The booming Jewish camp movement has in recent years become an incubator for emerging Jewish professionals and clergy and young people with a strong connection to their Jewish heritage.
Camp attendance is up 7 percent since 2009 despite a faltering economy, community support is rising, and the idea of building a vibrant Jewish community through camps has gained traction across denominational lines.
Recent studies have shown children who attend Jewish camp are less likely to intermarry and more likely to join and attend synagogues, feel a stronger emotional attachment to Israel, and have a stronger Jewish identity than those who don’t.
That was the good news delivered at Reach Beyond the Bunk, the fourth biennial Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, held March 11-13 at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick.
Founded by Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair in 1998, FJC works with camps to imporve their management and programming, and with communities to increase awareness and promote enrollment in Jewish camps. FJC represents 150 nonprofit Jewish sleepover camps in the United States and Canada. The conference featured workshops, peer-to-peer networking, speeches, and panels.
The aim of the gathering, CEO Jeremy J. Fingerman told NJJN, “is to get people to reach beyond their comfort zones and realize that the role camp plays is instrumental to building a stronger Jewish future. I think this conference is important personally, professionally, and communally.”
He later told the crowd of more than 650 representatives of Jewish camps, community centers, and philanthropies that a majority of today’s young Jewish leaders came out of the camping system.
Dr. Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation — which supports Jewish youth education — called the conference “a watershed moment,” with Jewish camp enrollment at a record 71,000-plus children.
He said his foundation had contributed $33 million to the cause and announced that JJF was now giving $7.2 million to fund a specialty camp incubator, to which the Avi Chai Foundation would add another $1.4 million. He challenged conference attendees to raise an additional $1.4 million through their organizations by the close of the event.
Edelsberg said five specialty camps opened last summer focusing on such themes as the environment, sports and social responsibility, and Jewish values. The new money will fund four others — a fifth is planned if funding is secured — all to open in 2014.
Edelsberg moderated a March 12 panel discussion that brought together educational leaders from each of Judaism’s major denominations: Richard M. Joel, Yeshiva University president, representing Modern Orthodoxy; Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative stream’s Jewish Theological Seminary; and Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Eisen said Jewish camps do so well providing an experiential Jewish learning experience that they challenge other institutions to find ways for their approaches to “be transferred to other aspects of Jewish life.”
“There is nothing you and I can do that will secure the future of American-Jewish life more than getting Jewish kids to Jewish camps,” he said.
Eisen said the reason camp succeeds in teaching Jewish values is because its programs — from playing sports to celebrating Shabbat — are carried out in an atmosphere of joy and fun. “Play takes place in Jewish time,” he said. “Kids reach down to the bedrock of themselves, where Hebrew and Torah are part of the culture, not the counterculture.”
Ellenson said part of the problem in engaging Jewish youth is that the community has lost the “holistic” approach, with every part of life revolving around Judaism.
“With modernity the world in which we live our lives has become divided and bifurcated,” he said. “Camps recreate that holistic way of Jewish life, which takes place 24 hours a day, seven day a week. It forms a Jewish identity that can’t be paralleled, and as these Jewish young people grow up…it can’t be replicated in any other part of life.
“Jewish camp is at the forefront of forging Jewish identity for our people.”
Saying that “God embraced us as a covenantal people,” Ellenson added that he encourages support for camps for the benefit of “klal Yisrael extending beyond our movements.”
Joel rejected talk of finding ways for the Jewish people to survive. “How pathetic are we if we think we’re in the business of allowing the Jewish people to survive and not thrive?” he said.
Orthodox youngsters usually attend day school, said Joel, but Jewish summer camp can supplement even the strongest Jewish education by creating a “kehilla kedusha,” a holy community.
Within the Orthodox community, however, finding the means to send children to camp is an issue for those already seeking assistance with school tuition, he added.
“The yeshivot say, ‘They’re asking us for financial assistance, but they’re sending their kids to camp?’
“Who’s going to bear this burden if the parents are asking for aid for both? That’s where the tension is.”