For many Jews, regardless of denomination, observance, sex or background, summer camp is as fundamental a part of growing up Jewish as a bar mitzva or — though no one remembers his own — a bris.
In the midst of challenging economic times, camp administrators plan to keep it that way. Local camp directors say after several tough summers, they are boosting efforts to maintain camp populations and bring in new kids as well through tuition assistance and, as Emma Kaufmann Camp Director Sam Bloom said, “pounding the pavement.”
The camp staffers aren’t alone. In 2006, the Foundation for Jewish Camping launched its Campership Incentive Program, which gives $1,000 scholarships to first-time campers toward camp tuition. Applicable in over 150 Jewish summer camps all over the country, FJC pairs with local federations and community donors to financially support the program.
In Pittsburgh, FJC paired with the United Jewish Federation’s Fund for a Jewish Future. At press time, 41 local first-time campers were registered to receive the grant.
“One of the main pillars of that endowment is overnight camp; the others are Israel travel and education,” said Charles Cohen, UJF’s planning manager for Jewish continuity. “As the first major project of the Fund, [the $1,000 grants] are really ideal because for a relatively small amount of money, we can have a dramatic impact on one of those pillars; $1,000 goes a long way with camp.”
So far, about 30 new campers have registered for EKC using the FJC grant, said Bloom. With less disposable income available to many families, deciding whether to send children to camp has become a tougher choice.
“Money is an issue. Choosing whether to send kids to camp or go on vacation; one camp or two camps. These are all decisions that parents must make now,” said Bloom. “It used to be easier — you’d just do all of them.”
In that way, the FJC grants are as important in enticing new families to summer camps as cushioning the financial burden.
“As much as it’s not a financial subsidy program, in effect it becomes that,” said Cohen. “Even with the grant, camp is not cheap. This is just another way to make living Jewishly more affordable.”
While the grants are certainly bringing new families into the camping fray, enrollment numbers aren’t suffering greatly in light of economic downturn, said Alicia Zimbalist, public relations manager of the FJC.
“We’re impressed and proud,” she said. “[The steady enrollment numbers] show how important camping is to Jewish families. There’s been a lot more need for financial aid and scholarship, and communities have really stepped up to offer that.”
At the James and Rachel Levinson Day Camp in Monroeville, pay periods were stretched out to ease payment stresses.
“We can’t make camp cost any less, so we began last year letting people pay all the way through October; all through the summer,” said J&R Director Liza Baron. “We offered that option to families who needed it, and families who didn’t haven’t taken advantage of it.”
In general, financial assistance for camps has become less of a hushed topic. “People are more willing to ask the question about scholarship,” said Baron, noting that financial need assistance is traditionally available for JCC members.
As day camps do not qualify for the FJC grants, J&R is offering $100 off camp tuition for new campers, “Just as an incentive to say, ‘Try it, we know you’re new,’” said Baron. “We’ve got to have a few different marketing techniques for different crowds.”
“Word of mouth marketing has really been the key for us,” said Michael Wolf, director of Camp Ramah in Canada. “But now people are talking about the economy, and we’re giving out more scholarships.”
But money isn’t everything. Keeping cabins full is no easy task, and camps continue to look for new ways to draw in campers.
This summer, J&R’s grounds will feature a new, permanent arts and crafts shelter.
“Mostly it’s programming,” said Bloom. “We need to stay up with changes and what other camps are doing. It’s like Kennywood — every year, what are we going to do to bring something new in? Parents used to just send their kids because that’s what you did. There’s got to be more flavor to camp now.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)