For much of Mindy Davids’ life, summer meant one thing: Jewish overnight camp.
Starting out as a camper and moving up to counselor, Davids spent 12 consecutive summers at three different Reform movement camps.
Now the director of religious school and educational innovation at Manhattan’s Temple Shaaray Tefila, she says: “I’m in this business primarily because of informal Jewish education experiences.”
And she is hoping that a new senior educator — to be shared by Shaaray Tefila and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Crane Lake Camp, in the Berkshires — will inspire more families at this Upper East Side congregation to send their kids to Jewish camp.
The Shaaray Tefila-Crane Lake partnership, one of six starting this summer, is part of a pilot initiative called “Nadiv” (generous/noble in Hebrew) that is spearheaded by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
With a joint grant of $3.3 million over five years from the Avi Chai Foundation and Jim Joseph Foundation, six North American Jewish camps — three of them Reform — will share a full-time senior educator with a day school or congregational school. The educators, who have not yet been hired, will be trained together and given a mentor.
The goal, says Paul Reichenbach, director of the URJ’s camping and Israel programs, is to “import what’s working in schools and congregations into a camp setting, and to export some of the magic of what we do at camp and infuse it into the lifeblood of what is happening in schools and synagogues.”
A shared professional might also create a “pied piper” effect, as FJC CEO Jeremy Fingerman puts it: attracting day school and Hebrew school kids to Jewish camp and vice versa. While over 70,000 children in North America attended more than 150 Jewish overnight camps last summer, they represent only about 10 percent of camp-age Jewish children.
The URJ camps, while enjoying record enrollment, only enroll 8 percent of children who attend Reform congregational schools, Reichenbach says. (He estimates that another 4-5 percent attend non-movement Jewish summer camps.) Only 19 children from Shaaray Tefila’s 600-student religious school attended Reform camps last summer — a number Davids is eager to grow.
“We know the power of kids coming back from camp and being more connected to Judaism and more positive about their experiences here,” she said, adding that camp “often translates into more post b’nai mitzvah retention,” with teens continuing their Jewish education at camp “even if they don’t continue in religious school.”
Just as not all Hebrew school and day school kids go to camp, not all campers are enrolled in Jewish education during the school year. Helene Drobenare, director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake — which will share an educator with the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County through the new program — estimates that 35 percent of her 400 campers are Jewish day school students, but that the camp also includes “kids who’ve never been inside a synagogue.”
The new year-round camp-school positions come as the field of Jewish camping — and Jewish informal education in general — is enjoying a surge of funding and respect.
Several new programs, including one at Yeshiva University, which is Orthodox, have been established recently to train informal, also known as “experiential,” Jewish educators.
The presidents of all three major seminaries — YU, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) — will appear at the FJC’s upcoming biennial conference, participating in an opening plenary called “From High Ropes to Higher Ed: Experiential Education on the National Agenda.”
The FJC recently unveiled an ambitious five-year strategic plan that calls for, among other things: increasing camp enrollment by 25 percent, sending 25,000 new children to camp for the first time with a “One Happy Camper” incentive grant, establishing 15 more camps and raising $10 million in new donations from local communities.
Plans to develop lower-cost camps and additional “specialty” camps (five such camps opened in 2010, two in New York State) are also in the early stages. And along with the Nadiv pilot program, the FJC has funded smaller “camp connect” grants, including one through New York’s Jewish Education Project, to bring part-time camp-like programming to schools.
In addition to Crane Lake-Shaaray Tefila and Sprout Lake-Schechter, both serving the New York region, the other pairs in the Nadiv pilot are: Camp Mountain Chai and San Diego Jewish Academy, both in California; Herzl Camp (Webster, Wis.) and Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School; URJ Camp Kalsman and Temple De Hirsch Sinai, both in Washington State; and URJ Camp Coleman and Davis Academy, both in Georgia.
In selecting the camps, “our criteria were geographic spread, having different types and sizes of camps, and camps that we felt could benefit most from the get-go,” said FJC’s Fingerman, adding that preference was given to camps that do not have a full-time rabbi on staff.
Sprout Lake’s Drobenare told The Jewish Week “this is one of the most strategic, long-term-thinking projects out there,” adding that it will “bridge the gap” between camp and school and reinforce the idea that “being Jewish and having a strong Jewish education should happen 12 months out of the year.”