NEW YORK (JTA) — With winter’s snow at an end, thousands of parents are now imagining their children swimming in a mountain lake after a long, hot run in the summer sun as they send off applications for their children to attend summer camp. But only some parents will choose a camp that can also help build their child’s Jewish connections, identity and pride while they also enjoy a seemingly endless choice of camp activities.
This powerful Jewish growth opportunity should not be missed, especially since campers today don’t have to forgo anything to enjoy the long-lasting benefits from the summer experience.
Considering the shifting cultural patterns among Jews during the past century (remember bungalow colonies?), it may be surprising that overnight camps are still popular more than a century after the first one opened. But it can’t be a secret, can it, if Jewish families last summer enrolled 70,000 children in a Jewish summer camp?
What do they know that some of us must be missing, even though we are all responsible parents?
After having visited dozens and dozens of camps across North America in my work for a national Jewish foundation, I have three reasons to choose a Jewish camp (based on various archetypes):
1. No sacrifices necessary. Skateboarding, anyone?
Most Jewish camps today offer the same activities and experiences available at non-Jewish camps. Alice, 14, was naturally gifted in basketball, so her parents thought that sending her to a sports specialty camp would help her develop this skill. When they explored options and talked to friends, they were surprised to find so many Jewish camps offering an array of specialty and sports programs.
It’s not unusual to find field hockey, cooking, climbing walls, ropes courses, mountain biking, tennis, waterskiing and yes, even skateboarding, in Jewish camps — options far beyond what Alice’s parents remember from their time as campers. (Of course, these camps also offer the traditional baseball, basketball, swimming, arts and crafts, theater plays and other activities that they do recall.)
Last summer Alice attended a Jewish camp that offered a basketball “intensive”: three weeks of instruction and practice for 2 1/2 hours every day. There were five other intensive programs from which to choose. Jewish camps have taken strides to keep pace with the competition, regularly adding specialties and new programs to accommodate the interests of their campers.
2. Judaism … that’s for school! What does it have to do with the summer?
David, a sixth-grader, goes to his temple school weekly in preparation for his bar mitzvah. The image of Jewish summer camp raised fears that he would feel as if he was attending Hebrew school all summer. But camps that create intentional and thoughtful Jewish summer programs make lasting positive impressions on children, who learn that playing baseball and being Jewish are not mutually exclusive. After the summer, David came home proud that many of the behaviors and values he learns in school are rooted in Jewish ethics and found in our historic texts.
Even for day school children who benefit from Jewish education daily, their classroom learning comes to life easily when shared with friends at camp. Judaism is experienced in Jewish camps in a natural, comfortable and positive way. Ask a Jewish adult where they had the most intensive and enjoyable Jewish experiences as a child, and many will say at camp.
3. Too Jewish? No way! And it’s really fun!
Zoe’s parents were worried she would be turned off by a Jewish camp since her family is not Jewishly engaged and Zoe has few Jewish friends at her public school. Yet most Jewish camps are skilled in making the Jewish experience a positive journey for campers using experiential education techniques. Campers learn the Jewish view about what they see or do, whether welcoming new kids into their bunks, showing concern for the environment, exploring leadership, sportsmanship, outdoor activities or the arts.
Most important, Jewish connections are made in ways that are fun. Kids sing Israeli as well as traditional camp songs, develop skits, perform creative “raps,” design art projects and compete in intensive sports competitions almost without ever realizing that these fun activities incorporate biblical themes, Jewish values and even Olympic-style/Maccabiah forms of sporting games and competition. Jewish camps train their staffs to look for opportunities to make Judaism come alive for children, regardless of the activity or time of day.
To the surprise (and delight) of her parents, the Shabbat experience became Zoe’s favorite part of the week. She loved the special Friday night service and Shabbat meal, the singing and dancing, and the relaxed schedule on Saturday that gives the campers an appreciation for the difference and meaning of the day — one that is less structured and hectic than the other days of the week. A moving, outdoor candlelighting havdallah service ends Shabbat, as Zoe looked forward excitedly to the coming week’s special activities and events.
What makes for a happy camper? Friendships are the reason kids return year after year to the same camp, and the return rates at most camps, Jewish or not, are extremely high. The well-kept secret is that it has little to do with the size of the lake, the vintage of the bunks, the number of tennis courts or the quality of the food (which, happily, is much better than what I was fed as a camper).
Campers are together virtually every minute of the summer and share nonstop growing and fun experiences. This is what they most remember on the bus ride home as they start counting the days until camp will begin again next summer.
And what should matter to us as parents? Our children will be happy at almost any camp they attend because they will make friends and create lasting memories of the time they spent together. Given insignificant differences in the experience offered today by Jewish and non-Jewish camps, it’s really a shame to miss out on one of the absolute best opportunities for children to form positive Jewish connections and create Jewish memories in truly fun and creative ways.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Web site includes a database of more than 150 not-for-profit camps sponsored or supported by a Jewish organization. Starting with this resource, parents can identify camps that provide a good fit by exploring the Web sites, as well as hearing from the director how the camp takes a special interest in the Jewish development of the camper while providing an array of sports and activities to enjoy.
Many of these camps offer the opportunity for children to build a strong Jewish identity and enjoy an intensive and fun summer. As a parent who had sent her son to both a Jewish and non-Jewish private camp recently told me, “I don’t know of kids who come back from private camps talking about how cool it is to be Jewish, but they do when they come home from Jewish summer camp.”
Yours can, too.
(Joel Einleger is a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation.)