Jewish summer camps are feeling bullish

Jewish summer camps are feeling bullish

Registrations on rise as economy grows, programs improve

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Adam Pollack of Montclair gets some experience climbing a tree at Camp JRF last summer.
Adam Pollack of Montclair gets some experience climbing a tree at Camp JRF last summer.

Families sending their children off to Jewish sleep-away camp next summer have been acting fast this fall, and area camps are reporting higher than usual registration for this time of year.

At the New Jersey Y Camps, registration has skyrocketed 26 percent over last year at this time — and last year at this time exceeded the previous year’s registration by 10 percent.

Not every camp has seen that kind of jump, but Jewish camps serving the area are all filling up at a faster rate than they did last year.

According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, this phenomenon reflects a national trend. FJC’s CEO, Jeremy Fingerman, attributes the increase not only to the economy and rising consumer confidence but to better management, better marketing, and better content.

“The product is getting better. These camp programs are different from where they were five years ago,” he said.

The changes may be a result, at least in part, of the impact of FJC, which began 12 years ago and has provided leadership training to at least 40 camp directors.

Since the first such census was taken six years ago, the numbers of children at Jewish camps have risen from 46,000 to 70,000. Fingerman suggested that the numbers themselves have an impact on upping the registration. “Returning campers don’t want to miss out and will register early if the camp was full or close to full over the summer.

“And there’s another effect: These campers and their families are ambassadors for the great experience at Jewish camp, and that plays a role as well,” Fingerman said.

Locally, the “campership” program — which is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest and the FJC — is operated by the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of MetroWest, based on the Aidekman campus in Whippany. The program has proven itself to be an important incentive to enroll youngsters for a first year of sleep-away camp.

“Last year we had a goal of 150 camperships, and we exceeded our goal; we had 207,” said Robert Lichtman, the Partnership’s executive director.

“The Foundation for Jewish Camp saw we were on a roll and told us they would cover anything above 150. They said, ‘Keep going,’ and they gave us 57 additional grants at 100 percent,” he told NJJN in a Dec. 27 telephone interview. “This year we are not sure it will be the same thing, but we are shooting for 250, and we are hoping to exceed the goal again,” Lichtman said.

“But,” he noted, “the campership grants are just the leading edge of our effort to promote Jewish camps. We are now in the second year of our MetroWest Campership Enterprise. It has several prongs. One is the campership grants. If you are eligible — if you have never gone to an overnight Jewish camp before — we’ve got $1,000 for you. Another is an aggressive and comprehensive marketing push. We will be doing a fund-raising academy for several Jewish camps so they can better meet the needs of people who have financial issues. We are helping the camps with scholarships so that if a kid wants to go back after their first year on a campership, [the camp] can be more helpful.”

Directors of area camps discussed the factors they believe are having an impact, particularly the economy and public relations.

The Reconstructionist Camp JRF in the Poconos is now 80 percent full, with 30 more beds filled than at this time last year. For the past two summers, the camp has had a waiting list for certain ages.

“We’ve been very proactive with our returning families and our efforts to reach new families to get them to register early,” said camp director Rabbi Isaac Saposnik.

He also credits the buzz building around his camp, a relative newcomer. Camp JRF has been up and running since 2002, and in its current location in the Poconos since 2006. “Families know they have to get their applications in early to reserve a spot,” Saposnik said.

Rabbi Frank DeWoskin offered a similar theory for the sudden rise at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., this year, where numbers are up by 50 to 60 campers over the last three or four years. “We used to send gentle reminders to families to sign up. Now, we’re being more intentional about it, creating a buzz about getting applications in so people don’t get closed out,” he said.

‘Lower price point’

The New Jersey Y Camps’ executive director, Leonard Robinson, credits an improving economy with the increase in campers at their facilities in Pennsylvania.

The cost of four weeks at a Y camp next summer will be $3,550, $6,700 for a full two-month stay.

“An expensive private camp can be from $5,000 to $6,000 for four weeks, and $10,000 to $12,000 for the summer,” he said. “There is a huge price difference. We offer a perceived value at this price point,” he said. “It’s absolutely the economy. People have shopped at very expensive camps and were driven to a lower price point in recent years. But they see that we offer science programs you can’t get anywhere else, an arts program, a sports program that are similar to those at high-end camps.

“So why would people pay double to get that? I think once people are willing to look, they end up staying,” said Robinson.

United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ works in partnership with the NJ Y Camps.

While more expensive camps will eventually benefit from an improved economy, “we’re already in the third year of this rise,” he said. “I believe the shift is becoming institutionalized, and families are now looking at us as an option and not just because they are driven by finances.”

Other directors said that for most of their families, the Jewish content is a major selling point, not just a side benefit. “Our program is so based in Jewish content and Jewish values,” said Saposnik. “People are coming because that’s what we do and that’s what they’re looking for.”

But, Fingerman said, everyone is watching Robinson and the NJ Y Camps.

“Len is leading the way. He’s not the only one — the product at Jewish camps has gotten far more competitive, with better facilities and better content. People are watching what Len’s done and they are upgrading their programs and facilities to make sure they can make as good an offer as possible,” he said.

At Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, director Helene Drobenare expressed relief at the rise in registration at her camp in upstate New York, which is between 7 and 8 percent over two years ago.

She didn’t want to think about her 2010 numbers. The Hadassah-affiliated camp had suffered from negative publicity surrounding the organization’s losses in the Bernard Madoff scandal, leaving some families worried about the camp’s stability, according to Drobenare.

“Recruiting was just really hard. Last year was our worst year. We were 25 campers under where we are now. I think we are coming back…. People are finally putting it behind them,” she said.

Meanwhile, at Camp Tel Yehudah, Young Judaea’s national teen leadership camp in Barryville, NY, numbers are up by 7-8 percent over last year. Director David Weinstein credits the rise to new and expanding offerings, including Hebrew immersion and programs for Russian speakers and social action. He did not cite fallout from the Madoff losses and said, “A higher percentage of kids [from feeder camps] are making the transition to Tel Yehudah. We like to think that has to do with the quality of the camp’s programs and the anticipation by kids that they will have a great summer at Tel Yehudah,” Weinstein said.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires — in Wingdale, NY — is the only area camp that has not seen a significant rise in enrollment. But it’s also full every year and this year is already “very close to capacity and will be there in the next few weeks,” said its director, Rabbi Paul Resnick. “We have been fully subscribed for all these years of the downturn in the economy.”

The economic downturn, however, has resulted in more requests for scholarships, he said, with such allocations up by 10 percent.

Other camps have reported similar continuing need among their families. As DeWoskin put it, “Some families are feeling the stability of the economy and are more optimistic. But some are still positive about their camp experience but are not employed and need financial assistance. So it’s a mix.”

Alan Silverman, director of Bnei Akiva’s Camp Moshava in Indian Orchard, Pa., was recruiting in Israel and was unable to respond.

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