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Devoted to Day Camp

July 19, 2012 By:
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When Willow Grove Day Camp opened in 1955, founder Howie Zeitz estimated that practically every camper was Jewish.

Even today, Zeitz estimates that up to 90 percent of the children who spend the summer boating, swimming and playing on their grounds are members of the tribe.

Directors at several other secular day camps around the area also report overwhelmingly Jewish populations. What's more, they and their staff members are disproportionately Jewish, too.

"The camp culture is very much embedded in the Jewish culture," says Lisa Kasser, owner of Burn Brae Day Camp in Dresher, Pa.

But these directors -- with at least three Howards in their midst -- never intended to target only Jewish campers.

"If you went into the whole Jewish thing, you exclude a vast potential market," explains Howie Gilbert, owner of Arrowhead Day Camp just outside Newtown Square. Gilbert says he'd love to have more non-Jewish campers but those families "just seem to have a different mindset. We've been trying to crack that nut forever."

Plus, says Howard Batterman, who runs day camps in Bucks and Montgomery counties, as well as a teen travel program, "if every day camp is competing for the same Jewish population, no one is going to survive."

Aside from survival, Batterman says he chose to run secular camps because it's nice for kids to be around people who aren't like them so they can learn to be accepting and inclusive.

"If we can turn on other nationalities to the value of sending your child to day camp, it'll just perpetuate the business."

Diversity or lack thereof, more than a half-dozen Jewish directors seem to be perpetuating their camps just fine. Read on to find out how they got into the business and why some of them are still at it -- well past the typical retirement age.

 

 

Howard Batterman

Owner of Diamond Ridge day camp in Bucks County and Sesame/Rockwood camps and teen travel program in Montgomery County

Age: 60.

Enrollment: About 800 campers between the ages of 3 and 15 collectively attend the three programs. Batterman estimates that 85 percent are Jewish.

A Fateful Ad: In 1973, Batterman needed a summer job to bolster the $8,200 annual salary he earned as a social studies teacher in the Neshaminy School District, so he answered an Exponent ad for a waterfront director at the former Camp Akiba in the Poconos. "I thought, 'What can I do to be around kids and enjoy that lifestyle and really do better for my family?' " He'd never been to camp in his life. Four summers later, the owner hired him to work year-round. He stayed at Akiba until 1986, when he purchased Sesame/Rockwood in Blue Bell. He added a teen travel program in 2000. Then, seven years ago, he bought Diamond Ridge from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Camp Advocate: Batterman sings the praises of all kinds of camps, though he claims he's never lost a camper to another day camp. A few, he says, went on to overnight camp -- but "I'm kind of proud of that."

Pro-Pool: Batterman started with one pool and now has five on site. "Parents can't measure friendships and respect, but swimming, they can see that they progressed."

Generational Payoff: He counts at least 11 marriages between couples who met at camp. He's also tickled whenever former campers become staff, or bump into him as adults and say, " 'Uncle Howard, do you remember me?' There's nothing better."

Motorcycle Madness: Batterman occasionally dons full leathers to make a dramatic appearance during Color War on the Harley he bought in 2001.

 

Ben Coren

Co-owner of Indian Springs Day Camp in Chester Springs

Age:88, which Coren says may well make him the "oldest camp man in the country."

Enrollment: Of 185 campers ages 3 to 14, Coren guesses about half are Jewish. When they started, he says, they were almost all Jewish.

Football Forte: Coren, the first Jewish All-American football player from West Chester University, began working at various overnight camps because he needed a summer job. After several successful summers as an athletic director and head counselor, he says, "I figured I might as well find a property." He co-founded Indian Springs in 1959 with former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Bill Mackrides.

Seeking Diversity: Though Coren personally made a point of marrying a Jewish woman and raising three Jewish sons ("I could've had a gentile girl, I wouldn't do it,"), he says he wanted to run a secular camp because he'd always worked with athletes from other backgrounds.

Multigenerational Camp: Being in the business for more than 60 years, Coren's seen great-grandchildren come through the camp. Some staff members have been around more than 40 years. His secretary started out as a 3-year-old camper. "She could hardly climb on the bus," Coren says, chuckling. "She's 55 now. It's like they never left camp. It's a family here." Likewise, Coren has no intention of leaving camp, "as long as I can get here and be involved. I've touched a lot of lives here."

Best Job Perk: Seeing happy, healthy kids running around. "They grow up real fast here and they come back every year. I see them dancing, I see them making things, I see them catching fish. To me, that's worth everything."

 

Howie Zeitz

Co-owner of Willow Grove Day Camp in Willow Grove

Age: 81.

Enrollment: Of more than 500 campers ages 3 to 15, Zeitz estimates 90 percent are Jewish.

Supplemental Income: Other than a few sessions at a day camp for low-income families, Zeitz's camping experience started during summer breaks from West Chester University when he and roommate Marvin Domsky oversaw the waterfront and athletics at an overnight camp. After graduating, they both went on to become gym teachers -- but they still needed some kind of summer business to supplement their income "and camping just fit the bill perfectly." Domsky leased four acres of property from a Jewish farm to open Willow Grove in 1955.

Secular Season: Even though they knew they'd get most of their support from the Jewish community, Zeitz says they created a secular program in hopes of drawing "from every possible avenue. If we did not open it up to the entire population, we probably would not be able to get the enrollment we needed. You've got to make a buck, you've got to pay your bills." Plus, he says, they don't want to discriminate against any child who wants to come.

Rapid Growth: They started with 75 kids, and enrollment quickly doubled. The camp now includes 40 acres of property, including a man-made lake for boating and fishing, four swimming pools, cabins with air conditioning, athletic fields, a gym and a dining hall.

Passing the Campfire: Zeitz's son, Larry, 55, serves as the full-time director, but Howie continues working every summer as the "No. 1 gopher. The kids keep me young, I absolutely adore them. There is nothing, nothing -- I'm not sure even the home or the school or the athletic team -- that does the character-building and the friendship-building that a camp does." Zeitz isn't the only one who can't let go. Some staff members have been working there for almost 50 years.

 

Lisa Kasser

Owner of Burn Brae Day Camp in Dresher

Age: 55.

Enrollment: Of a "couple hundred" campers -- she won't disclose her exact enrollment -- Kasser estimates that a little more than half are Jewish. Because the camp specializes in visual and performing arts, music, computer animation and video production, the kids come from many different areas. "It's not like a neighborhood camp," she says.

Shifting Dreams: After studying theater, communications and dance at the University of Michigan, Kasser returned to the area to work as an associate producer of a live dance television show. She had dreamed of starting a children's theater, but that shifted when she came across the opportunity to purchase a former sports camp. She credits her father, Norm Kasser, for helping her start Burn Brae 31 years ago so she could make time to attend business classes at night.

Famous graduates: Former campers include actor Seth Green, Broadway performer John Tartaglia and violinist Sarah Chang.

"John Tartaglia told me from the age of 6 or 7 that he wanted to be on Broadway. He knew. And I said to him, 'I know you will be,' because he wanted it so badly." Many others have gone on to work in the arts; even more "have these wonderful hobbies for the rest of their lives. The kids sometimes find things in themselves that they never knew they had."

Halloween in July: Once every summer, kids come to camp in costume, many of them homemade, and rotate through stations to compete for treats and prizes. Instead of visiting day, they have two Arts Fests, where parents can see performances, plus an open-air museum of the campers' artwork and movies.

Confidence Booster: Watching introverted children blossom at camp is the best part of the job, Kasser says. She recalled one boy with a speech impediment who wanted to do musical theater. When he was on stage playing a character, "all of a sudden he stopped stuttering. He just stopped. That was miraculous and his self-esteem soared. I walk around in tears seeing these little miracles that happen all the time. It's like the best feeling in the world."

 

Howie Gilbert

Owner of Arrowhead Day Camp in Newtown Square.

Age: 57.

Enrollment: More than 500 campers ages 4 to 13. Of those, Gilbert estimates that 70 to 85 percent are Jewish. "It's a cultural thing. If you went to camp as a child, you want your kid to have the same experience." The non-Jewish campers usually live in the area, he says.

A Family Affair: Gilbert's dad founded the camp in 1956. He's now 83, but still visits every opening day. "He's Chief Arrowhead," Gilbert says, laughing. He and his sister, Ellen, both left jobs -- his in insurance and hers as a preschool teacher -- to take over the camp. Their children are poised to do the same when they retire.

Mission: To give children a memorable, safe summer experience where they can learn, explore and make new friends. "We want this to be totally different from school -- no pressure, no tests. The hardest thing the kids do here is swim instruction."

Outdoor Push: While the camp goals haven't changed much, Gilbert says the children don't seem to have as much energy as they used to. "Kids are kids, they like to play and have fun," Gilbert says, "but they're not as active. Especially with this generation, you've got to get them up and moving, teach them how to recreate."

More Choice: The camp recently changed the schedule to allow campers to choose a few daily activities, which they sign up for online a few days in advance. It's proven popular already, Gilbert says. "Choice and flexibility is the buzz words of this newest generation."

 

Julian Krinsky

Who runs Julian Krinsky Camps and Programs at various sites in Philadelphia and the suburbs along with his wife, Tina, and business partner, Adrian Castelli

Age: 62

Enrollment: About 4,000 campers ages 4 to 18 are attending the 22 programs Krinsky is running this summer. Of those, 1,500 are day campers, the rest stay overnight in various dorm facilities. He estimates that 80 percent are Jewish. "They come from France and I see a Magen David on their neck, and from Brazil. Maybe Jews trust Jews."

A Tennis Start: Growing up in South Africa, Krinsky developed a talent for tennis and represented his country in several international competitions, including the 1969 Maccabiah Games in Israel. After immigrating to the Philadelphia area in 1977, he took a job working for an accounting firm. That lasted six months before he quit to teach tennis full-time. His first campers slept in tents in his back yard.

Multiplying Programs: Over the last 35 years, Krinsky built onto his tennis camp with a number of other sports programs, cooking, arts, fashion, business, magic and other subjects. He added Yesh Shabbat nine years ago, which includes many of those speciality subjects, but in an Orthodox environment. More recently, he hired staff from the University of Pennsylvania and the Curtis Institute to run music, law, career internship and sports business programs, and a medical program is on tap for next year. "Everything we do is life skills," Krinsky says. "It's not s'mores and campfires."

Facebook Fan: Krinsky keeps in touch with current and former campers via Facebook, where he's linked to 2,900 friends. One who went through his cooking program and now works at an upscale restaurant just invited him to dinner.

Workaholic: "Everybody says, 'What's your exit strategy?' and I say, 'To die.' I have no desire to let this go in a hurry. It's an honor to be part of these young people's lives, to see these people grow up." And, Krinsky says, to see them cry when they leave camp. "Every day is an adventure. I could write a book. I suppose some of it would have to be posthumously because there's some funny stuff."

 

Justin Lavner

Owner of Lavner Camps & Programs, based at several locations around the area.

Age: 30.

Enrollment: More than 1,000 children ages 4 to 16 among nine programs. Lavner says he has no sense of how many are Jewish, though he notes that they've made special arrangements for campers who keep kosher.

Law to Tennis: Though Lavner grew up attending Sesame/Rockwood and Pine Forest overnight camps, he had planned to go into law, not camping, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He started teaching tennis lessons to earn money on the side while attending law school at Villanova "and it snowballed very quickly" into a full-blown academy. "Being around kids all the time, I realized that not everybody's interested in playing tennis -- or they like tennis but there's also other things they want to learn and explore," Lavner says. So he expanded over the years, adding a culinary program and robotics. This year, his fifth summer in the business, he more than doubled his offerings with golf, video game design, filmmaking, theater, acting and salon services.

Young Blood: While not as seasoned as his counterparts, Lavner says business books and his legal education give him the guidance he needs, especially when setting up liability and negotiating contracts. He sees his age as an advantage. "I have the energy to work 70, 80 hour weeks all year round if I want to."

Tapping a Trend: Unlike traditional day camps, Lavner's campers don't sing songs or rotate through periods of outdoor activities. They choose the specific topic that interests them, so they don't have to sit through activities they're not excited about and can "make friends with like-minded kids," Lavner says. Each camp has its own special program at the end of every week, whether a "tennis Olympics," robotics competition or bake-off.

Best Job Perk: "The kids really look up to me. I know that when I talk, the kids listen." Because of that, Lavner says, he and the staff "can really become life changers. It's a business with a huge public benefit."

 

Mike Green

Co-owner, along with Matt Frankel, of Briarwood Day Camp in Furlong, Pa.

Age: 43.

Enrollment: About 450 campers ages 3 to 15. Of those, an estimated 70 percent are Jewish.

Camp Roots: Green and business partner Frankel shared the same bunk at Camp Saginaw at age 14. Green went on to law school; Frankel to business school. They were both seeking "the next big thing," when they heard that the owners of Briarwood were selling the site in 2009, Green says. "We were looking for a warm, positive, traditional day camp and we found it. We really believe in camp and want to pass that same positive camp experience on to as many kids as we can."

Jewish Spirit: Green says he wouldn't have minded running a Jewish camp, but none have been up for sale around here in recent years. "The Jewish values we learned permeate the camp," he says, even though "we don't say a word of Hebrew in this camp or reference Judaism or God at all. Our camp teaches you how to be a mensch, how to grow and be a friend."

Best Job Perk: "I hear laughing, splashing campers in the pool from my office."

Running From the Law: The self-proclaimed "recovering lawyer" has run 14 marathons.

Proud Papa: Aside from kvelling over his own three campers (7-year-old fraternal twins and a 5-year-old son), Green revels in watching all the children achieve things "they didn't know or think they could do. To see them make the big catch and go down the zip line makes it all worth it."

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