Local Jewish leaders have seen the future, and it lives in bunks, lines up for reveille, and celebrates Shabbat under a canopy of trees.
United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ is launching a multipronged effort focused on raising the profile of Jewish summer overnight camps among local families. The project is made possible through gifts totaling $2 million.
Inspired by a body of research suggesting camp has a strong impact on Jewish identity, the Jewish Camp Enterprise aims to double the number of local Jewish children who attend such camps over five years, from 1,000 last summer to 2,000 over the next five years.
The effort will offer $1 million in campership grants — $1,000 per child — to families in Morris, Essex, and Sussex counties who send a child to Jewish overnight camp for the first time, regardless of need.
The initiative also includes the hiring of a professional focusing exclusively on its promotion and implementation, joining only a few North American Jewish communities with a full-time camping liaison.
“This is one of the most ambitious programs in the nation to promote Jewish overnight camp,” said Abby Knopp, director of community initiatives for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the national umbrella organization.
Max Kleinman, executive vice president of UJC MetroWest, views Jewish camping as a critical part of his organization’s mission.
“Our end is to raise Jews…so they can live Jewish lives and can help spread our Jewish community, help those who are needy, and help build connections with Jews in Israel and around the world,” he said.
The “most critical tools to be able to do that,” he said, are families, synagogues, and the Jewish institutions among the federation’s beneficiary agencies. “But there are also additional tools that research has proved effective at transmitting Jewish identity: day schools, Israel experiences, and Jewish camping,” Kleinman said. “That’s why Jewish camping, particularly residential Jewish camping, is so important as a supplement to our offerings here.”
Donors who made the initiative possible include FJC, the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest NJ, Rob and Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair, and Archie Gottesman and Gary DeBode of Summit.
Long-term support to sustain the Jewish camp initiative in future years will also come from the Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future, which was established by local philanthropists Toby and Leon Cooperman to support a range of Jewish continuity programs for area young people (see related story).
The MetroWest Jewish Camp Enterprise is housed at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, UJC MetroWest’s Jewish identity agency. The Jewish Community Foundation, the planned giving and endowment arm of UJC MetroWest, is coordinating fund-raising for the camp initiative and housing the funds. The JCF continues to seek additional support for the Jewish Camp Enterprise.
The Jewish Camp Enterprise builds on the success of a national campership incentive program launched by the FJC three years ago. So far, 11,500 children have received camperships under that program. In 2009, 70,000 children were enrolled in Jewish summer camp; 7,200 used campership grants.
Families across the community have already applied for many of the grants for 2010, but a limited number are still available.
The camp initiative includes the hiring of Tracy Levine as MetroWest’s first Jewish camp manager. Levine serves as full-time liaison promoting Jewish camping in synagogues, schools, and homes. Her marketing efforts will include traditional media as well as social networking and other means.
Levine also partners with area camps to foster collaboration and enhance fund-raising and leadership training.
The initiative is unique in the nation for its “holistic” approach to Jewish camping, according to Knopp of Foundation for Jewish Camp, a partner in the MetroWest program.
“This community is being extremely thoughtful about how to use the campership incentive grants as a launch pad to bigger thinking about how camping plays a role in the bigger community agenda,” she said.
She praised organizers for linking different constituencies, exploring “how camping touches various elements of the community and bringing everyone to the table to think creatively about it and energize the community.”
Rob and Elisa Spungen Bildner and Archie Gottesman and Gary DeBode serve as cochairs of the initiative.
The Bildners, founders of the national FJC, are credited with helping to elevate Jewish camps as a priority among communal planners and philanthropists.
Elisa Spungen Bildner envisions the Jewish Camp Enterprise as “a regional headquarters” for FJC, to test new ideas and tailor national programs to local needs and market them more effectively to area residents.
“At FJC, we are looking at this as a model to try out elsewhere in the country,” she said.
A ‘24-hour-a-day place’
Supporters of the plan point to research, and often their own experience, suggesting camping is strongly associated with positive Jewish identity, affiliation, and practice.
“Jewish overnight camp allows kids to love their Judaism because they experience it in a 24-hour-a-day place where they are taught without realizing they are being taught,” said Archie Gottesman, a board member of Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement camp, where her children are campers.
“There’s something about Shabbat at a Jewish camp that is really magical,” she said. “But Jewish camp is about more than Shabbat. Experiences of Judaism are interwoven into every day at camp. It’s enjoyable, and kids learn to feel Jewish deep down inside.”
Leon and Toby Cooperman included Jewish camping in their family fund because of the family’s first-hand experience. Toby Cooperman was a counselor at the Jewish-run Surprise Lake Camp in New York. The Coopermans’ daughter-in-law Jodi, a former sisterhood president at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, attended Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake and Camp Tel Yehudah.
“That’s where my love of being Jewish comes from,” said Jodi Cooperman. “Jewish camping is in my heart.”
Six overnight camps serving the area have been selected as partners for the project. They are the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam, Camp JRF (Reconstructionist), Camp Moshava (Modern Orthodox), New Jersey Y Camps (JCC-affiliated), Camp Ramah of the Berkshires (Conservative), and Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake/Tel Yehudah (Hadassah).
Organizers envision cooperative activities, such as joint visits by camp representatives to local synagogues. Camp administrators will also participate in a “leadership academy” next year designed to increase fund-raising efforts and ultimately increase scholarships.
The goal is also to help partner camps better respond to local needs. For example, while the national campership incentive program excludes day school students, several partner camps — including the NJ Y Camps and Camp Ramah — have made a commitment to raise their own funds to provide camperships to day school students from MetroWest. The NJ Y Camps, through the effort of executive director Leonard Robinson, has already committed to 100 camperships for day school students over the next five years.
“What an asset Len has been already,” said Kleinman. “He has helped us raise money for camperships and he has used his own resources to provide camperships for day school students. He’s really a prince.”
Levine, who began at MetroWest in October, is focusing on the summers of 2010 and 2011, working with synagogues, day schools, camps, JCC MetroWest, and veteran camper families to reach as many community members as she can, she said.
“Ultimately, my vision is that every Jewish family would consider Jewish camp, and that many would select and enroll in a Jewish camp,” she said. “My husband always says, ‘Live every day like it’s camp.’ I get to work every day on creating a great environment for kids and helping them grow while they’re having fun.”
Levine’s background includes 20 years in business and marketing at CitiGroup, and extensive volunteer work in the Jewish community, including serving as president of the Young Women’s group of National Council of Jewish Women, Essex County Section.
“When she walked in the door I knew she’d be perfect for this position,” said Spungen Bildner. “She’ll be like the CEO of Jewish camping for this area.”