With such a diverse variety of Jewish camping options in this area, the question isn't whether Jewish camp is right for your child, but which is the right one, writes an associate director at the Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning.
When I became the associate director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia six months ago, I found myself immersed in a world that was new to me: Jewish camp. I frequently met colleagues who gushed with childhood stories of their camp years, telling me about the best friends and spouses they had met. Yet for me, “Jewish camp” remained just a vague concept in my head.
So it was with much excitement that I — along with some other staff members and lay leaders — embarked on a multistop tour of Jewish camps, both day and overnight, this summer that truly opened my eyes to the wonder, excitement and joy of this community.
Seeing the camps in action, it was easy to grasp their appeal. They radiate fun, camaraderie and youth. I saw kids of all ages walking around camp with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders, telling jokes and playing games. Kids not plugged into their iPhones but laughing, singing, dancing (Israeli-style, of course) plus engaging in a slew of other activities from sports to gardening to arts and crafts.
And yet, what most surprised me about the camps was, despite their commonalities, how different each one is. I visited the “Big Six” area nonprofit Jewish camps that draw the most local campers: Galil, Pinemere, Golden Slipper, Ramah, Harlam and JRF. Each one offers campers a unique experience based on its environment, Jewish programming and size.
“Jewish camp” is anything but a monolithic term. Lest one have the idea that Jewish camp connotes hours of studying the Torah or daily Hebrew lessons, this could not be further from the truth.
Each camp has its own idiosyncratic take on Jewish content, some influenced by the movements with which they are associated. Ramah, for example, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, begins with daily morning tefillah (prayer) experiences. Others, like JRF, the Reconstructionist camp, interpret morning prayer more loosely and provide campers with options from yoga to a guided walking meditation to theatrical improv.
Still other camps find ways of incorporating Jewishness in everything they do, but in more subtle fashion. Golden Slipper, for example, displays the names of its buildings in Hebrew, accompanied by transliteration and English. Pinemere looks to infuse Jewish moral values, such as treating people with respect, in all of its activities.
In short, if you’re a parent, the question is not: “Is Jewish camp right for my child?” but “Which camp is right for my child?” From the Israel-focused Galil to the numerous facilities and activities at Golden Slipper, there’s a camp for everyone. And those are just the “Big Six.”
This year, Federation provided $1,000 One Happy Camper grants to 270 first-time campers who went to camp not only locally but all over the country. From the new Camp Zeke, which focuses on health and wellness to the 6 Points Sci-Tech and Sports Academy camps, the amount of diversity is stunning. Plus, many camps are also working to make sure that they speak to individuals from diverse backgrounds, including interfaith families and the special needs community, so that camp can truly be an inclusive experience.
And overnight camp isn’t the only option. I also visited three of the area’s major day camps: Ramah in Elkins Park, Kaiserman JCC camp in Wynnewood and the brand-new Harlam Day Camp, located at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. The thoughtfulness of programming at these places is equally inspiring. From robust morning services with lots of singing and a band at Ramah to the gorgeous new outdoor pool at Kaiserman to the beautiful grounds at Harlam, day campers receive no less of a camp experience right in their own backyards.
With the summer season now coming to an end, it’s not too early to begin thinking about next year. Applications for One Happy Camper grants will open again at the end of October, so now is the perfect time to visit a camp. The directors are warm and wonderful people who are committed 24/7 to giving campers the best experience possible.
And while camp isn’t an inexpensive option, there are camps at all price ranges and financial aid is available — in part from Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — to help send your child.
If there was only one disappointing aspect of my visits, it’s the fact that I had to leave. With everyone having so much fun, I only wish that I, too, had had a Jewish camp experience growing up.
Warren Hoffman is associate director of community programming at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning.