Strengthening identities

Strengthening identities

Young Pittsburghers, attending a Jewish overnight camp for the first time, are eligible to receive a one-time $1,000 grant to help cover their tuition.

The grants are made possible by the Papernick Family Foundation, in partnership with the Jewish Federation’s Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

To qualify as a “Jewish” camp, the camps attended by grant recipients must “weave Jewish values, culture and traditions into the fabric of camp, helping campers to connect to their own identity and the larger Jewish community,” according to the website of the North American-run Foundation for Jewish Camp, which offers matching funds to local federations that participate in the One Happy Camper initiative. Campers must attend the camp for a minimum of 19 consecutive days.

Camps on the approved list include Emma Kaufmann Camp, Camp Ramah, Young Judaea and NCSY.

This is the third year that Pittsburgh’s Jewish children have been offered the One Happy Camper grants, according to Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“We are trying to encourage families to send their children to Jewish camps to help strengthen their Jewish identity,” Finkelstein said.

There is no cap on the number of grants to be awarded, according to Finkelstein.

“We have always budgeted enough money to send every kid that applies,” he said, “and we have done that again this year.”

Children who have attended Jewish overnight camp are more than twice as likely as noncampers to have a strong emotional attachment to Israel, almost twice as likely to attend synagogue on a monthly basis, and substantially more likely to light Shabbat candles, be synagogue members and donate to Jewish charities, according to a survey conducted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp in the summer of 2011.

The One Happy Camper grants are intended to provide an incentive to those families who are less engaged in the Jewish community to try a Jewish camp for their children, rather than a secular camp or no camp at all, said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The hope is that, after providing an initial financial incentive to try a Jewish camp, families will continue to send their children to that camp in subsequent years.

The North American program, which was launched six years ago by an anonymous donor in Chicago, has seen its intended results, Fingerman said.

“What we found after our second summer is that the kids were coming back to the Jewish camps at the same rate as the kids who did not receive the grants,” he said.

The proof that kids otherwise unengaged in Jewish activities would choose to return to a Jewish camp once they tried it was enough to get other communities excited by the program, Fingerman said.

“This is a powerful North American initiative,” he said. “We have so far sent 30,000 kids to a Jewish camp on incentive grants. Fifty-five percent of those kids who went to Jewish camp for the first time with the grant would have otherwise stayed home or gone to a non-Jewish camp.”

“Camp has a stickiness factor,” Fingerman continued. “Once you get in and start building friendships, there is a 75 percent retention rate. That is a high percentage of kids to stay in the system.”

At Emma Kaufmann Camp, the most common destination for Pittsburgh’s Jewish kids, almost 90 percent of grantees chose to return there after their first year, exceeding the national average, according to a survey of local parents whose children received grants.

“Jewish camp provides the joy of being Jewish in such a fun and positive and spirited way, and leaves a lasting impression,” Fingerman said.

There are currently 63 One Happy Camper partners including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The Foundation for Jewish Camp generally provides matching funds to communities for three or four years, in the hope that the local programs will become self-sustaining.

Because the aim of the North American program is to reach out to Jewish families less engaged in the community, it does not match grants for those children who attend a Jewish day school. Pittsburgh, however, uses its local funding to provide first-time camper grants to any child attending a Jewish camp, including those who attend day school.

Locally, the One Happy Camper program so far has helped almost 200 kids go to Jewish overnight camp over the past two years, including over 120 who do not attend Jewish day school.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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