With their bunk-crowded cabins, unpredictable changes in shower temperature and air conditioning usually limited to the infirmary, summer sleepaway camps hardly conjure thoughts of luxury.
But as the U.S. economic crunch continues, Jewish summer camp administrators, who say their programs are crucial to building Jewish identity, are concerned that financially strapped families may see them as an unaffordable frill.
“The hard part is that sometimes when parents are cutting costs, the first thing to come off the list is camp,” said Noah Gallagher, director of Camp Young Judaea Midwest. “They consider camp a luxury and they make that choice. For some parents it’s not on the list.”
The camps and their supporters are maintaining and, where possible, strengthening measures this summer to keep enrollment up despite the financial challenges plaguing many families.
Irene Drantch, director of Camp Kinder Ring, a Jewish nonprofit sleepaway camp in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., said that though enrollment numbers have remained consistent over the past few years — she expects 330 campers this summer — it is clear that more parents need help footing the bill.
Camp Kinder Ring did not increase its tuition this summer, but Drantch said more campers registered for the less expensive half-season. More parents have inquired about scholarships, and fewer signed up their children for extras like horseback riding and tennis lessons.
Camp directors maintain that increased scholarships from synagogues, local federations and other organizations have been vital in sustaining the camping industry.
Heidi Freedman from Walled Lake, Mich., a mother of two boys who have attended sleepaway camp in the past, said camp would not be an option this summer had her sons not received communal scholarships. Freedman said it would have been difficult to tell her children they couldn’t go this year, and she praised her local community for making Jewish education and identity development a priority.
Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said that his organization is continuing a program that provides $1,000 of need-blind financial assistance to first-time campers. Instituted in 2006, the Campership Incentive Program is a kind of introductory coupon, said Fingerman. “Once the trial is successful, [families] come back and repeat that purchase over time. It leads to hopefully someone who enjoys camp for many years to come.”
Some studies suggest that Jewish sleepaway summer camps, far from being superfluous, may be an important component in building a sense of Jewish identity in children.
A 2004 longitudinal study of 1,000 Jewish college students conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism showed that 70% of people who either attended or worked at a Jewish camp said being Jewish is “very important” to them. Of those who had no Jewish camp experience, only 39% reported this. Except for their camp experiences, the two groups were matched carefully in their Jewish backgrounds and practices to try to isolate the influence of Jewish camps.
“The perception of camp has changed,” said Aaron Selkow, vice president of program services for the JCC Association. “The reality of camp hasn’t changed at all. We’ve known anecdotally for generations that Jewish camping could be a transformational experience in identity development.”
While the numbers for summer 2010 are not yet available, Fingerman of the Foundation for Jewish Camp said enrollment in Jewish camps this year was expected to remain steady, with more than 70,000 children attending a camp within the FJC network, which is composed of nearly 150 nonprofit Jewish sleepaway camps nationwide.
Still, some camp directors acknowledge that enrollment numbers were previously higher. Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah in California, says the camp will host close to 1,300 campers over the course of this summer, in part thanks to livelier recruitment strategies and more scholarship dollars. But Greyber said the camp’s numbers were higher four or five years ago.
More recently, Camp Ramah’s numbers have held steady despite the economic downturn, said Greyber. He said parents recognize Jewish summer camp as a cheaper alternative to Jewish day school as a means of solidifying Jewish identity.
Filling beds may be more of a challenge this summer for privately owned sleepaway camps that do not have the financial backing afforded the FJC nonprofits. Their tuitions are often thousands of dollars more.
For example, privately owned Camp Canadensis in Canadensis, Pa., though not formally designated a Jewish camp, hosts mostly Jewish campers and offers a short service on Shabbat. Director Brian Krug said he created a program last summer in which the camp matches contributions from families whose children already attend to make the camp more financially accessible to other families who are struggling.
But even with such programs, it is more difficult for private camps to provide the aid necessary to all interested families, making nonprofit camps an attractive alternative, Greyber said.
“I’m sure that we do have families who were looking at private camps, and when they saw the price tag and saw they could have not just a cheaper but an equal experience, made the decision to come to us,” he said.
Contact Laurie Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org