While the summer is still a good four months away, the race to register for Jewish overnight camp has already kicked into high gear.
"A lot of families don't realize that you've got to act fast," said Stacey Barrett of Sherman Oaks, whose daughter has attended Brandeis-Bardin Institute's Camp Alonim in Simi Valley for seven summers. "One year I mailed in the application in February and my daughter was placed on a waiting list."
A 1995-1997 study by the Foundation for Jewish Camping found Jewish camps significantly increase Jewish identity, affiliation and practice, while decreasing the likelihood of intermarriage. Unfortunately, getting into a local Jewish camp is not as easy as finding a reason to go. With only a handful of Jewish residential camps in the Greater Los Angeles area, parents must act quickly or find another summer activity for their children.
Each summer, administrators at Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu, both run by Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, must turn away 25 to 40 prospective campers. Enrollment begins in December and experienced parents know to send their deposits right away.
"You're pretty much out of luck if you wait to turn in your application in February," said Cheryl Garland, the office administrator for the Reform residential camps. Like other camps around the city, even getting a top spot on the waiting list is not easy. Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregants get first priority, returning campers get second preference and new campers are the low men on the totem pole for securing a place once wait-listed.
Admittance to Camp Ramah, which has seven overnight camps around the United States and Canada, including one in Ojai, has gotten so competitive that administrators now accept applications as early as September.
"I was lucky," said Janet Urman, whose son and daughter will attend Ramah for their second and fourth summers, respectively. "I have nieces and nephews who went to Ramah, so I was told I had to get [the application] in the day [I received it in the mail] or soon as possible."
The Los Angeles resident said that some Ramah parents drive their applications to the camp offices the day they receive them to ensure that their children will get in.
While cabins for certain age groups fill up faster than others, Camp Ramah's Assistant Director Zachary Lasker said that some children miss out on the experience because parents take for granted that Ramah is full.
"The big myth is that Ramah in California fills up right away and certain parents think, 'Why bother trying?'" said the camp administrator.
Currently, Ramah's seventh- to 10th-grade cabins are filling up fast, but there are still a number of slots open for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Ramah officials are also in talks about referring families to other Ramah camps around the country that might have more availability.
Ramah, which runs seven overnight camps and five day camps, is the only Conservative Jewish residential camp on the West Coast. In fact, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is the next closest. The National Ramah Camp Commission, Inc. is considering building another camp in San Diego or Northern California to accommodate more West Coast families looking for a Conservative summer environment. Ramah will be opening a day camp in Berkeley this summer.
Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute: Camp & Conference Center, which runs Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, anticipates that his camp will begin a waiting list in March when he expects enrollment to reach capacity. As the camp is affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Centers, Camp JCA Shalom finds most of its camps through those groups. Camp scholarships are available through The Federation and 30 percent to 40 percent of campers receive financial aid. Even though the camp is able to attract enough campers, Kaplan noted that many families are unaware of the scholarship program.
"There are families that aren't applying to camp because they think they can't afford it," he said.
Camp Alonim, a non denominational camp celebrating its 50th anniversary in June, is also filling up. Jill Sava, the camp's assistant director, said that while many slots are taken, there is availability within some of the sessions.
"It depends so much on age group, session and gender," Sava said.
Apparently, the older age groups and girls' cabins fill up faster and most campers seem to prefer the middle sessions as opposed to the first and last of the one-, two- and three-week sessions.
Only one local Jewish residential camp claims to have a number of openings for this coming summer: Camp Gilgoa in West Hills, which is a Labor Zionist Youth Movement (Habonim Dror) camp that operates like a kibbutz. "We have lots of space and would love to have more kids," said camp recruiter Natalie Stanger.
Stanger said that Camp Gilgoa is less popular because it doesn't directly draw from a synagogue.
"There's not this huge organized force behind [Camp Gilgoa] like some of the other camps," she said.
The urgency to sign up for camp has become both a learning experience and a fact of life for many L.A.-area Jewish parents.
"I'm not the type to let things sit around," said Wendy Bachelis, a Calabasas resident whose daughter has attended Hess Kramer for five summers. "I knew from [sending my daughter] to day camp that the good [sessions] fill up first."
Barrett said she only made the mistake of holding off on registration one time:
"Once you get an e-mail saying your kid is on the waiting list, you learn your lesson and fill out the application immediately."
For more information on Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, call (213) 388-2401. For Camp Ramah, call (310) 476-8571. For Camp JCA Shalom, call (818) 889-5500, ext. 1. For Camp Alonim, call the Brandeis-Bardin Institute at (805) 582-4450. For Camp Gilgoa, call (818) 464-3224. Â