The Making Of First-Time Campers


Rachel Tore was “the mom who said [her] son would never go to sleep-away camp.”

Because 10-year-old Abraham has a metabolic condition that requires a healthful, organic diet, Tore worried that at a typical camp he’d be tempted by junk food like hot dogs and sugar cereal.

But when the Upper East Side mom, who is an elementary school teacher and yoga instructor, found out about Eden Village Camp, she registered Abraham for a four-week session. A brand-new Jewish camp, kids there not only grow much of their own food, but make fruit smoothies from a bicycle-powered blender and learn about environmental sustainability.

“I think he’s going to come home feeling grounded and healthy,” Tore says. “I love that he’ll be connecting to the earth, that he’s not just being in the country but actually harvesting his food from the earth.”

This week as the Jewish camp season kicks off in the Northeast (in other parts of the country, where school ends earlier, camp is already underway), it is shaping up to be a banner year for the Jewish camp world.

Even as Jewish day schools and many other communal institutions are struggling, camp enrollment is up, with five new camps (including Eden Village) opening and record numbers of first-time campers enrolled.

Much of the success stems from the heavy backing of the 12-year-old Foundation for Jewish Camp, particularly its Specialty Camp Incubator project and its “incentive grant” program, which is helping provide scholarships for 10,000 first-time campers this summer.

And if new research the FJC is touting holds true, the entire American Jewish community may benefit from camping’s success.

Analyzing data from 26 community surveys conducted between 2000-2008, the research (which will not be released in full until this fall) compares summer camp alumni to all other Jews. By singling out summer camp from all other behavioral influences, the study finds that camp alumni are 37 percent more likely to light Shabbat candles, 25 percent more likely to donate to Jewish charities, 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month and 55 percent more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel.

“This is not surprising when you think about the fact that camp gives one the opportunity to experience how fun and meaningful it can be to actually live in a vibrant Jewish community,” Maggie Bar Tura, the FJC’s chief operating officer, told The Jewish Week.

In addition to Eden Village, which is located 50 miles north of Manhattan, the other new camps established through the incubator project, are:

n Passport NYC, in which teens live at the Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y and focus on fashion, culinary arts, film or music, while coming together for social and community service activities.

n Adamah Adventures, a teen outdoor adventure camp in which participants choose between treks in Utah or the Blue Ridge Mountains.

n Ramah Outdoor Adventure, a program based out of the Conservative movement’s Ramah in the Rockies Camp, where participants go on multi-day backpacking, whitewater rafting, rock-climbing and canoeing excursions.

n Six Points Sports Academy, a Reform camp on the campus of the American Hebrew Academy boarding school in Greensboro, N.C. Participants specialize in tennis, basketball, baseball or soccer, while also experiencing athletic electives.

Altogether, the incubator camps — initially targeted to enroll about 400 kids over the course of the summer— have attracted 600 participants, and many are continuing to accept applications for later sessions.

Meanwhile, enrollment at the approximately 150 existing nonprofit Jewish summer camps affiliated with the FJC is stable or increasing, despite declines among non-Jewish summer camps.

According to Bar-Tura, between 60-70 percent of the children registering for the new camps have, like Abraham Tore, never attended a Jewish overnight camp before.

“This says to us there is in fact a huge market for Jewish specialty camps,” she said. “It means we’re reaching parts of the community we haven’t engaged before. Also, these kinds of new models don’t cannibalize existing institutions, they complement them.”

Just the fact that the five incubator camps, which the FJC provides with financial and technical support from the planning and startup stages through the first three years of operation, are all opening on schedule is impressive, Bar Tura said.

“I don’t think anybody was really convinced we’d get all five across the finish line,” she said, adding that such a success rate is “almost unheard of” in the entrepreneurial world of business incubators.

The FJC hopes to launch another cohort of startup camps in a few years, assuming it lines up the necessary funding. In addition to specialty camps, the foundation — citing statistics showing that Jewish camps attract a disproportionately wealthy sector of the Jewish community — is eager to seed at least one new, low-cost camp within two years.

Alluding to the success of hotel chains that offer both high-end and economy versions of their product, Bar-Tura said the lower-cost camps would offer “a fresh, uncomplicated camp experience at a value price point.”

While in previous generations, Jewish summer camp tended to be an all-summer affair, increasingly camps are offering multiple shorter sessions.

“More and more camps are seeing kids going for an average of three-and-a-half to four weeks,” Bar Tura said. “More and more kids are doing an additional summer experience as well, like a basketball clinic or a teen tour or a family trip. It’s a sort of an a la carte menu for the summer.”

All five new camps launched this summer are attracting Jewish children from all over the country. However, the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC boasts a particularly cosmopolitan crowd, with Jewish teens traveling from as far away as Taiwan and Mexico.

Of course a program in which teens live not in cabins or tents but in an air-conditioned Upper East Side dorm, and where meals are eaten not around a campfire or in a mess hall but on a rooftop overlooking Manhattan, stretches the definition of summer camp.

But Alan Saltz, the Y’s director of camp planning and development, argues that “camp is more a philosophy and state of mind than a place.”

“You can be in the country and have a most un-campy experience,” he said, adding that his staff is very focused on “how do we reproduce that camp feeling” and on imbuing everything with “that sense of community and togetherness.”

“This is much more than kids coming and learning about film, music and culinary arts,” he said. “We will also have the sense of ritual, the fun things they are going to be doing and learning together: meals, Shabbat celebrations, community service, nighttime activities and meetings.”


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