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Filling More Bunks at Jewish Summer Camps
Camp is in session and the numbers are up.
When Jewish overnight camps kicked off their first sessions in late June, most welcomed more campers than the year before, continuing a promising trend that communal leaders have been working hard to encourage over the past few years.
Nationally, attendance at Jewish overnight camps has increased 14 percent over the last five years, according to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He expects this year’s numbers to hold steady or rise when the final counts are tallied at the end of the summer.
Supporting the national trend, five of the six major overnight camps tracked by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia reported gains, ranging from just one additional camper at Golden Slipper to an influx of 65 at Camp JRF.
“In general, Jewish camping has become more a part of the conversation,” said Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Camp JRF’s executive director.
The camp, which is affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement, expects to fill 410 beds this summer, up from 345 last year. About 25 percent of those campers will receive some form of needs-based scholarships, including at least 18 in the new BunkConnect program.
BunkConnect, inaugurated this year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, offers first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families the opportunity to attend sessions at prices that are 40 to 80 percent below the camps’ standard rates.
The program was created to augment One Happy Camper, which provides $1,000 tuition grants for first-time campers at a nonprofit Jewish camp, regardless of their family’s income. Funding for local One Happy Camper recipients comes from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Neubauer Family Foundation. Families who receive help from One Happy Camper are not eligible for BunkConnect and vice versa.
Camp expenses have often served as a stumbling block for families already coping with the financial strains of Jewish day care, day schools and other programs.
“BunkConnect for us has been the biggest focus on a different socio-economic group than we’ve seen in the past,” said Sheira Director-Nowack, Camp JRF’s associate director. “It’s just part of the real inclusion piece we have at camp — that we don’t just want it to be a certain type of child, we want it to be a bunch of children.”
Saposnik added that while the percentage of campers who will receive needs-based scholarships is similar to last year’s number, the requests for financial assistance rose noticeably, meaning that families requesting financial aid received less money than last summer.
Due to those numbers, he said, Camp JRF will place an added emphasis on fundraising for next summer so that it can give out extra scholarships from its own funds.
Camp Ramah in the Poconos has experienced a similar spike in financial aid requests. This year, Ramah will host 350 campers, up from 313 last year, and about a quarter of them will receive financial assistance, according to Rabbi Joel Seltzer, who is overseeing his second summer as the camp’s director.
Though Ramah currently has only one BunkConnect camper, campers there will collectively receive $220,000 of needs-based assistance, a major increase from last year’s $75,000. Those funds will be spread among campers attending Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Ramah Day Camp Philly and Tikvah Family Camp, Seltzer said.
In response to the rising numbers of needs-based scholarship campers, Ramah launched an aggressive fundraising campaign this year, said Seltzer. The camp director pointed to Ramah’s “Chai Campaign,” which called on staff, alumni, parents and grandparents to make $18, $36, $54 or $72 donations, as responsible for the main surge in funds as opposed to a few large donations from wealthy philanthropists.
Increased funds notwithstanding, Seltzer cited family-to-family recruitment, a new website that features a virtual tour of the camp and buzz from last summer’s successful sessions as the real reasons behind increased enrollment.
“Those interested in Ramah would come anyway,” Seltzer said. “We’d find a way to get them here.”
Needs-based scholarships provided through the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia are on par with last year’s numbers, according to Warren Hoffman, the associate director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning, although he did not provide specifics.
Numbers for the BunkConnect and One Happy Camper programs will continue to fluctuate throughout the summer as camps operate on rolling admissions for second session, he said.
“Federation’s commitment to camping remains as strong as ever,” Hoffman said, echoing recent studies asserting that Jewish camps are a “pillar” of Jewish continuity and identity. “Camping is very much a central priority of what we do here.”
Living the Camp Life
For anyone who has ever attended camp — of the day or overnight persuasion — the rising temperatures and lasting sunlight of summer are sure to stir up fond memories of color wars, arts and crafts, splashing in the pool or lake and the unique bond of camp friendships.
As campers dive into their sessions, we’ll give you a taste of their adventures through stories and photos in a special camp section on our website.
In addition to profiles of standout campers nominated by the directors of Jewish camps around the region, we also hope to feature a selection of letters — “hello mudda, hello fadda,” anyone? — sent home from local Jewish campers attending any overnight camp around the country. If you receive a letter or photos that you would like to share, please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.