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With seed help, niche camps hope to draw more young Jews

By Jacob Berkman, JTA

March 25, 2010 | 3:11 pm

The funders of five new Jewish specialty camps hope to attract Jewish kids who otherwise would not attend a more typical Jewish summer camp like the one pictured above. (Foundation for Jewish Camp)<br />

The funders of five new Jewish specialty camps hope to attract Jewish kids who otherwise would not attend a more typical Jewish summer camp like the one pictured above. (Foundation for Jewish Camp)

While most kids who attend Jewish overnight camps this summer will ship off to rural settings, a handful will find themselves in the concrete jungle of Manhattan engaged in what could be described as early career development.

The 92nd Street Y in Manhattan is recruiting campers for Passport NYC, a program offering its participants several New York-specific tracks involving three weeks of immersion in popular “specialties” such as film, fashion, culinary arts, the music industry and baseball.

They will be able to work with industry professionals in New York who are leaders in their fields, from Greenmarket to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets.

Passport NYC is one of five camps across the United States that was started with seed money from the Specialty Camps Incubator run by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation with a $10.1 million grant two years ago.

The incubator also has helped start Eden Village Camp, a pluralistic coed camp in upstate New York focused on Jewish environmentalism; Adamah Adventures in Georgia, which will take Jewish teens on “thrilling, awe-inspiring outdoor adventures”; the Six Points Sports Academy in North Carolina; and Ramah Outdoors in Colorado, which offers adventures for teens in the Rocky Mountains.

The hope is that the camps will fill niches and draw hundreds more young Jews to Jewish camps.

“What we are finding is that there are so many families for whom this is their goal,” Stadlin said of Eden Village, which now has more than 100 campers enrolled.

“We know lots of parents who were saying, ‘My kid was not going to camp,’ but after hearing about this it was an automatic niche filled.”

Each of the camps has been given $1.1 million spread over five years to launch and become self sufficient by attracting a critical mass of campers.

While the 92nd Street Y has run specialty camps for children aged 9 to 11, the new program is for older campers, most of whom will come to the city from other parts of the country. They will have the opportunity to come into contact with resources that may not be available elsewhere, says Alan Saltz, the Y’s director of camps and planning and development.

“They will really get a sense of what it is like in these industries,” Saltz said. “We want to give them a sense of what the behind-the-scenes is about.”

Campers will live in a residency at the Y for the three-week sessions, which cost about $3,900. The camps will receive training and technical support for the incubator, as well as a grant to help offset start-up costs during the first few years of operation.

For some, like Yoni Stadlin, the founder of Eden Village Camp, the incubator made it possible to turn something of a fantasy into a reality.

After Stadlin earned his master’s degree in informal Jewish education from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he and several friends started bandying about the idea of starting a Jewish camp focused on farming. The conversations turned into visioning meetings, said Stadlin, who had worked at several Jewish camps and spent some time at the TEVA learning center, a Jewish environmental education center in New York.

“We got some pushback saying starting a camp was a lot harder than you think—sort of like when you convert to Judaism, you get told ‘no,’ ” he said. “But we found out this was a collective dream of many people.”

Word spread and, serendipitously, the UJA-Federation of New York heard about the rudimentary plans for Eden Village and offered Stadlin the 248-acre site of a camp that it had shut down—and to foot half the bill for renovations.

Creating the camp could not have been possible without the incubator, Stadlin said.

Each camp is provided a mentor who is an expert in starting and running camps similar to those being launched, and the five camps consult with each other about best practices for success.

“It just feels like we are making the camp with them,” Stadlin said.

The incubator is really teaching its fellows how to start and run a camp, says Adam Griff, who is launching Adamah Adventures with his wife, Bobbee.

“The FJC has done a great job of giving us a blueprint and templates for what to do first and second,” he said. “We haven’t had a chance to struggle on our own.”

While the financial support affords the camps the luxury of not having to make ends meet in their first several years of existence, the incubator has set up processes for both starting and growing that each camp has to meet to attain long-term viability.

“Since we started in 2008, it has been, ‘Here is what you need to do in the first three months, four months, then what to do in fall and spring.’ It’s step-by-step guidance,” Griff said.

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