In choosing a camp, trick is finding one that suits kids needs

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Finding the right camp for your child can be a real chore.

While there are lots of Jewish summer resident and day camps for Bay Area youngsters, the trick is to find one that suits your child's particular needs and meets your own expectations of what constitutes a fun, enriching experience.

And you'd like to accomplish this, of course, long before summer.

Where to begin?

If you're not affiliated with any formal religious or social organizations, then try calling your local Jewish Community Center, suggests Ann Gonski, administrative director of Camp Tawonga — one of the largest resident camps serving Bay Area children.

In addition to hosting camps of their own, most JCCs can direct you to other Jewish camps in the area and can provide phone numbers for information clearinghouses.

Another starting point which many parents find quite useful, says Gonski, is "Resource: A Guide to Jewish Life in Northern California." This annual publication of the Jewish Bulletin, in conjunction with the Jewish Community Information & Referral of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, lists overnight and day camps in the East Bay, Marin, San Francisco and on the Peninsula. Copies are widely available at most Jewish agencies.

The American Camping Association directory of accredited camps is another worthwhile resource, says Deborah Burg-Schmirman, director of the Marin JCC camps. The ACA, a private nonprofit education organization with branch offices around the country, only accredits camps that meet its stringent codes of camping and management practice.

Many Jewish day and resident camps are ACA-approved, and are listed in the ACA's annual guide for Northern California. Religiously affiliated camps are coded with an "R." The guide details each camp's location, its owners and directors, fees and activities.

"We've really striven to meet that distinction," Burg-Schmirman says of the ACA accreditation. "Once you decide [to go for it] it takes a lot of focused energy," she explains, since camps must maintain their standards to be reaccredited each year.

Keep your eye out for "camp fairs" as well. Several Jewish camps send representatives to these gatherings, which are held primarily in January, February and March throughout the Bay Area.

One of the best tools, Gonski stresses, is networking. "I can tell you that 90 percent of our kids come by word of mouth," she says of Tawonga's 1,000-plus campers. "They ask their friends" to recommend a good camp.

Rachel Yellin, day-camp program director at the JCC of San Francisco, agrees that opening lines of communication among parents, and between children, often pays off.

"The JCC has been around for so long that it's usually word of mouth, or they've participated in other JCC activities or in after-school classes," she says of new recruits.

Religious schools may also produce leads, says David Boyer of the Hadassah-sponsored Camp Young Judaea-West. "A lot of times parents will hear about camps through their kids' friends in Hebrew school."

Once you've narrowed your search somewhat, Burg-Schmirman adds, be sure to request a camp brochure. If you come up with additional questions, try to speak with the director.

With lots of options available — day camp or resident, traditional or sports, kosher or nonkosher, structured versus free choice of activities, etc. — it's important to take time to think about and discuss expectations. What kind of camp do you want for your child? What does your child want?

"Not every camp is for every kid," says Boyer. "Parents really have to figure out what their child's needs are, then look at the different camps. Try to talk to the camp director. Go to presentations in people's homes. Talk to other parents to find out their thoughts."

The most important questions, Boyer adds, are "What does the child need?" and "What does the family need?"

Once you answer those questions, keep in mind that it's never too soon to start your search. Some camps fill up months before summer rolls around.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.