Here’s to the next decade of Jewish camp

Here’s to the next decade of Jewish camp

Tour de Summer Camps NJ co-chairs at the inaugural Tour de Summer Camps NJ event in 2018 included, from left, Jon Ulanet, Eric Sellinger, Susan Ratner, and Gary DeBode. Photo by Jon Pascol
Tour de Summer Camps NJ co-chairs at the inaugural Tour de Summer Camps NJ event in 2018 included, from left, Jon Ulanet, Eric Sellinger, Susan Ratner, and Gary DeBode. Photo by Jon Pascol

The kids have been back to school for a few weeks now, but they are probably still dreaming about their camp experiences from this summer. For the more than 3,000 children in our community who attended Jewish sleepaway camp, all the friends they made, the adventures they had, and feelings of connection they experienced are still front and center in their hearts and minds. 

Multiple studies have shown that kids who attend a Jewish camp have significantly higher levels of long-term Jewish engagement across the board — in everything from leadership roles, connection to Israel, charitable giving, and more. And now, more than ever, we know the opportunity to unplug, detach from the screens, and connect with others and nature is becoming increasingly important for our children’s mental health.

But all of this comes at a hefty price — a price too high for many families. We would like to see every child in our community be able to experience the magic of Jewish sleepaway camp. In Greater MetroWest NJ we’re working hard to make that a reality.

Ten years ago, the Jewish Camp Initiative was created by professionals at our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ with the strong support of The Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Gary Aidekman Family Foundation, and a number of local leaders, including Paula Gottesman, Rob and Elisa Spungen Bildner, Archie Gottesman, and me. We were then joined by Marian and David Rocker and the Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future. Together we created a new, multifaceted approach to raise the profile of Jewish overnight camps as a transformative Jewish experience and to enable as many local children as possible to have a Jewish summer camp experience. The approach included One Happy Camper incentive grants of up to $1,000 for first-time campers, a full-time professional to promote camps and consult with families, and a marketing effort to attract families to Jewish camps.

Over the past 10 years, our Jewish Camp Initiative has accomplished so much — serving as an invaluable resource for families looking for the right fit for their children, offering financial assistance to enable campers to attend, and encouraging families to choose Jewish camps over the growing competition among summer programs. In fact, we’ve managed to increase the number of local kids attending Jewish overnight camp by 35 percent.

And equally important, the spirit of camp has been infused back into our community year-round through a variety of programs and activities at synagogues and schools for holidays and other events. Camp is something we can all rally around as our Jewish community engagement evolves with the times.

Also, the Tour de Summer Camps NJ and Family Fun Day was created in 2018, building upon the success of the namesake Jewish Federation of Los Angeles Tour de Summer Camps. We are holding our second annual event this coming Sunday, Sept. 22, at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown. This event raises much-needed funds to support need-based scholarships and One Happy Camper incentive grants. To date, we’ve been able to award more than 2,800 grants and scholarships, totaling more than $2.8 million.    

The impact of Jewish camp is undeniable. And I have no doubt that the impact we can make by continuing to enable all children to attend Jewish camp will have a lasting effect on our community for generations. Here is a sampling of what a few parents have written in appreciation of the financial support we’ve been able to provide:

“Thank you for making this summer possible! Costs of Jewish overnight camp (and all camps) have become prohibitively expensive in a way they were not when I was a child attending them. I’m grateful for the financial support, enabling my child to thrive in a Jewish environment as I did when I was her age.”

“We can’t thank you enough for helping make this happen for our sons this summer. They would never have had this opportunity if it were not for your programs. Our boys are enjoying camp and are so proud of being Jewish and making new friends. This was a life-changing experience for them.”

“One Happy Camper is an amazing program and certainly made our daughter (who got a grant last year) get closer to her Jewishness in an incredibly positive way.… Her brother will be joining her at the same camp this summer, as will their cousin (who also got a grant). I think for their cousin it will be an especially valuable experience, because he lives in a place where there aren’t many Jews and has encountered some anti-Semitism.”

Letters like these are a testament to what makes Tour de Summer Camps NJ such a powerful and important event for our Jewish community. It brings us together for a day of fun in support of a wonderful cause. It has become the largest community celebration in Greater MetroWest and should not be missed. 

I hope to see you there.

For information about Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Tour de Summer Camps NJ, visit

Gary DeBode is co-chair of Tour de Summer Camps NJ. He, his wife Archie, and their three daughters have been active members in the Greater MetroWest community and Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit.

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