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How Jewish is Summer Camp? Very Jewish, but Even More Mormon

June 23, 2006
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Despite a perception among some Jews, summer camping, it turns out, is not predominantly a Jewish thing.

In fact, the numbers show it’s mostly a Mormon thing.

According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, close to 40 percent of American teenagers between the ages of 13 to 17 have attended an overnight summer camp run by a religious organization.

Nearly 80 percent of Mormon teens have attended such a camp, the study shows. Among conservative Protestants, that number is 53 percent, while 48 percent of mainline Protestants have spent summers at a religious-run camp.

Jewish teens come in fourth, at 43 percent.

“We think it’s a Jewish phenomenon because of our circle, but apparently it’s an opportunity that all movements of religions believe in,” said Jerry Silverman, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. “We just don’t have the awareness” of them.

According to the American Camp Association, there are about 12,000 organized camps across the country. The Jewish camp foundation says there are 190 Jewish camps in the United States, including both for-profit and not-for-profit resident camps.

Asked if those in the industry view camping as a particularly Jewish endeavor, Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, said no.

“We don’t have any evidence of that,” she said. “If you look at statistics, there are about 750,000 Jewish youth of camping age in the United States. Our statistics show that about 4 percent attend Jewish camps” overall. Others attend non-Jewish camps, she said.

Silverman said there’s a sense of competition for Jewish campers in the Jewish camping world.

“But the population and the market-share numbers are such that there are so many kids to go after who aren’t going to camp” at all, “who are less engaged or not engaged or unaffiliated or Orthodox. There are so many kids available, it’s all about being true to your mission and really being able to deliver excellence.”

Sociologist Leonard Saxe, co-author of “How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences,” said the perception among Jews of camping as a Jewish endeavor may have more to do with socioeconomic considerations than anything inherent in Judaism or Jewish culture.

“It wasn’t part of the instructions at Sinai or part of the genetic material,” he said. “My guess is that Jews are disproportionately professional and that Jewish women – disproportionate to women across the board – have professional jobs. That both gives them more resources and creates a need for them to have some sort of full-time activity for their kids over the summer.”

Still, camping professionals say, Jewish summer camps have profoundly influenced several generations of Jews.

“Camp made being Jewish normal,” Riv-Ellen Prell, an American studies scholar at the University of Minnesota and an expert on the impact of summer camps on Jewish life, said in “Why is this Camp Different Than All Others?” – an audio feature produced by The Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and HKO Media.

“Everyone and everything around you was Jewish, and no matter where you lived, whether it was New York City or wherever, Jews were a minority,” she said. “And in this world, being Jewish was the normal thing to do.”

Jewish camping really got its start in the 1900s, Prell said, but denomination- specific camps gained momentum in the 1940s, in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

“American Jews were in terror of what lay ahead,” she said. “The future of American Jewish civilization rested with them. How could they think about the future of the Jewish people? They had one hope: It was Jewish children.”

After World War II, Prell continued, Jewish summer camps were incubators for the development of new Jewish leaders and educators, even civil rights activists.

“They made a connection between what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany with what was happening to blacks in the United States and they saw that the persecution of one group will lead to the persecution of other groups,” she said.

Today, with a growing number of camping opportunities available to parents and their children, Jewish camp professionals are wondering how best to attract kids to their camps.

“How do we get parents who are going to send their kids to a speciality camp, how do we offer something competitive so that a parent can have the best of both worlds?” asks Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism.

“The menu of what’s available has expanded dramatically,” he added. “Another challenge is that parents are keeping their younger kids home longer. And parents are being very particular with every decision they make about their kids. They’re looking for just the right experience for their child.”

The parents of Mormon teens, at least, have found it.

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