Summer Camp Impact Seen High In New Study

Strongest evidence yet of effect of camping on Jewish identity, adult engagement.

03/02/11
Associate Editor
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When your child grows up, do you want him or her to feel an emotional attachment to Israel, go to synagogue and donate regularly to Jewish causes?

Then start packing a duffel bag, and load it on a bus bound for a Jewish sleep-away camp.

A just-released report — the most comprehensive analysis so far of the impact of Jewish camp experiences — offers the strongest evidence yet that a summer of bug juice, fresh air and color war leads to significantly stronger adult Jewish engagement.

While there have long been many anecdotal and other reports about the life-changing and positive effects of Jewish camps, this study, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and led by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, is the first to employ a “regression analysis” that statistically controls for influences other than Jewish camp, such as prior Jewish education and family background, on a person’s adult behavior and determine the camp-related effect.

“I am impressed not only with the size of the effect, but with the variation of the effect,” said Cohen, in a conference call unveiling the study.

The study, based on data from 26 demographic studies including the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, found that camp alumni when compared to Jews of similar family, educational and denominational backgrounds show higher levels of Jewish engagement in everything from ritual observance to Jewish charitable giving to marrying within the faith.

Behaviors on which camp had the greatest impact: emotional attachment to Israel (55 percent higher for camp alumni), attending synagogue at least monthly (45 percent higher) and always/usually lighting Shabbat candles (37 percent). Camp alumni were 30 percent more likely to donate to Jewish federations and 26 percent more likely to affiliate with synagogue.

Still affected, but less dramatically, were intermarriage rates (camp alumni were 10 percent more likely than their peers to marry other Jews), always/usually participating in a Passover seder (8 percent) and always/usually lighting Chanukah candles (5 percent).

Seventy thousand North American Jewish children (an estimated 10 percent of the eligible population) attended Jewish summer camps this past summer, according to the FJC, and the study will be a powerful tool in the group’s efforts to raise money to dramatically increase camp enrollment.

Even without the new research, Jewish summer camps have been a popular cause in recent years.

The FJC, which had a budget of over $18 million in 2009, the last year for which tax forms are available, already enjoys support from the Jewish community’s biggest philanthropists and donors, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has poured in more than $20 million since 2006, and the Avi Chai Foundation.

Its board of trustees includes power hitters like Leslie Wexner, the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

Last summer the foundation helped launch five new “specialty” Jewish summer camps, including the environmentally themed Eden Village Camp and the Six Points Sports Academy. It has also partnered with other funders to offer various incentive scholarships to encourage new families to enroll their children in Jewish camps. It also works with existing camps to improve their Jewish education, management and business practices, and is exploring other specialty and lower-cost summer camp options.

“This report is a tool that really proves Jewish camp is the major contributor to a vibrant Jewish future,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the FJC’s chief executive officer, adding that “We have hard facts that prove camp works, and we believe this highlights the impact on the individual Jewish identity of campers but even more, what this indicates, is that camps create a clear sense of belonging and identity to a larger community … Camp is a community development tool.”

Elisa Spungen Bildner, who together with her husband Robert founded the FJC in 1998, said, “There have been studies that have talked in a less strong way about the relationship between going to Jewish camp and the adults that come out, but this takes it so much farther.”

Noting that some donors she has approached over the years have been skeptical about the impact of Jewish camp, Bildner said, “I can’t wait to go back to some of them and show them this research.”

Asked whether there are examples of other research isolating the impact of a specific Jewish experience on adult behavior, Cohen, the researcher said “the closest model” is research Brandeis’ Steinhardt Social Research Institute is doing measuring the impact of Birthright Israel trips.

“Similar analyses show that day schools have an even more powerful impact” than summer camps, he said.

However, “the policy issue with day schools is that they reach a small fraction of the Jewish population and non-Orthodox population,” he said.

In looking for “the major policy instrument available” to engage non-Orthodox Jews “we’ve suspected that Jewish camp is that option. Now I’m convinced.”

“If, like 80 to 95 percent of [non-Orthodox Jews] you are not going to send your kid to day school then my No. 1 advice to you is send your kid to a Jewish camp where the staff is proficient and well-trained,” Cohen said. “It really makes a big difference after the Jewish home, which is the first line of intervention in modeling intensive Jewish life.”

Asked why he believes summer camp attendance has less impact on one’s chances of marrying a Jew than it does on other key Jewish behaviors, such as ritual observance, Cohen, who has frequently described intermarriage as “the greatest single threat” to Jewish continuity, emphasized that camp alumni are 10 percent less likely than their peers to intermarry.

“There’s an impact and you see it,” he said.

However, the greatest factor influencing whether or not someone intermarries, Cohen said, is geography: Jews who live in neighborhoods with large Jewish populations are less likely to intermarry.

“Camps are competing against the geographic influence, and as I’ve quipped with some seriousness, I’d rather know about the ZIP code than education” in assessing one’s likelihood of intermarrying, he said.

Last Update:

07/04/2011 - 15:20

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Only if J Street starts a pro-Israel and pro-Peace camp. I, and my family are engaged with Israel. My daughter was Bat Mitzvah with a trip to Israel just last year. We are part of the American Jewish Zionist community. We care enough to be engaged and not assimilistionist nor rejectionist. But precisely because of that, we will not participate in delusional pro-Occupation, peace-never ideology that pervades these camps.

You asked a good kasheh (question) to the Camping Impact Study author Steven M. Cohen but, unfortunately for your readers, you did not receive the complete teretz (answer) (“Summer Camp Impact Seen High in New Study,” March 4, 2011, by Julie Wiener).

Your question was “[Why does] summer camp attendance [have] less impact on one’s marrying a Jew than it does on other key Jewish behaviors?” The (almost defensive sounding) response from Cohen (“There’s an impact and you see it”) was incomplete and misleading. In fact his statement, excerpted and highlighted in large print that “I am impressed not only with the size of the effect of Jewish camping but with the variation of the effect” also misses a basic finding that should have been noted.

Perusal of the columns of data accompanying the article indicates a very similar, non-varying effect of Jewish camping across a wide spectrum of desirable behaviors. It is only because the Impact column is calculated using as a baseline (or denominator) the non-camper tendency to that behavior do we see the paradoxical variation. For example, if non-campers are participating in a Seder at the 0.82 level, there is very little chance that camping could improve that very high number appreciably. Indeed, the campers’ behavior is rated as 0.89, an “Impact” of 8%. Conversely, the “Always/usually lights Shabbat candles” with non-campers at a low of 0.18 is increased by a similar amount as Seder attendance in the camper column but it is now rated as an Impact of 37%.

This phenomenon, called the “ceiling effect,” is very common in statistical analysis. It changes the interpretation of this study and makes it even more believable: the impact of Jewish camping is consistent across the whole gamut of Jewish attitudes and behaviors.

Simcha Pollack, Professor of Statistics
St. John’s University

There is a reason he is a sociologist and not an economist. Regression analysis can't adequately control for unobserved variables.

Doubtless, more religious kids are more likely to go to camp and are also more likely to go to Synagogue and be good Jews. Even if he tries to control for this in his regression, there remains unobserved heterogeneity in his subjects. His regressions are biased.

Ask any economist or anyone concerned with causality. He's picking up unobservable heterogeneity in spite of his controls, and his results are driven by the fact that more Jewish Jews are both more likely to go to camp and more likely to be Jewish later, irrespective of camp.

If there was ever a testament to the power of a Jewish summer camp in not only making deep and lasting friendships but in so many alums making aliyah and so many remaining strongly committed to their Judaism, learn about CAMP KINDERWELT, a Farband Labor Zionist camp which was in existence for about fifty years. We STILL are all together - hundreds of us staying in touch one way or another - and sharing a website, "Kinderwelt Lives," which only strengthens our personal bonds as well as our continuing love for Israel and for our Jewish community. Would that my children could afford to send their children to a Jewish summer camp ALL summer so that they are inundated with Jewish songs, dance, Yiddishkeit, Jewish history and culture, and a love for Israel as they separate from the materialistic culture that abides all year long in their more secular society. Going to a Jewish summer camp was such a "break" from all that we knew; it provided a unique Jewish "ruach" that became part of us, organically, because of our emotional attachments to camp and the friends we made there. But it's all much too much money now and sadly,few of our grandkids will have that and will be missing out on that very special dimension, that huge part of life. Most of the Jewish communities' funds should be directed to making summer camp affordable to Jewish children and then they'd be in the palm of our hands, loving and being proud of their Judaism.

The Power of camp and the rest of the year...

I thank Har Zion Hebrew School, Har Zion Day Camp and my family for
giving me a strong Jewish foundation. I am a product of, what Jack
Wertheimer calls, "cluster" experiences. Values lived at home, learned
and lived throughout the year June to June, with friends and family,
mattered and instilled a Jewish identity in me.

The integration of what is lived and learned in the
seasons and sectors of our lives yield real connections. Jewish
summer camp plays a strong role in cementing a year round exposure to
Jewish values.

The Jewish Education Project, supported by the Foundation for Jewish
Camp (FJC) and UJA-Federation of New York, partnering with The Experiment in
Congregational Education, and the Leadership Institute of HUC and JTS is
supporting a cohort of New York Congregations in creating Camp-Connect
High Impact Models of Jewish Learning.

Congregations committed to directing resources to High Impact Models of
Congregational Learning (moving away from the "classroom only model")
will work over three years, and be supported by The Jewish Education
Project and a $50,000 grant from FJC beginning in Summer 2011.

The goals of the grant are
1) Significantly increase the number of
children and families who explore the value of Jewish overnight camp,
and express that value with attendance,

2) Create a High Impact Model of year long Jewish Learning that integrates and connects to summer camp experiences.

Connecting the successes of Jewish camping with year-long Jewish living and learning is a wonderfully exciting High Impact Model waiting to arrive in New York.

It is a joy to work with the teams that are changing the landscape of
Jewish education so that children live and learn June to June. A worthy
cluster.

Cyd Weissman
Director, Innovation in Congregational Learning
The Jewish Education Project
Pioneer New Approaches

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