Perhaps the most significant contribution to the stability of the Jewish camping world over the past five years has come from the combined efforts of the national Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish federations, religious movements, synagogues and camps to make attending financially feasible.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has increased its allocation of financial aid for camp from about $60,000 in the 1990s to nearly $180,000 this year, officials said. Local synagogues and area camps have created their own scholarships as well, in many cases to bridge the gap for children who need extra aid or aren't eligible for certain programs.
More recently, donors have provided incentives, regardless of need, to encourage families to try a Jewish overnight camp. The One Happy Camper program, which started in Chicago five years ago, has since expanded to Philadelphia and other cities that raise local funds for it.
Locally, parents can apply for up to $1,000 for their child's first year at a nonprofit Jewish overnight camp and $700 for the second year. The $1,000 is enough to cover roughly one week of a three or four-week session, which typically range between $3,000 and $5,000.
Over the past four years, 855 campers from the Philadelphia area have benefitted from the incentive grants, which are funded jointly by the local Neubauer Family Foundation, the national Foundation for Jewish Camp and Federation, which administers the program.
Although Jewish camp enrollment has flattened on a national level over the past couple of years, camp officials say the new grants have prevented a drop, which Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman called a "tremendous achievement" in this economy.
Several area camps report higher-than-ever first session enrollments, though second-session numbers are lower.
More importantly, officials say, Federation data indicate that the new attendees are sticking around. Of the first group of kids who came to camp with the incentive, 70 percent returned for a second summer. Of those, 81 percent returned a third time, when the money was no longer available to them.
Directors said the grants have also been a valuable marketing tool. To help boost enrollment and take advantage of the grants, camp owner Julian Krinsky even converted Yesh Shabbat to a nonprofit in the spring — the only one of his 21 programs with such status.
Of the area camps, the incentive grants had the most dramatic impact on Golden Slipper. The Bartonsville, Pa., camp was founded in 1948 in response to the Federation's call for an affordable overnight camp, but Jewish enrollment had dwindled as children from other backgrounds took advantage of the camp's financial aid endowment, said president Fred Kaplan.
By 2008, only 24 percent of the campers were Jewish. Seeing One Happy Camper as an impetus to reclaim the camp's Jewish beginnings, members of Golden Slipper Club & Charities went out to recruit within their neighborhoods, the Russian community and even a Jewish foster care agency in Florida, Kaplan said.
The camp hired a Jewish program coordinator to run cooking, dance and art electives. This summer, 61 percent of the campers are Jewish.
At the same time, the multiculturalism has been a selling point for some parents, like LisaMarie Citron, of Morrisville. She's Catholic; her ex-husband is Jewish. Their 12-year-old fraternal twins, Jordyn and Justin, go to church but also celebrate Jewish holidays.
"Although we're not strict as far as religion is concerned, we want them to learn both," said Citron. At camp, she said, they can go to Christian services one week and Jewish services the next.
If not for the incentive grants, though, Citron said, she would have never been able to send them.
"When I found out about the camp and the cost, I wanted to die," said Citron. Once they were enrolled, she said, the camp chipped in additional aid so that even now, in their fourth summer, it's less than $2,200 for both kids.
As much good as the One Happy Camper grant has done, camp directors say it's still not enough, and camps still need to award their own scholarships.
B'nai B'rith Perlman, for example, received aid requests totaling $220,000 this summer, up from $187,000 last year, the director, Lewis Sohinki, said. They could only afford to give out $90,000.
Harlam gives out up to $250,000 per year, said director Aaron Selkow.
The problem, he said, is that many camps haven't thought about how to sustain this kind of aid in the long term, which they might have to do to retain families after they come off incentive grants.