Jewish summer camps are having their moment in the sun, so to speak.
While Jewish high schools worry about declining enrolment and synagogues strive to get youngsters in the door, summer camps of all affiliations are the bright spot, with enrolment up across the country, camp directors report.
The reasons are two-fold, says Risa Epstein, national executive director of Canadian Young Judaea, which runs six camps across Canada and a summer program in Israel.
“As parents are opting out of day school because of the cost, they’re opting for camp, which is more affordable,” she says.
Indeed, overnight camps charge a fraction of what parents would spend on day school tuition, and camp directors say they’re hearing anecdotally that parents are turning to alternatives other than day school to give their children a Jewish experience.
Camp management becomes more professional
“I think there’s a general sense of discomfort [among parents] of not choosing Jewish day school for their child,” says Josh Pepin, executive director of Montreal’s Camp B’nai Brith. “If they don’t choose day school, they have to fill a void… I think camp fits into that conversation.”
Secondly, says Epstein, “the community has put an emphasis on Jewish camp and its influence on a child’s Jewish identity.”
Over the last decade, as research shows that Jewish summer camps play an important role in Jewish continuity, organizations such as the U.S.-based JCamp180 and the Foundation for Jewish Camp have helped camps develop sophisticated marketing and communications campaigns, research surveys and long-range planning and fundraising initiatives.
The image of a camp director as a guy with a whistle around his neck who went swimming in the lake has been replaced by someone running a multi-million-dollar business, says Mark Gold, director of JCamp180, one of the philanthropic foundations responsible for the turnaround in Jewish summer camping.
JCamp180 warns camps’ boards of directors that if they don’t take the challenge seriously, “they’ll end up reading their mission statement to the trees,” says Gold.
For now, there doesn’t appear to be much danger of that. Camp enrolment is up across the country. In 2013, 2,230 kids from the Toronto area attended Jewish summer camps. Last summer, the number grew to 2,519.
(UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Silber Family Centre for Jewish Camping’s tally includes Jewish non-profit camps that attract at least a “busload” of Toronto-area campers, so a few camps in Quebec and Camp Kadimah in Nova Scotia are also included in those numbers.)
Among the 15 overnight camps affiliated with UJA’s Silber Centre, those that have seen the most explosive growth are Northland B’nai Brith, which has a “new focus” and new directors, and J. Academy, a 10-day camp that targets the Russian community and has grown to 160 campers, from about 40 when it started six years ago, says Silber Centre co-ordinator Ricci Postan.
While UJA’s Silber Centre doesn’t collect enrolment figures until the fall, it appears that numbers will be up this year as well.
In Montreal, Camp B’nai Brith has seen its enrolment nearly double from 350 to 600 campers over the past five years, says Pepin.
Canadian Young Judaea, has also seen enrolment grow at all its camps, says Epstein.
At Camp Massad, a Hebrew-language camp near Winnipeg, enrolment has grown steadily to about 170 campers, up from 140 five years ago, says executive director Daniel Sprintz.
Another factor driving parents toward Jewish non-profit camps is the cost. A month at camp runs between $3,500 and $5,000, says Postan. First-time campers in many communities are eligible for a $1,000 grant from federation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp or PJ Library (the Harold Grinspoon Foundation), regardless of need.
Subsidies are also available from camps, which do their own fundraising for scholarships. Depending on the camp, applying for financial aid can be less rigorous than the process used by day schools, Postan says.
But while affordability and Jewish identity are pushing parents to look again at Jewish camps, they are not settling for the musty cabins and uninspired programs from their own youth.
“The 21st-century parent is not the traditional parent. They’re very involved in their children’s lives. They’re much more protective than our parents were. These are things we have to adapt to,” says Pepin.
Throughout the camping world, Jewish non-profits have had to modernize facilities and programs to keep up with the competition, usually with the help of sophisticated fundraising campaigns.
Camp B’nai Brith Montreal has benefited from professional help in marketing and looking at best practices of other camps, says Pepin.
Among the changes the camp made recently was raising the minimum staff age from 17 to 18, something many camps in the United States have already done and that was suggested by a professional management team.
The camp has also built a new air-conditioned gym and created programming that lets campers specialize in an activity and develop skills.
“In sports and creative arts, we’ve tried to be intentional about creating those curriculums. There’s a progress over four days. It’s not just playing basketball,” Pepin says.
In many cases, the changes at summer camps, such as shorter introductory sessions for younger campers and specialized programming, are driven by hard data, not donors’ whims.
UJA’s Silber Centre surveys campers after the summer and the centre pays for a consultant to analyze the findings for each camp.
“They’ll say here are things to improve, here are things to highlight when you market your camp,” says Postan.
While camp websites are still filled with pictures of sun-kissed youngsters canoeing on the lake, Jewish camping is not regarded as child’s play.
“There’s been a real movement to legitimize Jewish camping,” says Pepin.