Thanks to financial aid, Jewish summer camp enrollments rise, despite economy

Campers at Camp Ramah in New England get ready to cool down in the lake during a hot summer day. (Nir Landau/Foundation for Jewish Camp)

Campers at Camp Ramah in New England get ready to cool down in the lake during a hot summer day. (Nir Landau/Foundation for Jewish Camp)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Bills or bug juice?

With the economic recovery still struggling to take hold, many American Jewish families are finding they face a difficult question as deadlines for summer camp enrollment approach: Can they both pay their bills and send their kids to Jewish overnight camp?

“It’s a difficult decision,” said Shelly Zemelman, a school psychologist in Cleveland with four children. Her 16-year-old daughter, Batya, has spent four summers at Camp Stone, a modern Orthodox camp in Sugar Grove, Pa. that charges $3,500 for a four-week session. Other Jewish camps charge as much as $1,500 per week.

“It’s not a necessity like school — it’s a luxury,” Zemelman said. “If we had to send all four kids at the same time, I don’t think we could have done it.”

She said she knows several families who are considering dropping camp; one family made it work by alternating the years their children attend camp.

Jewish summer camp is not for the faint of wallet. But with new studies suggesting that the camp experience is a key component in boosting the Jewish identity of American Jews, it shouldn’t be expendable, say champions of camping.

A 2011 study “Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Camp,” paid for by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and conducted by Steven M. Cohen, Ron Miller, Ira Sheskin and Berna Torr, found that Jewish campers were much more likely to feel attachment to Israel, attend synagogue at least monthly, light Sabbath candles and donate to a Jewish federation than those who had not gone to Jewish summer camp. The study, which controlled for past Jewish experience, also found that camp attendance was correlated with moderate increases in the size of one’s circle of Jewish friends and the importance one ascribes to Jewish identity.

The study found that 70,000 kids attended Jewish overnight camp in 2010.

For many parents, the answer to the dilemma is in financial aid. Camp industry insiders say applications for financial aid have risen sharply since the economic crisis hit in 2008.

“Absolutely there’s been an increase in request for financial aid,” Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, told JTA. “There are current campers who have fallen on hard times and families that want to join camp for the first time but can’t make it an affordable choice for them.”

The 150 nonprofit camps in the FJC’s network have reported increasing scholarship allocations by 25 to 100 percent — often in addition to support offered by local foundations, federations or synagogues.

Yehuda Rothner, director of Camp Stone, said that requests for financial aid at his camp have gone up by 10 percent, but that the amount requested has gone up significantly more.

“People are asking for more money,” he said.

Over the last five years, the camp has more than doubled the yearly allocation for scholarships, from $100,000 to $220,000. There also has been a slight increase in “bad debt,” in which the camp makes accommodation for families who between the first and second payments find themselves unable to pay.

Ramah, the Conservative movement’s camping wing with eight overnight camps and three days camps, has increased scholarship giving to $4.3 million in 2011 from $3 million in 2008, according to Amy Cooper, Ramah’s national director. The Ramah scholarships, which include funds raised by local boards, synagogues, federations and foundations like the FJC, have benefited 500 families among the 6,500 attending Ramah camps each summer.

Not all aid is doled out according to financial need. Over the last four years, the FJC says its Happy Camper program has provided 30,000 financially blind grants of up to $1,000 to entice first-time campers.

“There are some families for whom the money is critical to deciding to go to Jewish camp,” Cooper said. “Our commitment is that every child who wants to go to Jewish camp can.”

Despite the weak economy, camp enrollment has continued to climb. The 150 nonprofit camps in FJC’s network have grown by 4 to 5 percent over the last four years. Fingerman attributed the increase in part to a drop-off in enrollment at for-profit Jewish camps, which tend to cost more.

Many credit the mix of scholarships and grants for boosting enrollment. Rothner said another factor may be at play: parents who are sending their children to Jewish camp instead of the Jewish day schools, which cost more.

“As day school prices increase, it is forcing a difficult situation down parent’s throats, and they’re having to make those decisions,” Rothner said.

Some camp administrators say the recession hasn’t had much of an impact on enrollment because their constituency is mostly high-income families.

Howard Salzberg, who has co-owned the for-profit Camp Modin in Maine for the last 32 years, said that enrollment at the camp — which costs $6,300 per four-week session — hasn’t suffered at all.

“People forgo other things before they won’t send their kids to camp,” he said.

For the campers themselves, how their parents pay for camp is easily forgotten once they’re there.

“I’ve never made friends like that — they were the people who have made the most impact on my life,” Batya Zemelman said.

Asked if she’d known anyone who had trouble affording camp, she paused as if she hadn’t considered the question before.

“There were a few,” she said, “but there were scholarships available.”

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