Julie Schown had never thought of Shabbat services as boring but the ninth-grader also never considered prayer the most exciting experience either.
However, over the past three years at Camp Pinemere in the Poconos, Schown has come to relish Friday nights in the mountains. Campers, she said, sit in an open meadow until well after dark, singing Hebrew songs, often departing from the traditional liturgy to insert their own words. “It makes it so much fun.”
On Dec. 6, Schown will be one of several campers sharing his or her overnight Shabbat experience as part of a family service at Kesher Israel, the Conservative congregation in West Chester where she became a Bat Mitzvah.
The Kesher Israel program is part of a new, community-wide program to spread the word on Jewish camping. Funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Manhattan-based Foundation for Jewish Camp, the aim of the Synagogue Ambassadors program is to involve synagogues in promoting the benefits of overnight Jewish camps. The Foundation for Jewish Camp also rolled out the program in four other cities this year.
As part of the local program, 10 area synagogues have received grants ranging from $700 to $1,250 to organize camp fairs, such as those taking place at Kesher Israel and Temple Judea of Bucks County, and to create programs that generate interest in the camp experience, such as a Dec. 7 panel discussion at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley called “Why Jewish Camp?”
In recent years, Jewish camps, both overnight and day, have come to be viewed as keystones of Jewish identity-building and a major bulwark against assimilation.
For decades, camps have recruited their campers’ families to act as ambassadors. The effort to involve synagogues is relatively new, according to Scott McGrath, associate director of new camp initiatives at the foundation. It grew from the understanding that most congregations have fairly low participation rates in overnight camping.
In the past, according to McGrath and others, movement-based camps like Ramah, Harlam and JRF have had a relatively easy time promoting themselves in movement-affiliated synagogues. But that’s not necessarily been the case for non-denominational camps that also provide plenty of Jewish content, such as Pinemere, B’nai B’rith’s Perlman Camp and Golden Slipper Camp.
At the same time, said McGrath, families who sought information on camping options from synagogues became frustrated when they were only told about the camps affiliated with their movement. One of the conditions of the ambassador grants is that the synagogue must promote all Jewish camps equally.
Susan Lisman, a consultant hired by Federation to help administer the program, said the message to parents is that “there is a right Jewish camp for your child, and let us help you find it.”
In the early days of December, summer activities might not be the first thing on many parents’ minds, acknowledged several camp directors and others involved in the ambassadors program.
In fact, McGrath said, some Jewish camps are already booked solid for next summer and are looking to get families to start thinking about the summer of 2015 or 2016.
Synagogues, he said, should be trying to get them to “encourage families to go and visit camp this summer, and going to 6-, 7-year-olds and getting them to come to camp.”
But Aaron Selkow, who directs the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam, and is overseeing the opening next summer of the new Harlam Day Camp, said there are still plenty of spots available. “No Jewish camps that I know of based in Philadelphia are anywhere close to being at full capacity for all sessions.”
He did say, however, that some sessions for certain age groups at Harlam are closed with a waiting list.
Selkow noted that synagogue camp fairs are a relatively new phenomenon. Whether or not they lead directly to new enrollments — and he’s not sure they will — Selkow thinks the gatherings send a message about the high priority of Jewish camping.
“There is so much we are doing anyway,” Selkow said, pointing out that Harlam staff members promote the camp at programs throughout the year. “Our expectations are not that we are going to drive an increase in campers, but we are totally on board.”
Tom O’Neill, who directs the Golden Slipper Camp, said it’s important for his camp to be represented at Jewish camp fairs, especially since it is not as well known in the Jewish world as, say, Harlam or Ramah.
“Our goal is to get our name out there — not that we are going to get anyone to sign up that day,” O’Neill predicted, referring to the goal of camp fairs.
For Kesher Israel in West Chester, the reason synagogue leaders wanted to participate in the ambassadors program had to do with numbers: Of 162 students in its Hebrew school, just 11 currently attend Jewish overnight camp.
Students in Chester County may have a particularly strong need to experience an all-encompassing Jewish environment, according to the shul’s education director, Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz.
Her religious school students come from more than 50 different public schools. Many have just a handful of Jewish students in their schools and, apart from synagogue attendance, rarely experience a Jewish environment, she said.
A supplemental Jewish education is important, Kravitz said, but what gives it that “oomph is the trip to Israel and Jewish summer camping — that’s your package, validated in a Jewish home where Jewish living is on the front burner.”
Lisa and John Schown, Julie’s parents, already send their daughter, a student at Downingtown STEM Academy, to the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College program at Kesher Israel and drive her to BBYO meetings. But they wanted a more immersive Jewish setting for her.
Lisa Schown said she viewed Pinemere as an opportunity for her daughter “to be surrounded by Jewish kids, which admittedly, she doesn’t get on a day-to-day basis.”
Julie said that camp has not only given her a more positive outlook toward Judaism, but it was the place where she met some of her best friends. Right now, she wants to tell anyone who will listen about the benefits of Jewish summer camp.
She’s already convinced one person: Her younger brother, Leo, 8, is set to head off to Pinemere next summer.
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