(JTA) — Nostalgia about summer traditions notwithstanding, Jewish camps have changed dramatically from a generation ago.
Camp’s value for Jewish education and identity-building is now a major focus of communal attention. Major Jewish foundations, federations and organizations are investing heavily in the sector.
Many camps have become more intentional about incorporating Jewish learning, Shabbat and Israel into their programming. They’ve also evolved to meet families’ changing expectations and demands: offering a wider range of choices of all kinds (from food to activity to session length); providing more frequent updates and communications to parents; accommodating numerous medical requirements and allergies;and placing greater emphasis on safety and security.
At the same time, the Jewish camping field is becoming more professionalized. The job of camp director has been shifting from a seasonal gig to year-round career, and counselors are receiving more intensive training.
With all this change in the Jewish camp world, here are 10 specific trends we have noticed:
1) Shorter sessions: Once upon a time, summer camp meant the entire summer, with the majority of campers attending for seven, eight or even 10 weeks. Now it is the rare child or teen who spends the full summer at camp (or at one camp), and most programs offer multiple sessions, ranging in length from just six days to seven weeks. “Our three-week session has always sold out more quickly than the four-week, and our new two-week session has been a quick hit as well,” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y.
2) Specialized programs: Whether a child’s passion is sports, the environment, outdoor adventure or science and technology, there’s a Jewish camp for that. An incubator under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp spurred the creation of five specialty camps in 2010 (including Eden Village, which is focused on the environment) and another four that will open this summer. The idea is to attract kids who might not otherwise consider a Jewish camp and to show them they can combine their passion with Judaism. Increasingly, established general-interest Jewish camps are adding specialty tracks and electives. For example, the New Jersey Y camps offer a science program and various sports programs, while Ramah in the Poconos has run basketball clinics and a tennis academy.
3) Healthier food: Serving healthy, locally sourced food is a part of the mission of some specialty camps like the new health-and-wellness-focused Camp Zeke and was a component of Ramah Outdoor Adventure from its beginnings in 2010. In addition, many established Jewish camps have been redoing their menus to make them more nutritious and environmentally friendly: adding salad bars, replacing “bug juice” with water, offering more vegetarian fare and even planting their own organic vegetable gardens.
4) More affordable options: The Foundation for Jewish Camp recently introduced a new program called BunkConnect that enables first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families to search for a variety of discounted Jewish summer camp options. While BunkConnect is currently only available in the Northeast, New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, the foundation hopes to expand it in future years. In addition, most Jewish overnight camps offer financial aid and the One Happy Camper Program, initiated in 2006, offers grants for all first-time campers regardless of need. So far 50,000 children have received One Happy Camper grants.
5) Broadening definition of camp: While rural settings and rustic accommodations are still the norm, two specialty camps — the Union for Reform Judaism’s Six Points Sports Academy and Six Points Science & Technology — are located on boarding school campuses, and another, the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC, is in the middle of Manhattan. Passport NYC, in which participants choose among tracks in culinary arts, film, fashion, musical theater and music industry, and live in air-conditioned dorms, and Six Points Science blur the boundary between “camp” and “summer program,” while programs like USY on Wheels and Adamah Adventures, which operate under the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s umbrella, blur the boundary between “camp” and “teen travel.”
6) Day camps brought into the tent: While the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah has long operated both day and overnight camps, Jewish day camps generally haven’t interacted much with overnight camps, nor have they received the same level of attention from Jewish communal leaders or philanthropists as their sleep-away counterparts. That is changing as this year, for the first time, leaders of Jewish day camps are being included in the bi-annual Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The foundation is finalizing plans with UJA-Federation of New York to establish an incubator developing six specialty day camps in the region. In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism is opening its first day camp this summer. Meanwhile, the philanthropic group Areivim is funding Hebrew-immersion day camps throughout the United States.
7) Inclusion of children with disabilities: An estimated 13 percent of children have some sort of disability, but only 2 percent of Jewish campers do, according to research conducted last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Jewish camping world is looking to make the camping experience accessible to more children with disabilities, including them at regular camps wherever possible, rather than segregating them at separate facilities. The foundation is currently working to raise $31 million for a multi-pronged effort to serve more such children by offering relevant staff training, revamping physical facilities to make them accessible, and creating vocational education and life-skills training programs at multiple camps.
8) Year-round programming: Growing numbers of camps are offering educational programming during the school year through partnerships with institutions like synagogues and day schools. Such partnerships often involve sharing staff members, under the auspices of new programs like Ramah Service Corps and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Nadiv initiative. In addition, camps within easy commuting distance of major metropolitan areas and ones in temperate regions or with winterized facilities are increasingly hosting a range of family/community programs in the off seasons: Eden Village, just 50 miles north of Manhattan, runs a home-school program and weekend family/community programs throughout the year, while nearby Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, N.Y. even runs High Holiday services and Passover Seders. Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia runs a week-long Passover retreat.
9) Family camp: Family camps have been around for decades, but now virtually every Jewish overnight camp offers at least one family-camp session, usually a three-day weekend, each year. A number of camps “got into the business just trying to use the facility more, but it wound up being a great recruiting tool,” said Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman. Several camps also host sessions specifically for families of children with disabilities. While traditionally marketed to camp-age kids and their parents, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national director of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah network, said several Ramah camps are considering adding sessions for Ramah alumni with younger children. “It’s a relatively inexpensive family vacation,” he noted.
10) Pew-fueled camp enthusiasm: In response to last year’s much-discussed Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, a wide range of Jewish communal leaders have offered their prescriptions for engaging more youth. While these leaders may differ on many issues, almost all have cited Jewish summer camp as something that “works” and is a worthy investment. Jewish camps are already popular with funders, but all the pro-camp buzz will likely generate even more dollars for the field.