The weather outside may be blustery, but in a few short months students will close their schoolbooks and transform into campers piling into Jewish camps across North America. If you are looking for a Jewish summer camp, now is the time to choose. In this first part in my Jewish summer camp series, I address how to find the right camp for your child.
(Full disclosure: I am the product of eight glorious summers at (the late and lamented) Camp Massad of Ontario, and my daughter has moved things up a notch by spending far more summers at Camp Ramah in Canada where she now works full-time.)
Where to start? It’s probably impossible to create the definitive list of all Jewish overnight camps but here are some good places to look. The Foundation for Jewish Camp lists 195 Jewish camps on both sides of the border. You can check its website for information about such matters as Jewish ritual observance, emphasis on sports and the arts, and much more.
Camp Miriam video featuring Seth Rogen
The Ontario Camps Association lists 15 co-ed overnight camps that are “primarily Jewish” and another two boys- or girls-only camps. There are, of course, Jewish camps in Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. British Columbia’s Habonim Dror Camp Miriam even has a booster in former camper, Seth Rogen.
So there clearly are plenty of “Jewish camps” out there, but the differences between them can be quite significant. Steve Eller of Maryland’s Beth Tfiloh Camps says there are several key aspects to look for when choosing a Jewish camp: general and special programming, staffing, dietary considerations, Hebrew language, Israeli culture and the campers themselves.
Alicia Zimbalist provides more factors to consider in How to Pick a Jewish Sleepaway Camp.
- Is the camp affiliated with any denominational movement?
- What is the camp’s technology policy?
- Is the camp co-ed? What is the interaction like between different ages and genders?
- Are showers/bathrooms in the cabins or in another building?
- How are Jewish experiences incorporated into the camp program?
As for the Beth Tfiloh Camps, while they hold Shabbat services and are “kosher-style,” executive director Ed Cohen says that parents who want their children to have a strong Jewish camping experience should send their kids elsewhere.
Which brings us to a central question: how Jewish should a Jewish camp be? And how much time should be devoted to the spiritual and to the physical? Writing in The Forward, Rebecca Spence asked how kids are “supposed to cut loose when they’re spending so much time learning to be observant Jews.” New York attorney Barry Posner said, “I just want the kids to be kids. … They’re very deeply steeped in Jewish values, heritage and learning, so for one or two months a year, let them have a vacation.”
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen of the National Ramah Commission which operates several overnight camps affiliated with the Conservative movement disagreed. “Families who spend a fortune on day school education and then send their kids to non-religious programs in the summer in some ways are wasting their investment. … The kids are getting all the academic knowledge critical for a Jewish education, and then not applying it with friends in a warm, fun atmosphere.”
The safety and well being of campers have always been paramount for camps. (Remember the elation of passing your swim test and being allowed to enter the deep-water zone?) Unfortunately, summer camps now have to deal with security issues faced by all Jewish institutions. Thankfully, although Jewish summer camps have not seen serious incidents, there have been some disturbing events.
As the JTA’s Ben Harris has noted, “Security at summer camps presents a number of unique challenges not faced by urban Jewish institutions, which typically have a defined perimeter and controlled access points. Camps are open, their borders often marked by little more than a tree line, and everyone involved in their security acknowledges the need to strike a balance between safety and preserving the sense of freedom and openness emblematic of the camping experience.”
- Each camp should appoint an individual to serve as its key liaison on security issues.
- Camps should renew their connection to local law enforcement authorities who should also be made aware of the times and dates of camp activities.
- Camps should refresh their communication plans so that everyone understands where they need to go and what they are supposed to do in the event of an incident.
In Even Utopia has a Price Tag, Lea Lion writes about the challenges faced by many parents already struggling to pay for Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs – along with summer camp which can typically run over $1,000 per week. For families on a budget, Jerry Silverman of the Foundation for Jewish Camp has a piece of advice. “Talk to the camp, talk to your rabbi, and talk to your local [Jewish] federation. It is all about asking. … The end justifies the means,” he adds. “If you don’t ask, your children will suffer.”
The One Happy Camper program aims to cushion that cost. It awards an incentive grant of up to $1,000 to first-time campers attending Jewish overnight camp. Here is information about funding available for residents of Montreal, Calgary and Toronto. For details, go to One Happy Camper at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Risa Epstein, national executive director of Canadian Young Judaea has noted in the CJN article, Jewish Camps are Booming, that “as parents are opting out of day school because of the cost, they’re opting for camp, which is more affordable.”
Adds Josh Pepin, executive director of Montreal’s Camp B’nai Brith, “I think there’s a general sense of discomfort [among parents] of not choosing Jewish day school for their child,” says. “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.”
Next time, how camp has shaped – and continues to shape – Jewish identities.