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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Don’t forget Jewish day camps

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I spent four summers as a camper at overnight camp. While this pales in comparison to friends who returned year after year over a decade, those four summers helped me develop a sense of independence and an understanding of my Jewish self.

Aided by recent investments, overnight camps are growing by leaps and bounds. Federations now offer scholarships for first-time campers, the Foundation for Jewish Camp recently launched six new specialty camps, and an emphasis on training high quality staff has driven a rejuvenation of overnight camping.

The intense, immersive experience of overnight camp builds lasting friendships and creates a safe space in which campers can experiment with new activities at the waterfront or in the synagogue. Camp is not only about baseball or water-skiing. It’s also about singing Shabbat songs in the dining hall, learning new Hebrew words, and swaying in a circle around the havdalah candle. For many, overnight camp is the most intense Jewish experience of their childhood.

While overnight camps have garnered much excitement, day camps don’t elicit the same enthusiasm.

The impact of Jewish day camp can be just as strong, and in some ways broader reaching, than their residential counterparts. While overnight camps struggle to connect the intense Jewish experience at camp with life at home, day camps have the potential to bridge the two, empowering parents as educators and buttressing the home as a forum for year-round Jewish living. I have visited camps that send challot home on Fridays along with the blessings for Kiddush, and others that run family days during the summer and throughout the year.

Jewish day camps form networks of parents. While waiting for the bus in the morning or picking their children up in the afternoon, parents share notes on Hebrew schools, extra-curricular activities and holiday recipes. They organize play dates for their children and further build their Jewish circles.  

Day camps are an affordable alternative to overnight camps, engaging audiences who could not otherwise participate in Jewish camping. Especially in the current economic climate, they offer value for dollars spent on Jewish experience.  

Too often day camps are seen as the little brother of overnight camps, serving children who are too young or intimidated by a summer away. This perception belittles their educational potential and erodes their ability to reach a broader audience with stronger programs.  

In addition to my four summers at Jewish overnight camp, I spent nearly a decade fluttering from day camp to day camp. I went to sports and rocket building camps, camps at municipal community centres and at universities. While these were powerful educational experiences, my family never saw day camp through the Jewish lens reserved for overnight camp. In this sense, we lost out.

As we seek to increase enrolment and fortify Jewish programming at overnight camps, we must share the spotlight with day camps. We must challenge these camps to compete in the broad market of summer experiences and support them to reach their potential as vehicles for engaging underserved communities and fortifying the Jewish identities of both campers and their families.

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