TORONTO — UJA Federation of Greater Toronto recently announced a new program that will provide grants of $1,250 each for Toronto-area children who are first-time campers at Jewish summer camps this year.
CampRight funding is available for 200 first-time campers in grades 2 through 7 who enrol in a designated Jewish summer camp for a minimum three-week session. Registration in the pilot project is limited to those who sign up this month and is not based on financial need.
For families who cannot afford to send their children to summer camp, the federation provides more than $750,000 a year in subsidies, said Ron Polster, left, the federation’s director of Jewish camping initiatives.
Parents who are old hands at sending their children to overnight camps know it’s a good idea to submit their applications early – usually the preceding fall – but there are still available spots at participating camps, according to Polster. “Some are almost at capacity, but others have empty beds across the board. It depends on session, gender and age,” he said.
CampRight was announced at the end of February, and as of last week, 50 applications had been received. Parents must apply to the program and the individual camp separately.
The project’s name – and concept to a certain extent – derive from birthright israel, which provides free 10-day trips to Israel for 18-to-26-year-olds with the aim of strengthening Jewish identity and connection.
Unlike birthright, however, the CampRight grant only covers a portion of the registration fee, about a third of the cost for a month.
Based on experience in other cities, the amount “seemed to be the tipping point” that encouraged families to consider Jewish camps, said Polster, who was hired by the federation in November.
CampRight, which was included as part of the federation’s annual fundraising campaign for this year, was originally set to be launched this fall for the 2009 camp season.
However, because two local donors came forward with funding for the project, “we decided we needed to get more kids in this summer,” said Polster.
The project is supported by a $125,000 grant from the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camping, which funded similar pilot projects in seven American locations last summer and has expanded to 21 communities this year.
The Foundation grant, which is underwriting the multi-city project with a $15 million donation from an American donor, matches local funds one-on-one for the first year, and for an undetermined amount the following two years. Toronto is the first Canadian city to launch a program.
Money that has been collected toward the project as part of UJA Federation’s annual campaign will be used toward the fall roll-out of the program, said Polster. This summer’s launch is being run as a pilot project.
“Each Jewish child should have a right to go to camp, to this place that creates such a joy in celebrating their Judaism,” said Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. The experience results in increased pride in being Jewish, stronger Jewish identity and Jewish continuity, he said.
He noted that camps generally retain at least 75 per cent of their campers each year. “Our mission is to double the number of kids that go to Jewish camp some time in the next five to seven years.”
Studies show that alumni of Jewish camps are 50 per cent more likely to join a synagogue, 90 per cent more likely to join a Jewish community centre, and twice as likely to engage in Jewish philanthropy, according to a federation news release.
But, noted Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of UJA Federation, CampRight is “part of a multi-pronged approach. We don’t believe Jewish camping alone is a silver bullet.
“There are a variety of efforts on the part of Federation to reach out to Jewish kids and get them excited about their Judaism and connected to their Jewish identity and Jewish community, and each reinforces the other.”
Neil Nisker, co-chair of CampRight with Joseph Lebovic and Ab Flatt, said there is a difference between sending kids to a Jewish camp and sending them to a “camp for Jews” where most of the campers are Jewish but the programming lacks a Jewish context.
He believes it’s important that the grants be equally accessible to everyone in the Jewish community, including children from wealthy families. If the result is a switch to a Jewish camp, and – down the road – the camper ends up becoming involved in the Jewish community, raising Jewish children, and contributing financially to Jewish causes, then Nisker will feel he has sustained the community, he said.
“Enrolment has been stable, and that’s not good enough. We’re raising the bar,” he said.
Participating camps are all non-profit; approved by the Ontario Camping Association or its equivalent, and affiliated with a synagogue, movement or the federation.
The list of camps includes – in Ontario – Camp Agudah, Camp George, Camp Gesher, Camp Moshava, Camp Northland-B’nai Brith, Camp Ramah, Camp Shalom and Camp Shomria. Camp Kadimah in Nova Scotia is also part of CampRight, because it serves many campers from Toronto, said Sokolsky.
Further information is available at campright.org.