Don’t Make Summer Programs ‘Luxury Items’
Tue, 03/01/2011
Special To The Jewish Week

One of the hardest jobs in any school is being on the scholarship committee. Balancing a family’s real or perceived financial need with a fiduciary responsibility to one’s school is a tricky task. If the committee is too stingy, a child may not be able to get the education he deserves. Conversely, if it is too generous, a school may not be able to endure (or to meet its obligations to teachers and staff). If there was ever a thankless job, this is it.

We recognize this fact and we are grateful for the hard work these individuals do on behalf of the Jewish people. However, if we focus solely on our individual institutional needs then we lose sight of our broader communal obligation to provide the best Jewish education possible to our children.

Many people — myself included — were disheartened to read several recent letters from the scholarship committee of local yeshiva high schools. The letters in question assert that if high school students attend summer programs, it will make it more difficult for them to receive financial assistance. The schools’ move is based on the assumption that such a summer program is a luxury item, comparable to the purchase of a new car. It’s sad that the economic situation has led to such a letter, but for many reasons this approach is not the answer. A Jewish summer experience is not the functional equivalent of a new car, a luxury vacation or home remodeling.

In summer programs students connect to Jewish texts and traditions in an experiential, exciting way. The content that schools spend a year imparting becomes reinforced by the experiences and relationships developed over the summer. All students, especially those who are not diligent about their studies, create their own pathways and connections to Judaism and establish a place for themselves within a network of peers and young adult mentors. Summer becomes a crucial component of their social, educational and religious development.

Many would reply, “When I was a kid, we never went to camp…” That may be true, but much has changed since we were kids. Then, the worst-case scenario was that we would sit around “vegging out” in front of the television. Now that’s the best-case scenario. Our children live in a very different world. It’s a world that’s much smaller thanks to the Internet, text messaging, Facebook, etc. These are all very useful tools with wonderful potential, but they also present very real challenges, especially to teens. High school students are never “home alone” any more. Thanks to our technologies, they’re always with someone online — but with whom? An idle summer today means more than a lack of growth. It means potential backsliding to a degree undreamed of in earlier days.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now that high schools have started talking about such policies regarding scholarships, elementary schools are taking note. If this situation is dangerous for high school students, it’s completely untenable for younger children. Realistically, what are working parents to do with their children who are home for the summer if sending them to camp will jeopardize their tuition assistance? Hire a sitter? That’s no cheaper and far less fulfilling from an educational standpoint. (Incidentally, if summer camps become perceived as a luxury item, it will have the inevitable consequence of creating a “caste system” of those who are privileged to attend versus those who are not. Portraying summer camps as an option only for the elite will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

There’s more: one person involved with his school’s scholarship committee has told me that it also looks at where older siblings attend college. I’ll leave it to others to defend the cost of Ivy League schools; my immediate concern is the question of whether an older sibling attending a Jewish college rather than a less-expensive public college presents an impediment to scholarship assistance. If so, that’s an obvious problem in and of itself. If the schools would reply, “Of course not, we recognize the Jewish education as necessary and not a luxury,” then the same should certainly apply to Jewish educational summer experiences for teens, who are in a far more precarious position.

We understand the tuition crisis. It affects all of us. Like the schools, Jewish summer programs give scholarships. (This is something that real luxuries, like cruises and European vacations, simply don’t do.) We’re all on the same side, trying to impart Jewish values and Torah education to the next generation. Perceiving one another as competitors for a limited pot of funds is not going to solve anything. We need to work together as partners in this endeavor.

The situation is real and finding a solution requires a communal conversation. Representatives of all stakeholders — schools, summer programs, synagogues, and parents — should come together for open dialogue and interaction. Working together, we can formulate a course of action that does not benefit one partner to the detriment of another. Undercutting one another is penny wise and pound foolish. Together we can develop a fiscally and pedagogically responsible approach that appropriately balances our unique institutional needs with our shared communal ideals and values.

Rabbi Steven Burg is international director of NCSY, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

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Comments

Rabbi Burg brings up some excellent points.
Summer camp is not a luxury. Teens and tweens left to their own devices during the summer will look for entertaining things to do that will not involve Torah Study, but will likely include hanging out en masse at the local pizza place or ice cream store. When groups of teens mix and mingle innocently over a slice of pizza, the next step is for the group to head over to someone's house where there is likely limited or no supervision. After the TV and video games get a little dull, the group will naturally look for something more interesting to do. And what fun they find can have serious ramifications.
Wouldn't it be better for the kids to be at camp where they can have fun and learning (and supervision)?
While I also agree that many people have gotten used to having someone else pay their bills for them, I've seen many more instances where the Yeshivas consider expensive kitchen remodeling to be an acceptable expense when determining financial aid, and buying a car to replace a 15-yr old clunker a cause for denial of aid. And don't get me started on the highly paid administrators while teachers go without raises.
Lets look at other ways to keep kids active. Schools who refuse financial aid for their students who attend camp should be required to run summer programs/activities for their students. Local Day camps are usually not set up to handle teens and tweens - let the high schools offer arts/crafts, sports, chessed, learning to keep the herd of teens off the streets and out of trouble.
Too expensive you say? Then let the kids go to camp without jeopardizing financial aid.

I find that there are several things missing from this. First of all being whether or not the child in question attended those summer experiences through a scholarship is of utmost importance to the question at hand. I know that I participated in all of my high school summer programs only through grants, for which I am very grateful. I also know, however, that where a child's siblings go to school playing into the equation is ridiculous. While Rabbi Burg comments on the cost of Ivy League schools, is he aware that they are the schools most likely to give full scholarships and have some of the highest scholarship levels of any schools in the US?
I agree with AZ's comment, the camp attended, what its purpose is (study vs. social) and how the family paid for it all come into question in determining if it is a luxury or not.
As for Very Concerned's comment, Rabbi Burg again makes a good point in that some of those that most need summer programs are the families in which working parents cannot provide adequate care for their children during the day when school is not in session.

This article is very troubling. I don't dispute the benefits of frum summer programs. No question that they are very valuable. But the opinions in this article are a clear articulation of just how numb our community has become to asking other people to subisidize our activities. Every dollar in scholarships that a family gets comes from someone else who has to pay for it through higher tuition. That's a fact. Is it really fair to make those people pay more so that you can give your kids a better summer? Especially when many of those people pay such high tuition already that they can't afford such summer programs for their own children? That line of reasoning is both obsurd and really troubling. Our community has come to feel far too entitled. (I'm not even going to talk about the fact that there are plenty of low-cost frum summer activities that would be fine alternatives.)

While I agree that camps should not be considered a luxory item, which camp children are sent to should factor into the equation. If parents are sending their children to camps which cost them $6,000-7,000 per summer for a 4 week program, that should be looked at.

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