Other than sleepovers, 8-year-old Peri Albert has never really been away from home. For that reason, the Cheltenham third-grader admits, she's a little nervous about heading off to a mini-session at Camp Galil this summer, but it's also "kind of exciting."
"People told me what it was going to be about," she said, "and I just wanted to try it out. I'm just looking forward to having fun and meeting everybody in my bunk."
For hundreds of parents around the area, this week and next will be filled with packing and teary goodbyes as they prepare to send their children off to overnight camp.
For Jewish communal leaders, camp is a happy time, a beacon of hope, if you will, amid a landscape of institutions often struggling to retain membership and financial stability.
Enrollment has increased by 11 percent at six area camps over the last five years, according to data from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, a feat attributed in no small part to a growing pool of local and national grants designed to defray the costs.
In addition to the push to make camp more affordable, another phenomenon also appears to be drawing bodies: the advent of mini-sessions like the one Peri will be attending.
Camps around the country have long offered abbreviated options ranging from a weekend to two weeks, but camp directors say those programs only surfaced within the past decade in the Northeast. Ramah in the Poconos was among the first, with director Todd Zeff starting a Taste of Ramah program in 2000. Pinemere Camp, Camp Galil and Camp Harlam followed suit, launching mini-sessions within the past four years.
"Signing up for one week is sometimes psychologically easier for parents and campers to grasp," explained Pinemere director Toby Ayash, who piloted her Pioneers program in 2010 with just five rising third-graders. Enrollment doubled last year. This summer, 42 have already signed up — proof, Ayash said, "that we are meeting a need out there."
As at most mini-sessions, the Pioneers bunk with four-week campers so they don't have to move around should they decide to stay longer, Ayash said.
The four-day Taste of Galil program for campers entering third grade followed a similar growth pattern. Assistant director Ilana Goldfus said she had to turn campers away this summer because there's only room for 14 participants.
"It's a really good opportunity to try out the idea of living away from your parents for a little while," said Hank Albert, Peri's dad.
Parents also praised shorter sessions for providing viable options for kids who just aren't old enough to handle more time away. Robin Davison said she would have never dreamed of sending her 7-year-old daughter to overnight camp, but Shaine pushed for it after her older brothers decided that they wanted to go.
That came as a surprise, too, Davison said, since all three kids claimed they weren't interested in a longer overnight experience after trying a weekend away last summer as part of a day camp program. Then, during the school year, Derek, 10, suddenly announced that he wanted to join one of his friends at Pinemere and 9-year-old Sam clamored to join him.
"They had their minds made up that Pinemere it was, and that was that," Davison said.
In truth, Davison said, "I'm not so hot on not having them home. I like being with my kids and I'm used to hearing about their day every night." But, she continued, that's her issue. "They will be thrilled to have that independence and be with their friends."
Both shorter sessions and increased scholarship funding have succeeded in creating return customers at the camps contacted for this article.
Ten-year-old Sam McGuire, for one, will be back for his first full session at Galil after participating in the Taste program last summer.
His mom, Susan Brooks, said she purposefully looked for a shorter, "doable" overnight session to start with so Sam could build up the confidence to be on his own. Turned out he wasn't even homesick, said Brooks.
Unlike most of the camps serving this area, Galil also offers two- and three-week sessions for those who prefer not to stay for a full month. Sam considered that, Brooks said, but decided to jump right into the full session. Brooks said she encouraged that, too, because the extra time qualifies Sam to receive a One Happy Camper grant.
Through that national initiative, local parents can apply for up to $1,000 for their child's first full session at a nonprofit Jewish overnight camp, and $750 for the second year, regardless of financial need.
Including estimates from this summer, 1,106 campers from the Philadelphia area have received a collective $1.62 million of the incentive grants since 2008, which are funded jointly by the local Neubauer Family Foundation, the national Foundation for Jewish Camp and Federation.
The local Federation also continues to increase need-based aid for camp in an effort to keep up with demand. This year, it allocated $220,000, up $40,000 from the previous year, according to Brian Mono, director of the Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning.
At Harlam, a Reform movement camp, demand for beds often outpaces availability, both in the regular and Intro Experience sessions for students in grades 3 through 6. Currently, the camp reserves about 40 slots for the Intro Experience, held during the first week of each session — four beds per cabin. If there were more cabins, "we would have I don't even know how many kids doing this," said director Aaron Selkow.
But Selkow's not as effusive about the mini-sessions as his counterparts. The concept has certainly drawn young campers whose families wouldn't have otherwise considered overnight camp yet, Selkow said, and more than two-thirds of them return the following year. Still, Selkow said, he's not convinced that campers wouldn't just sign up for a full session if they didn't have a shorter option.
Ten-year-old Nikki Lazarus bypassed Intro and plans to leave Lafayette Hill behind next week for her first full session at Harlam.
Nikki said she's a little nervous about missing her mom too much, but she's also eager to leave so she can get packages. And, she continued, she's looking forward to playing soccer, trying Israeli folk dancing and experiencing a camp Shabbat. Her sister and other campers she chatted with online told her how everybody dresses in white and holds hands as they walk to services, which are followed by fried chicken and apple pie.
"On Shabbat you have fun singing songs and stuff, and you're with all your friends," the fifth-grader said.
Her mom, Suzi Lazarus, said she originally hesitated to send her daughters to Jewish camp because she felt that she'd already required them to do enough Jewish by attending religious school at Congregation Or Ami. She's changed her mind since her middle daughter, Alli, asked to go to Harlam four years ago.
Alli, now 15, stopped going to Hebrew school after becoming a Bat Mitzvah and being Jewish just wasn't a priority, Lazarus said. After starting at Harlam, Lazarus said, Alli decided to join a Reform youth group. She taught her younger sister the Hebrew words they use at Harlam and counts down the days to camp on her Facebook page.
The Jewish upbringing Alli had was "nothing compared to going to camp," Lazarus said. "It's really special for them to connect and have everybody around you be Jewish. It makes them proud of their Jewishness."