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What Flavor Camp Would You Like?

March 25, 2013 By:
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At the Kaiserman JCC, the new Camp Kef lets children run off to the circus.

How do you appease parents who want their child to receive intensive basketball training in the summer?

How do you keep the veteran camper interested when his or her summers have looked the same every year? 

While executives grapple with their employees’ demands for telecommuting and nap rooms, at summer camps, administrators are adjusting to parents and campers who also want greater freedom and flexibility as well as enough activities to resemble a four-star resort — or at least the summer camp two towns over.

One of the goals of summer camp is to foster an environment that feels apart from the modern world, where not having television or the conveniences of home doesn’t matter. That said, camps are not immune from changes in society over the last several decades. 

As with private school, if parents are going to part with thousands of dollars — the American Camp Association reports camp can cost $1,000 or more per week — they want to see a return on their investment. 

One of the ways camps are responding to this new reality is by providing campers with expanded opportunities to specialize in certain activities. Specialty camps have long existed — tennis, robotics, you name it — but now general and Jewish camps alike are enabling kids to concentrate for several days or as much as a week on a particular activity. In addition to the full-time counselors on staff, scholars, artists and coaches come for abbreviated periods to run specialty programs.

As families are finalizing their camp plans, a survey of several Jewish over­night camps serving the Phila­delphia-area found a wide range of specialties. 

Rabbi Joel Seltzer, in his first year as director at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, said Ramah started to create specialty tracks because of feedback from stakeholders — parents and camp­ers. 

“Parents are looking for experiences that are more varied,” said the director of the Conservative-affiliated camp. And kids, who are not content with a few CDs to satisfy them like when he was a camper 20 years ago but instead today show up with thousands of songs on an iPod, are also looking for more options.

About five years ago, Ramah started its basketball academy with Tamir Goodman, a former Israeli pro-basketball player. Interested campers, for an extra $500, play the sport intensely for most of the day through the second session of camp.

Jordan Kalfon, 14, of northern Virginia, participated in the basketball academy for the first time last year. When his father, Boaz Kalfon, worked as sports director of Ramah in the late ’80s, he and his staff of six went out to lunch at a restaurant where they were flanked by a table of 15 staff members from a nearby camp. All of them were serving as that camp’s tennis instructors. 

“We never thought that the resources and the money would go to this kind of thing,” Kalfon said of the academy at Ramah. “I think it’s a positive. For a parent, it’s a really hard call of, do you send your kids to a Jewish camp or do you send him to a speciality camp. To watch them grow this component has made it easier for parents not to have to decide.”

This summer, for those with artistic inclinations, Ramah will provide campers the opportunity to spend a week working with an artist to create an outdoor mural.

The art, Seltzer said, should add beauty to a setting that has lost some familiar landmarks. Superstorm Sandy knocked down about a dozen old trees,which were seen as part of the fabric of the camp, a part of campers’ memories.

But the rabbi emphasized that the specialized programming will not replace or take away from the activities people traditionally associate with Ramah: meals in the dining hall, learning Hebrew, song sessions and bonding in cabins.

“This is still one community. The community eats together. The community plays together. The environment stays the same, you just add the specialty things into the day,” Seltzer said.

At Pinemere Camp in Stroudsburg, the staff invites coaches who visit the camp for just a few days to join meals and other activities to get “a feel for what our mission is,” said director Toby Ayash. 

The overnight camp started hiring coaches to run clinics about four years ago, she said, after hearing parents say, “My child wants to play on the soccer team in the fall and he really needs training.”

The camp offers clinics in basketball, lacrosse, tennis and baseball for an extra $100, which covers about nine or 10 hours of training in the particular sport. Camp­ers who don’t sign up for the clinics  get to play the sports but they do so in their regular rotation of activities. The camp also offers clinics in golf, horseback riding and field hockey — activities that are not otherwise part of camp programming.

Ayash said offering the clinics allows Pinemere to better compete with speciality camps. They help answer the question: “How can we still keep these kids in camp but give them a little bit more of an intensive experience,” she said.

Programming at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam is also being influenced by the increased demand for specialization. Director Aaron Selkow said the camp in Kunkletown, Pa., is bringing in coaches and high-level professional educators to offer their expertise for several days or a week.

“It may be a big name or it may be a familiar or recognizable person from someone’s community. Sometimes, it’s just one day of specialty programming. It gives you that intensive experience but it doesn’t mean giving up a week of camp,” Selkow said. 

At the same time, he said, Harlam is not trying to compete with speciality camps and while they may offer tennis instruction, he cautions prospective families not to expect their child “to become a professional tennis player after three and a half weeks.”

He worries in a general sense — not, of course, at Harlam, he says — about what he terms “tractor parents.”

“I am not afraid of a parent that likes to see now and then what their child is doing, but I am fearful of the parent who wants to knock down every barrier that stands in their child’s way,” he said, referring to the developmental growth that comes from the highlights and lowlights of being away from home. 

Melanie Auerbach is an example of a camper who has to decide between devoting her summer to a discipline — ballet — and the intangibles that only a Jewish overnight camp can provide. The 14-year-old spends several nights each week at a dance studio, and her parents have discussed with her the option of spending summers in an intensive dance program rather than Harlam. Instead, Auerbach brings her point shoes to Harlam and stays in shape with more casual dance activities. As to whether she seriously considered not attending Harlem for a fifth summer this year, she didn’t hesitate: “It wasn’t even a decision.” 

Such a connection to camp affirms Sel­kow’s position. “When people talk about the experience they had at over­night camp as a kid, no one says, ‘The most incredible thing happened, I was playing tennis for this many hours,’ ” Selkow said. “They talk about the relationships they made and how being away from home impacted their developmental experience.”

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