Spending the summer at Jewish overnight camp once was a spartan affair, often little more than a collection of ramshackle buildings scattered in the woods by a placid lake.
Those were the days.
"Today it's all about the toys," said Rabbi Allan Smith, the former head of the Reform movement’s camp network and a 46-year veteran of the summer camp business. "You have a go-kart track, a climbing wall, a swing, a Burma bridge.
"When I was a kid, 90 percent of the camps were by a lake. Today if you don't have a pool you're a loser. Kids don't like lakes, they're dirty."
Such amenities may make camps more appealing, but they don’t come cheap.
Parents can expect to shell out anywhere from $800 per week per child at one of the less expensive nonprofit camps to $2,000 per week at some of the pricier options. For families already struggling to cover the costs of Jewish education during the school year, sending a child to camp might be one expense too many.
In a bid to help defray the cost, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has awarded more than 43,000 grants to attend a nonprofit summer camp. The grants can be up to $1,000 per family .
"We believe summers at Jewish camp are an important component in one's Jewish identity," said Jeremy Fingerman, the foundation’s CEO. "Camp teaches a joyful Judaism and becomes an important building block for a Jewish future. We believe families challenged economically should not be penalized."
The high tuition at Jewish camps, which directors at the camps agree is considerably costlier than at their Christian counterparts, is cause for concern among those who fear that a potent identity-building opportunity is slipping away from middle-income families.
For Debra Hollander of Shaker Heights, Ohio, sending her children to Jewish camp is a top priority, despite the costs.
"Our three kids go to secular education schools, so for us Jewish camping became even more important," she said.
A 2011 study commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp lends credence to Hollander's view of Jewish camps as important shapers of Jewish identity. According to the study, Jewish camp alumni are 30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity; 37 percent more likely to light Sabbath candles; and 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue.
"The analysis indicates that [camps] bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat lighting candles to using Jewish websites and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity," the study concluded. "Secondly, they bring an inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel."
The FJC, which has a mission to increase the number of Jewish campers, is working to identify ways for camps to slash costs. In recent years it has coordinated the sharing of resources, encouraged the development of alternative revenue sources and helped camp directors improve their managerial skills through a program the organization likens to "an MBA in camping."
Ultimately, the foundation wants to see camps profitable enough to be self-sustaining.
"Camps that are full are profitable and reinvest back in scholarships," Fingerman said. "So there is a power in numbers, and we're working hard to get them full."
Other organizations also have taken steps to make camp more affordable, particularly for less-affiliated families and first-time campers who might be less sold on the value of the camp experience. The Avi Chai and Zell foundations jointly made a $600,000 donation to Ramah to help the Conservative movement’s camp network attract first-timers.
"We're calling it the Ramah Open Door Program, where we're opening up to less Jewish-affiliated families," said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national director.
Paul Reichenbach, the director of camp and Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, said a significant number of children attending his movement's summer programs also receive scholarships.
While camp directors agree that the costs of Jewish overnight camps are high, they offer varying explanations as to the reasons. Some say it’s the relative abundance of staff -- a ratio of one supervisor for every two campers, according to Cohen. Others point to the salaries of directors, which average about $125,000 per year at nonprofit camps, according to public tax filings. Directors at Jewish for-profits can make even more.
Perhaps the biggest factor driving costs, however, is the Jewish community's relative affluence and the resulting expectations.
"What [Jewish camps] provide may be higher with regard to facility, to program options, with regard to staff structure," Reichenbach said. "And we are dealing with a community that has a certain expectation for quality."
Despite a growing recognition of the importance of making tuition affordable, Reichenbach predicted costs would continue to appreciate at a rate of 2 percent to 5 percent each year.
"We live in the real world," he said. "In the last few years our practices have reflected the rise in the cost-of-living index, the cost of energy, of food, of transportation. Right now we are doing the best we can to stay even."
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