Jewish overnight camp may just be the best immersion experience available today that can light a spark in more kids, leading them to make the kinds of choices that help ensure a Jewish future.
But camps can’t rely on the Jewish continuity argument as their main selling point, especially as families lay out thousands of dollars per summer and want only the best facilities and programs for their kids.
These are some of the core points contained in “Jewish Camping in the Philadelphia Area,” a newly released study by noted sociologist Steven M. Cohen that was funded jointly by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Another key conclusion from the survey of local families with young children: Just because families join synagogues and send their kids to Jewish day camps doesn’t mean they will send them to over-night camps. Camps have to work to recruit these families, who provide the best potential audience.
Camp professionals said Cohen’s study lacked stunning revelations. But it did, they said, affirm the steps they have already begun to take. In recent years, many Pennsylvania camps that serve the Philadelphia area have been bolstering their sports and other facilities to rival private camps while at the same time engaging in more sophisticated outreach and marketing efforts.
Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, said during a Jan. 14 presentation of his findings that camps need to learn to tailor their message. For one potential family, a camp might point to its sports program as the key attraction. For another family that might be wary of an environment that is “too Jewish,” camps can present themselves as instilling values or providing community rather than focusing on the explicitly Jewish components.
“We need to emphasize those parts of the experience that most appeal to them,” Cohen told a gathering of camp directors and lay leaders at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City. “We need a different approach, one for the Jewishly committed and one for the non-Jewishly committed.”
Cohen acknowledged that it is only in the last few years that he has come to accept what many in the Jewish community have been saying for awhile — that Jewish camping is a formative experience that can lead to Jewish engagement in adulthood, including raising Jewish children and joining a synagogue.
Day school might be the best available means to ensure that kids develop and retain a strong Jewish identity, but non-Orthodox day school enrollment is declining and reversing that trend appears to be an uphill climb, he noted.
Overnight camp, Cohen said, is a more promising option that can reach greater numbers. Over the last six years, the number of kids in non-profit Jewish camps nationwide has grown from 66,000 to 72,000, though there are roughly 700,000 camp-age Jewish children in the country, according to figures provided by the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Locally, Federation also sees Jewish camping as a good investment. Over the past year, it allocated a total of $729,000 in day and overnight camp scholarships and incentives — tuition breaks afforded new families regardless of their income level — serving 1,014 campers, officials said.
Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz spoke at the meeting of the value of Jewish camping as a way to reach Jewish youth. “We are missing a lot of children and we need to reach out to make sure that we somehow get them involved in our camps.”
“Frankly, our Jewish community is not replenishing itself,” he added. “Twenty years from now, if we don’t capture more of our children, we will have far less in the Jewish community to support the needs of the greater Philadelphia area.”
Cohen’s survey — the latest in a series of studies on Jewish overnight camping done around the country — was an online study conducted last year from June 24 to July 23. A total of 3,272 parents who participate in the PJ Library program, which sends free Jewish children’s books and music to participating families with young children, were contacted. Of the 540, or 17 percent, who responded, 376 had children in the relevant age range and became part of the sample.
Among the findings, the survey showed that 46 percent of respondents who send their kids to Jewish day camp intend to send their children to overnight camp. That means overnight camps have some selling to do to get families already oriented toward Jewish camp to sign on.
The report emphasized that minimally engaged families might have little interest in a Jewish camping experience and the most committed families are already involved, but families with some Jewish involvement represent the largest potential growth area.
“Jewish overnight camps are heavily drawing their youngsters from Jewishly committed populations. Going to those populations makes the most sense for producing the most yield,” said Cohen.
To target these families, Cohen said, camps should use shorter sessions to entice families who might not want to send 7- and 8-year-olds away for one or two months.
Aaron Selkow, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., which runs such mini-sessions, called the study “not shocking, but reinforcing.”
Selkow said his camp is already implementing many of the report’s recommendations by deepening relationships with parents and further investing in its waterfront and other facilities while staying true to its mission of providing Jewish programing. “We know that we are doing Jewish better than anyone and that that is not enough for certain families with means,” he said, noting that facilities and bunks must be top-notch in order to compete.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, said that none of the camps have the resources to do the kind of market research Cohen’s study produced and that “it is good to see our suspicions backed up by data.”
“Those people on the PJ Library list are the people that all of us are looking to attract, they are a snapshot of our community,” said Seltzer. “This is going to help us as we design marketing strategies.”