When I first went to overnight camp, my parents dropped me off at the bus, gave me a hug, and waved goodbye for a month. I was seven. Yes, they came to visit on visitors’ day, but essentially my first interaction with camp was a month-long experience.
I loved it and went back summer after summer. The magic of camp and the friends I made there have been influential to my life, shaping my identity, independence and sense of self.
For many parents today, however, a month is a big sell and for many kids a month is a long time for a first sleepover camp experience.
There are a number of factors that have led to this shift. First, data indicates that parents increasingly remain on the fence for longer about their children’s education. While, a generation ago, a child’s Jewish education could be scripted nearly from birth: day or supplementary school, camp, synagogue, etc., today, families are putting off these decisions, waiting to determine where and if to enrol their children. When asked if they will enrol their child, rather than responding yes or no, more and more say maybe.
Second, kids are looking to try out lots of things before committing to just one. One week at robotics camp, a second learning horseback riding, a third doing dance and a fourth of soccer. As with after-school activities, it’s not uncommon for kids to spend their summers trying out multiple, short experiences before landing on one they love and pursuing it with vigour.
These trends have led to new strategies to recruit kids to Jewish camp. Camps offer individualized tours, week-long “taste-of” sessions, family camps, weekend experiences and a variety of other opportunities for children and their families to get a glimpse of camp before they make the big sale of a full session.
With this in mind, UJA’s Silber Family Centre for Jewish Camping is piloting two stepping-stone programs designed to bring GTA kids to camp, let them taste the magic and whet their appetite so that they return summer after summer.
The first is PJ Goes to Camp. A free, one-day family experience, this program allows young kids aged five to eight to experience a day at camp. Last year my daughter tried a day at camp through the program. For months afterwards she wore the camp baseball hat and backpack, each day telling me she’d go back to camp the next summer. Seven months later, the forms are signed and she’s registered for summer 2017. Her one day at camp lit the spark for her as a future camper.
The second is the Weekender. There is nothing like a weekend at camp. Celebrating Shabbat with a cabin full of friends is a magical experience that every Jewish child should have – especially when it’s topped off with the rest of the weekend filled with water-skiing, swimming, sports, arts and dance. Piloting with three camps this summer and set to expand to more in future summers, the Weekender will allow children entering grades 1-6 to experience a free weekend at camp, giving them a taste of what a full session will look like with the goal of them returning summer after summer.
Camp is a critical educational setting for developing strong, independent youth and is a powerful inculcator of Jewish identity. Each summer, experiences at Jewish summer camp shape the hearts, passions and minds of our community’s youth. Recognizing the changing trends in camp enrolment, building the pipeline stepping stones – from shorter programs to longer stays – is a critical strategy in ensuring that every kid in our community can experience the joy of camp. Already this summer, through PJ Goes to Camp and the Weekender, hundreds of kids will enjoy the magic of camp, setting them on the path towards lifelong engagement.
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.