Jewish Day Camps: The Choice For Families
Tue, 05/28/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Melanie Schneider and Jill Mendelson
Melanie Schneider and Jill Mendelson

Spring is here and it’s time to dream and plan for summer. 

No, we haven’t been dreaming about the beach or surfing the Internet for exotic destinations; our sights are much closer to home.

We’re te’re thinking about day camp: a venue presenting opportunities for deeper, enjoyable, meaningful Jewish life, and plenty of summer fun, too.

Jewish community studies in New York and elsewhere have identified the trend that more families are choosing not to affiliate with traditional Jewish institutions. For these children and others, research shows a Jewish day camp can be an important and influential experience that creates a positive connection to Jewish community.

UJA-Federation of New York supports camps as they think creatively to increase their options and offerings for Jewish families. And we encourage families to choose Jewish day camps and guide their teens to work in these camps. Colleagues, community members, donors and lay leaders can all join the conversation to strengthen and expand Jewish day camping.

Early engagement matters. If our day camps become gateways for rich and compelling Jewish summer engagement, these positive experiences and associations are likely to continue throughout the calendar year. And yes, the likelihood that Jewish children and their families will continue to choose Jewish options for other summer and extra-curricular moments and offerings will increase. 

Our task forces at UJA-Federation have begun to explore new ways to invest and enhance the Jewish content and experience at day camp. We know that overnight Jewish camping is among the most powerful experiences contributing to lifelong Jewish living and impact, but many more children attend day camp than residential camp. So imagine the impact if Jewish day camping was more rich and compelling, too. 

Through our research, we have learned that camps can pursue more integrated Jewish programming based upon Jewish values, and that campers and families are enthusiastic about this approach.   Day camps can spread Jewish content, values and language throughout the day and not isolate Judaism to occasional sessions about Shabbat or Israel. For example, camps have embraced Jewish environmentalism, teaching the Jewish value of “caring for the earth” while growing vegetables and donating the produce to a local food pantry. The experience is provided through a Jewish lens — the value is universal.

In Cherry Hill, N.J., the JCC camp chooses a Jewish theme each year, such as kindness/chesed, repairing the world and doing good deeds. Families are encouraged to actively participate with children in Jewish life through materials sent home and projects at camp. This camp has Hebrew signage throughout its property, and its high ropes course provides a virtual trip to Israel.

Because JCCs are community-based, they serve the entire community and their day campers come from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds. As a result, many JCCs are challenged to find an approach to Jewish life at camp that is right for them.  There are compelling ways to explore Jewish themes, ethnicity, and multicultural traditions and values at JCC camps, too. 

A 2011 study of JCC day camps in New York commissioned by UJA-Federation found that parents rated swimming as the most important camp activity followed by sports. Jewish activities were low on the list. So, is there a Jewish way to learn to swim? Absolutely. Jewish law guides us to teach our children to swim to help preserve life — a value worth sharing with campers and their families, a jumping-off point for broader discussion of Jewish values. And of course, there’s also water fun and games in Hebrew.

A secondary, though critically important audience for Jewish impact through day camp is teens who are many of the counselors at camps. One compelling model has been the creation of an overnight living and learning community for teen counselors, which supercharges Jewish learning and socializing.

Challenging economic times have caused parents to carefully watch money spent on camp. And our culture of unlimited choice moves parents to exercise creativity to maximize the days of summer. While some families still choose one program, others increasingly prefer a mix of experiences such as arts, music and drama, sports, language or chess. But few of these options are Jewish. We’d like to see more Jewish specialty camps for short chunks of the summer. They would build on the interests and passions of young Jews — for nearly every passion can be experienced through a Jewish lens.   

Jewish denominations, streams and movements have successful experience in camping, but camps need to continue to reinvent themselves. This summer, UJA-Federation is supporting a new Ramah sports day camp pilot in Westchester, which will offer instruction and competitive play for Jewish kids who want active summer pursuits.

When our camps are connected to our synagogues and our JCCs, when other new and innovative organizations add their contributions to the mix, when our families are encouraged to experience Jewish life in a way that is meaningful to them, our kids and families will lean toward choosing Jewish, and the whole community will gain.

Join us in a bit of daydreaming about day camp. Support them, choose them, make them better, expect the best and expect a fantastic Jewish summer.

Jill Mendelson is deputy managing director of the Jewish Communal Network Commission for UJA-Federation of New York and Melanie Schneider is senior planning executive for its Commission on Jewish Identity & Renewal.

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