as well off. What can you do that doesn't break the bank?"
More parents, slogging through California's slow pull out of the nation's economic slump, are applying for camp financial aid.
"It's getting to be a stretch for more families. Our scholarship requests, like everybody else's, have grown," said Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of the UJ's Camp Ramah. "Fifteen, 20 years ago, summer camp had a certain Wild West feeling, it was fairly unregulated. And summer camps have been forced to conform, but there are costs associated with that."
Like many synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has a camp fund that distributes need-based scholarships selected by a committee, of which Reisz was a member.
Consider also an increased camp cost; while many businesses saw post-Sept. 11 insurance spikes, the cost of running summer camps jumped further in 2002 when insurance for all summer camps rose as a ripple effect of the Roman Catholic Church's clergy sex scandal.
"It did not help us with our liability," Kaplan said.
But if kids really want to go to Jewish summer camp, there is assistance.
"Parents are usually doing something with their kids [during summer], and it usually costs money," Kaplan said. "It's very rare that a kid doesn't get to camp because of our not being able to meet the needs and scholarships."