If you’re wondering whether all the Jewish investment in overnight camping is paying off, look no further than the Golden Slipper Camp.
Nestled on 600 acres in the Poconos Mountains, the 65-year-old camp has primarily served financially disadvantaged children. For the last few decades that population has been largely non-Jewish. Not that such an effort wasn’t laudable, say advocates of the camp, but thanks to a relatively new infusion of charitable dollars and a push to get more Jewish children to experience overnight camp, Golden Slipper is turning back to its original roots, inspiring a new generation of Jewish youth.
The increase in the number of Jewish campers at Golden Slipper — particularly from the Russian-speaking Jewish community — is exactly what the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Neubauer Family Foundation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp have been hoping to accomplish over the last five years through their enhanced financial assistance and marketing programs.
The push for Jewish camping has intensified amid studies and anecdotal evidence showing the overnight camp experience to be one of the most effective ways for youth to develop a strong Jewish identity.
But as the summer camp season begins, the question arises: Is the effort working beyond Golden Slipper? The answer appears to be yes, at least slightly.
The number of campers from the program’s target five-county Philadelphia region who attend the six Jewish camps whose campers benefit from the scholarships has increased by 17 percent over five years, from 922 in 2007 to 1,085 in 2012, according to Brian Mono, director of Federation’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning.
Those camps, which are the ones whose numbers Federation tracks are: Golden Slipper, the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam, the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Camp Galil, Pinemere Camp and the Reconstructionist Camp JRF.
During that same period, attendance at the roughly 150 camps nationwide that work with the Foundation for Jewish Camp saw an 11 percent uptick.
Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said he wasn’t surprised Philadelphia saw a higher increase than the national percentage because “Philadelphia is a leadership community” that has invested heavily in camping.
“It is working,” said Fingerman, though he added that he would love to get even more kids into Jewish camps. “We know affordability is still having an impact and we are looking at ways to address that. We are not resting on our laurels.”
Local directors of Jewish camps say much of that increase is due to the One Happy Camper program, a partnership among the Jewish camp foundation, the Federation and the Neubauer foundation. The program provides a $1,000 tuition break for first-time campers, regardless of financial need, at a nonprofit camp during the first year and a $750 discount in the second year. The program, which awarded $402,950 in grants in the area last year — they don’t yet have final figures for this year — encourages parents and children to try a Jewish overnight camp.
Technically, recipients of the One Happy Camper scholarship can use it to attend any of the roughly 150 camps in the foundation’s national network, but between 70 to 80 percent use the funds to go to one of the six camps that have developed a close relationship with Federation because they are all based locally during the off-season.
An additional $228,000 in needs-based scholarship funds were distributed last year, another factor contributing to increased enrollment, according to Mono.
Since 2007, the number of Jewish campers attending Golden Slipper has more than doubled. They now comprise 70 percent of the some 550 campers who attend each summer, according to director Tom O’Neill, who is not Jewish and has worked at the camp since 1989.
“We go out of our way for families that need help to get their kids into an overnight camp situation. No Jewish family has been turned down due to finances,” said O’Neill. Speaking to the success of One Happy Camper, he said that Golden Slipper has had an 80 percent retention rate among first-time campers.
Mono pointed out that the overall increase comes in spite of challenging economic conditions and a decrease in the number of Jewish children in the region.
“Non-Orthodox Jewish day schools and religious schools are down and yet camps are up,” said Mono. “So we feel pretty confident that the incentive grant programs and additional scholarships have had a significant impact. When you look at the success of overnight camps in relation to other programs in the Jewish community, it is hard not to be pleased with the results.”
But he said the increase in enrollment cannot all be attributed to these initiatives. He said many families have realized that “religious school education itself is not sufficient and are taking action by sending their kids to overnight Jewish camps.”
The community is also looking to new marketing efforts to further bolster enrollment. A study by noted sociologist Steven M. Cohen that was commissioned by the Federation and released earlier this year found that camps have room for growth but they have to find new and compelling ways to market themselves.
Relying solely on the selling point that a camp experience will bolster Jewish identity won’t fly with parents who aren’t already deeply committed to Jewish life, the study concluded.
Federation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp are in the process of starting an ambassadors program, which connects parents who are knowledgeable about area camps with other parents trying to discover which camp might best suit their child.
Meanwhile, as the camps await the imminent arrival of this year’s crop of campers, the numbers are mostly up.
Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Kunkletown, Pa., has had its bunks filled to near capacity over the last four years with some 1,050 campers each summer, according to director Aaron Selkow.
Since moving to its own Poconos property in South Sterling, Pa., in 2006, the Reconstructionist movement’s JRF has increased enrollment from 260 to 350 campers in six years, and there are plans to expand the facility.
Pinemere, in Stroudsburg, Pa., has also seen a small bump in numbers, with director Toby Ayash crediting the scholarship programs.
The one camp among the six that has experienced a decline in numbers over the past several years is Ramah.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer, who is entering his first summer as Ramah’s director, said that while enrollment in his camp has decreased, the financial assistance and incentives have averted “a more challenging situation.”
Though he declined to give exact enrollment figures, the rabbi said the struggles at his camp are the result of “a complex combination of factors” that include the economy and a shrinking of the Conservative movement in the Philadelphia-area, as documented in the 2009 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia.
“A tough decade for Conservative Judaism has translated into tough enrollment times at Ramah in the Poconos,” Seltzer said by phone as he was preparing camp for the arrival of campers on June 20.
Beyond the numbers, camp directors say the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s programs have also played a major role in improving the quality of their camp staff and programming. “I’m not Jewish, and they’re a resource I can go to when I have questions,” said O’Neill.
For example, as Golden Slipper tries to strengthen its Jewish curriculum and its presence in the greater Jewish community, O’Neill and other staff traveled to Israel in April for training through the Goodman Initiative, a foundation program that tries to expand Israeli education at North American camps. This summer, Golden Slipper will offer new educational programming centered around the Jewish state.
Camp JRF director Rabbi Isaac Saposnik said that in addition to the financial incentives, the camp also has benefited from the leadership training offered by the foundation. For example, the Cornerstone Fellowship offers training during the year, such as a seminar for staff in Waynesboro, Pa., last month.
But Saposnik said one of the most effective ways the Foundation for Jewish Camp has helped is just by changing how overnight camps are seen in the wider Jewish community.
“I think people are beginning to see Jewish camping as a real endeavor and a real game changer,” he said. “Now people say the work camp is doing is serious. They see that we’re really building and sustaining the Jewish community.”
Senior writer Bryan Schwartzman contributed to this report.