With winter's snow at an end, thousands of parents are now imagining their children swimming in a mountain lake after a long, hot run in the sun as they finalize plans for their children to attend summer camp. But only some parents will choose a camp that can also help build their child's Jewish connections, identity and pride, while they also enjoy a seemingly endless choice of activities.
This powerful Jewish growth opportunity should not be missed, especially since campers today don't have to forgo anything to get the long-lasting benefits from the summer experience.
Considering the shifting cultural patterns among Jews during the past century (remember bungalow colonies?), it may be surprising that overnight camps are still popular more than a century after the first one opened. Still, it can't be a secret if families last year enrolled 70,000 children in a Jewish summer camp?
After having visited numerous camps across North America in my work for a national Jewish foundation, I have three reasons to choose a Jewish camp (based on various archetypes):
· No sacrifices necessary. Most Jewish camps today offer the same activities and experiences available at non-Jewish camps. For example, many parents opt for sending their children to sports specialty camps. With an array of sports so popular these days, it's natural to consider strictly a tennis or basketball track. But Jewish camps have taken strides to keep pace with the competition, regularly adding specialties and new programs to accommodate the interests of campers.
· Judaism beyond the Hebrew school walls. Kids often hear the words "Jewish camp," and get the image of Hebrew school all summer long. But camps that create intentional and thoughtful Jewish summer programs make lasting positive impressions on children, who learn that playing baseball and being Jewish are not mutually exclusive. Even for day-school children, their classroom learning comes to life easily when shared with friends at camp. Judaism is experienced in Jewish camps in natural, comfortable and positive ways. Ask a Jewish adult where they had the most intensive and enjoyable Jewish experiences as a child, and many will say at camp.
· Too Jewish? No way! Most Jewish camps are skilled in making the Jewish experience a positive journey for campers using experiential education techniques. Campers learn the Jewish view about what they see or do — whether welcoming new kids into their bunks; showing concern for the environment; exploring leadership, sportsmanship, outdoor activities; experiencing the arts; or even cooking a recipe linked to a common heritage.
Most importantly, Jewish connections are made in ways that are just plain fun. Kids sing Israeli, as well as traditional, camp songs, develop skits, perform creative "raps," design art projects and compete in intensive sports competitions almost without ever realizing that these activities incorporate biblical themes, Jewish values, and even Olympic-style/Maccabiah forms of sporting games and competition. Jewish camps train their staffs to look for opportunities to make Judaism come alive for children, regardless of the activity or time of day.
What makes for a happy camper? Friendships are the reason kids return year after year to the same camp, and the return rates at most camps, Jewish or not, are extremely high. The well-kept secret is that it has little to do with the size of the lake, the vintage of the bunks, the number of tennis courts or the quality of the food (which, I can safely say, is much better than what I was fed as a camper).
And what should matter to us as parents? Our children will be happy at almost any camp they attend because they will make friends and create lasting memories of the time they spent together. Given insignificant differences in the experience offered today by Jewish and non-Jewish camps, it's really a shame to miss out on one of the best opportunities for children to form positive Jewish connections and create Jewish memories.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp's Web site includes a database of more than 150 not-for-profit camps sponsored or supported by a Jewish organization. Starting with this resource, parents can identify camps that provide a good fit for their child.
As a parent who had sent her son to both a Jewish and non-Jewish private camp recently told me: "I don't know of kids who come back from private camps talking about how cool it is to be Jewish, but they do when they come home from Jewish summer camp."
Yours can, too.
Joel Einleger is a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation.