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Jewish Camps Seek Balance in New, Tricky Terrain

August 10, 2011 By:
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Campers at Harlam can choose mountain biking as an activity. Staff member Ben Joseph leads the pack. Photo by Deborah Hirsch

The Pocono Mountains

Fifteen-year-old Samantha Helias doesn't belong to a synagogue, attend Hebrew school or practice any kind of Judaism at home in Holland, Pa. Her mom is Jewish, her father isn't.

Yet here she is in her second summer at Pinemere Camp, among the 10th grade counselors-in-training who lead Havdalah services every Saturday. When her parents took her out to lunch on visiting day, she made them say the blessing before eating.

Her mother, Jill Helias, said she couldn't be more grateful -- not just to the camp, but also to the financial assistance that made it feasible to send her there. "The grant was like, 'Wow, this could be possible,' " Helias said. "I'm trying to give her some kind of direction to go in and I think this was a beautiful introduction."

In nonprofit Jewish camping, this is the kind of feedback directors and proponents live for. But even as camps become more sophisticated about building Jewish identity through a carefully crafted mix of education and fun, the challenge now is figuring out how to entice more campers to give them a chance.

An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 campers comprise enrollment at 155 nonprofit Jewish overnight camps in North America. That might seem like a lot, but it's only about 10 percent of the 700,000 Jewish Americans of camping age.

Whether the rest are home or off at a different kind of camp or summer program, as far as advocates are concerned, these young people are missing out on a critical opportunity to solidify a strong Jewish identity.

Driven by that conviction, today's camp directors go to great lengths to prove that Jewish camp can compete with a plethora of other options. From marketing to fundraising, they're developing a "for-profit mentality" in hopes of staying both cutting-edge and affordable.

"There's a lot more Jewish kids who could fill all of our camps -- and then some -- if only we could get to them," said Sharon Waimberg, executive director of Camp Galil in Ottsville, Pa.

The past 15 years has seen the rise of shorter, specialty camps where kids can sharpen their skills on anything from computer programming to karate. Traditional camps have followed suit by adding more -- and more unusual -- choices for activities.

Jewish camps have been no exception, making significant additions to their facilities and activities to keep up with changing tastes and competition.

Almost all of the camps visited on a recent tour of the Poconos upgraded their sports amenities and added inflatable lake toys within past few years. Ramah in the Poconos, the Conservative movement's camp in Lakewood, Pa., has built three full-sized basketball courts since 2003 and brought in athletic specialists to work on everything from lacrosse to gymnastics.

The Reform movement's Camp Harlam, in Kunkletown, Pa., has three pools, fishing rods for its small man-made lake, rollerblades and a set of mountain bikes. Ropes -- or "outdoor adventure" -- courses are standard by this point there, as they are at several of the area camps.

Moshava, a Bnei Akiva Modern Orthodox camp in Honesdale, Pa., built a covered sports pavilion three years ago and began offering a science "elective" where campers can make ice cream or fly solar balloons. For the first time this year, campers also get to choose one of their afternoon activities. It's been a logistical nightmare for staff, but administrators worried that kids who want more choices would go somewhere else where they could get them, said the camp rabbi, Shalom Berger.

A few facilities have even added optional specialty tracks so that kids won't feel like they're missing out by choosing a Jewish camp.

This summer, 24 boys signed up to spend up to six hours a day with former Israeli professional basketball player Tamir Goodman in a basketball academy at Ramah.

Pinemere began offering three-day sports clinics two summers ago, adding new options each year.

Almost half of the kids sign up for at least one of the clinics, which are offered three times over the summer for an additional fee, said assistant director Ezra Androphy. Pinemere also brought in a full-time athletic director from a local high school so that kids could work on sports drills instead of just playing games.

Likewise, B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa., has reshaped activities to emphasize skill-building, whether in tennis, basketball or music. "We are a Jewish camp, we stand behind that and we're proud of it," said director Lewis Sohinki, "but we also have other things."

A smaller number of camps even cropped up to cater to particular interests, such as the Yesh Shabbat program that tennis pro Julian Krinsky started in Haverford nine years ago to provide intensive tennis, basketball and golf training in a Modern Orthodox setting. The camp has expanded to include workshops in fashion design, kosher cooking, college preparation and -- for those who come from abroad -- English as a second language. This summer, 165 campers from eight countries enrolled.

"We're always trying to think out of the box and figure out what our kids want," said Krinsky.

They can't afford not to, said his wife, Tina, because parents now feel that if they're going to spend so much money on a summer program, it shouldn't just be about making friends, it should also help their child get into the right college or on track to get a good job.

Even more recently, the Jim Joseph Foundation provided more than $10 million in seed money to jumpstart five "incubator" camps specializing in sports, the environment, adventure, New York City culture and an outward-bound experience. This is the second summer the camps have been open with a combined enrollment of 1,000 kids -- up from 600 the first year, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The national agency, created in 1998 to drive financial support and attention to the field, has been providing additional guidance to the new camps, as well as many others.

Helping Directors Keep Up

As the scope of Jewish camping has grown, so, too, have the job responsibilities of the directors.

"People ask me, 'Oh, so you're a summer camp director, what do you do the rest of the year?' " Waimberg said. "Are you kidding? Sometimes the rest of the year is more stressful than the summer."

At Camp JRF in South Sterling, Pa., becoming more professional over the last decade now requires five year-round staff members. "It's well worth the return on the investment," said director Isaac Saposnik. "We're now thinking much more like businesses than little nonprofits who hope that people show up."

But the additional costs -- plus the growing need for scholarships -- mean that many directors have had to become fundraisers, too. Saposnik, for example, is working to raise $2.5 million for a 72-bed expansion. (Construction was expected to begin this summer but was delayed due to a permit hold-up.)

To help directors cope, the Foundation for Jewish Camp started an "Executive Leadership Institute" in 2006. Thirty-six directors from around the country have gone through the program so far, and another 18 will start this fall, thanks to continuing funding from the Marcus Foundation, which has donated $3 million towards it to date.

Over six multi-day seminars throughout the year, with conference calls and homework in between, they learn business management techniques, marketing, recruitment and other "professional skills that would've been hard to come by any other way," said Waimberg.

Waimberg said she and many of her colleagues sort of fell into their jobs originally, perhaps because their kids went to camp or they started working there during summers off from teaching. They didn't have any background in overseeing multimillion dollar budgets, supervising dozens of people, managing communications, taking care of physical sites, working with a board of directors or fundraising, she said.

Aside from what they learned in the training, Waimberg said, "I now have a group of 17 other camp directors that I turn to if I have a question about anything."

Alongside the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy has also offered training to directors and board members from several Philadelphia-area camps.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation in western Massachusetts first started the institute in 2004 to guide camps in that area to operate more like businesses and upgrade facilities so that "in addition to the fun, they can really be functioning as state-of-the-art institutions," said foundation director Joanna Ballantine. Institute fundraising consultants have since expanded to help directors and board members from 85 camps across the country create infrastructure for generating revenue, develop active boards, solicit funds, conduct strategic planning and use social media to articulate their value to the community.

Collectively, those camps have leveraged more than $70 million, including $10.5 million in matching grants, for land, facilities and other capital improvements, Ballantine said. That's separate from any scholarship funds that have been raised by individual or national organizations.

Campers might not even notice a difference, Waimberg said, because at least at Galil, the dynamism and the energy of having college-age kids lead the youth movement camp is still there. Behind the scenes, however, Waimberg's constantly tweaking programs and planning facility upgrades. Everything is managed "in a much more professional way than people might remember."

Saposnik said he believes parents have noticed the heightened professionalism at JRF and elsewhere.

"People who used to look at private camps as the only way to go are looking at Jewish camps as a high-quality option for their kids," he said. "People say, 'Oh, Jewish camp is a real game-changer.' "

Jill Helias has nothing but praise for what she and her daughters have seen at Pinemere. But she'll be thinking hard about the costs next summer. Even though Samantha and her younger daughter, Erica, an 8th-grader, both received incentives for first-time campers this year, Helias said she still had to take out a loan to cover the remaining tuition. But, Helias said, if there's a way to make it work, it's worth it for the opportunity to continue exposing them to Judaism.

As Samantha Helias, a sophomore at Council Rock High School South, put it, she's got the time at camp, so she might as well learn more about her background. "At least I know what I am."

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