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Minor Touch-Ups as Big Day Nears

June 17, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Pinemere Camp executive director Toby Ayash (center) and staff put their brushes to the test before their charges arrive.

The long wait is finally over. Staff members are back, and the kitchens have been restocked. The swimming pools have been retouched and refilled, and the volleyball nets rehung. The cabins have been cleaned out, and empty bunks lay in wait.

All that's missing at this point are the children. But in the next few weeks, many will board buses to kick off yet another summer at overnight camp.

Among those returning this year will be the Cylinder siblings: 14-year-old Mark, 16-year-old Brett and 17-year-old Jamie. Their mother, Stacey, grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and spent her summers attending the Golden Slipper Camp in the Poconos. The family couldn't afford a synagogue membership, she said, and so camp was where she was exposed to Jewish culture, including learning songs, prayers and rituals.

When her own children came of age, she said, it was a no-brainer that they, too, would attend Golden Slipper. How to pay for it required a little more thought.

"With four kids, to be honest with you, I've always had to write my letters and ask for help, and Golden Slipper has never turned me down," said Cylinder, whose oldest child, 18, also attended the camp.

A High Price Tag

Jewish overnight camp has come to be thought of by many in the organized world as crucial to the formation of a child's lifelong Jewish identity. And that is why, some say, enrollment hasn't been drastically affected by the current climate.

But camp does come with a high price tag, and many institutions have raised their tuition by 2 percent to 4 percent to match cost-of-living increases. Many camp directors in the region did acknowledge that their scholarship requests are up significantly for summer 2010, with more families asking for more money.

This year, Cylinder will have three kids at camp, and she said that, in spite of the current economy, the process of paying for the summer sessions is relatively easier now than it was years ago, basically because she and her husband are more established.

But that still doesn't mean it's easy.

"For us, it wasn't just a matter of doing your application ... it was doing your application and sending a letter saying, 'This is what we can afford,' " she said.

Unlike at many other Jewish camps -- where tuition can reach as high as $9,000 for a full summer -- tuition at Golden Slipper is based on income level. As listed on the camp's Web site, tuition starts at $1,850 for families earning less than $60,000 annually, with gradations at the $60,000 and $75,000 income mark. Costs vary, and -- as with other camps -- discounts exist for those sending multiple kids.

Camp administrator Jennifer Wolov Scarlata said that about 90 percent of campers get some sort of financial aid. That's not a by-product of a bad economy, she said, but how things have always been done there.

One thing that's helping put campers into bunks this year is Golden Slipper's association with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which partners with Jewish federations -- including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia -- to provide funds to put a summer experience within reach for many families.

Federation's Overnight Camp Incentive Program, instituted in 2008, provides non-needs-based assistance to the tune of $1,000 for first-time campers. Although previous years saw grants of $1,250, the decrease, according to Federation allocations manager Brian Mono, came from the national level, in an attempt to deliver a uniform amount across most of the country.

Foundation grants of $750 are also available for second-year campers. Federation delivers the money through a partnership with the Neubauer Family Foundation, as well as the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

But even with the reduced assistance, more money is still being distributed. Last year, about 180 campers received the awards, whereas about 240 are projected for this year. Needs-based scholarship requests are also up -- though not drastically, said Mono -- and Federation expects to award about $190,000 to 240 individuals, compared to 225 last year.

At the B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pa., the recession didn't cripple last year's enrollment the way it was feared it might. And for this summer, said director Lewis Sohinki, enrollment looks to be stable or even slightly above what it was last year -- a trend identified by a number of other camp directors interviewed for this story.

After scholarship requests doubled for last year, Sohinki said that they've doubled again, putting this year's need at about four times the normal amount. His camp and many others still have a few spaces available and are offering financial aid; and with the economy the way it is, they're being a bit more flexible about payment schedules.

Camps traditionally expect payment in full by June 1, and several are sticking by that policy, though many are making exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

"We found that families that need financial assistance have asked for longer-range payment plans," said Sohinki, noting that some won't finish paying off this summer's tuition until Sept. 1 -- a full two weeks after the final session ends.

Sohinki said that parents have been requesting "anything from full scholarships to just a couple hundred dollars."

He said that the average amount the camp is awarding ranges between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on whether or not families are getting other help.

Shorter Sessions?

While the East Coast has long been a place where camp was thought of as a seven- or eight-week experience, that hasn't always been the case in other parts of the country. One way many families are easing the burden this summer is by sending their kids for shorter stints.

"I'd say for now, there's absolutely no question in my mind that it's very much related to the economy and people's ability to pay, but it could also just be a new trend," said Sharon Waimberg, executive director of Camp Galil in Ottsville, Pa. "I know from a lot of the camp industry conferences I go to that a lot of people are talking about the shorter sessions as being something we need to really look to."

Rabbi Todd Zeff, executive director of Camp Ramah, the Conservative movement camp in the Poconos, observed that one change the economy has created this year is the fact that enrollments petered in later than they did in the past.

He conceded the possibility that many '09 enrollments came in quickly on the heels of '08, before the recession really hit, so for 2010, families seemed to wait until the last minute to make up their minds about who to send to camp and how.

Zeff said that the majority of campers are staying for the full summer, although a growing contingent are choosing the first session over the second -- odd, he said, since the second session is shorter, and therefore cheaper.

Part of that, he posited, is because "in Philadelphia, there's such a shore culture, and a lot of it happens in the weeks prior to Labor Day, so if the children are at camp for the first session," there's still time for them to go to the beach.

This year at Ramah, campers receiving scholarships are getting on average about $250 over last year. In 2009, $102,000 was distributed to about 82 campers, for an average of a little more than $1,200; this year, $158,000 is being distributed among 106 campers, at an average of a little less than $1,500.

In spite of tighter budgets, surveyed camps said that they were not skimping on any of the traditional fare this year -- sport competitions, outings, entertainment and evening activities.

Directors have long made a point of saying that no child should be denied a camp experience for financial reasons. Of course, there will always be some families that can't make it work. That might mean sending just one child in a given year, or a single session instead of full-time.

Of course, another method helps: the good old-fashioned credit card.

"We put a chunk of the fees on a credit card last year because we couldn't pay for it any other way, even with the assistance" from Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist camp in South Sterling, Pa., said Selene Platt, whose two teenage daughters are longtime campers.

It was never a question about whether the girls would go, she said. "We just requested as much assistance as possible -- and then figured out the rest. Not doing it never entered the conversation." 

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