When eight-year-old Elana* asked to go to sleep-away camp, her mother knew it had to be a Jewish camp. But the cost, even for just two weeks, would have put the experience out of reach for the Essex County family.
Then Elana’s mother got an e-mail with information on BunkConnect, a pilot project designed to make Jewish overnight camp more affordable for middle-income families with introductory rates of 40-80 percent off the regular cost.
“I said to myself, ‘Let’s see if we can get the help we need to do it,’” she said. “I was surprised at what we got. There were two camps that were very attractive.”
Of the two, Elana’s family chose Camp JRF, the summer camp of the Reconstructionist movement. For her two-week stay, they will pay a total of $540, 80 percent off the regular price.
BunkConnect is an initiative of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy. Administrators at FJC, which was founded in 1998 by local philanthropists Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner, say it is the pilot phase of an affordability and awareness initiative that includes camps that recruit heavily from local areas.
Funding for the costs of technology and marketing, to the tune of $1.1 million, is being provided by The Michael and Andrea Leven Family Foundation, the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Leader Family Foundation, and the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund.
Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the FJC, said he hopes the project will be self-sustaining by its third summer. So far, 53 campers have registered through BunkConnect, including 17 from New Jersey.
At the program’s website, families like Elana’s are asked to plug in such information as where they live, their adjusted gross income, number of children, and what kind of school they attend (the cost of sending children to Jewish day school is part of the calculation).
If the family is deemed eligible, they can add information about their child and the kind of camp they are seeking, including the number of weeks they want to attend, and presto — out pops a series of camps that have beds at greatly reduced prices, which can be half off or more.
Without the discounts, even subsidized camps can run over $4,000 for a three-week session, or over $7,500 for seven to eight weeks.
More incentive program than scholarship, BunkConnect is a marketing tool to recruit families who may not otherwise consider Jewish overnight camp or who might be unaware of, or reluctant to apply for, financial aid. Only children who have not previously attended a Jewish overnight camp are eligible. If they return in future years, they will have to pay the full price or apply for financial aid. FJC officials said that the participating camps are all committed to offering financial aid to BunkConnect families in future years.
Over 35 camps in the Northeast, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions will make available a total of 1,100 discounted slots. While only families from those regions are eligible to participate this summer, the FJC hopes to expand the program in the future.
The individual camps are absorbing any losses incurred by making slots available at a discount, but many may come out ahead by filling beds that otherwise would have gone empty. In addition, after attending at the “introductory rate,” campers may return the following summer at the full rate.
One Happy Camper NJ — an initiative of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ through its Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life — is also providing funding to the camps to help subsidize the expense for local campers.
BunkConnect eligibility depends on where a family lives, but discounts can be available to families with incomes as high as $165,000. In addition to Camp JRF, participating camps that attract many children from the local area include NJ Y Camps, Camp Ramah, Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, and Eden Village Camp.
“We’re a matchmaker for people who have never sent their kids to camp,” said Fingerman. “All they have to do is take a confidential quiz about their income to determine eligibility. It’s another drive to get first-time campers in the door from a range of Jewish backgrounds and experiences. We hope families that thought they might not be able to afford Jewish summer camp will think again.”
One Happy Camper has been collaborating with FJC to distribute BunkConnect information to schools, synagogues, agencies, and families so that as many local campers as possible can benefit. One Happy Camper manager Tracy Levine, who provides free camp guidance to Greater MetroWest families, is available to explain the BunkConnect options.
Camp JRF executive director Rabbi Isaac Saposnik said the program provides an “opportunity to think about how to reach families that might not think they can afford summer camp for their children, and for those who think they wouldn’t be eligible for a scholarship or that it wouldn’t be enough money, it opens doors.”
Like many of his colleagues, Saposnik has voluntarily offered beds in a variety of age groups — in the case of Camp JRF, 75 out of more than 600 beds are available through the summer.
He’s also found a side benefit: He’s getting calls from people who might not otherwise make inquiries. “Our camp pops up as fitting into their time line and what they are looking for, and at a price they can afford,” he said.
Elana’s mother said the family was familiar with Camp JRF, having attended a retreat held there by their synagogue. “When I asked Elana if she was interested, she said, ‘Yeah!’ and her eyes brightened. She knows the place — she’s familiar with it.”
She and her husband are “clenching our teeth — if she loves it, what will we do next summer?” In the meantime, she said, BunkConnect “has made a huge, huge difference for us.”
JTA contributed to this report.
*Names have been changed at the request of the family to protect their privacy.