Funds help kids in need relish Jewish summer camps

Staying in a cabin by the fork of a beautiful river. Hiking and swimming. Singing in the Sabbath as the sun sets behind a nearby mountain.

Few kids would opt to stay at home for the summer, given these enticements. And parents, rabbis and educators agree that Jewish summer camp is among the best ways build Jewish identity.

But while their kids play, many parents are finding that the cost of sending their kids to camp is no picnic. Camp fees this year are running as high as $2,015 for a three-week stay.

With the best will in the world, even a well-off, double-income family might be hard-pressed to come up with camp fees for two or more children. Where does that leave single-parent and less affluent families?

Ann Gonski, administrative director of Yosemite Valley's Camp Tawonga, reports that of 164 children applying this year for scholarship grants, 77 come from single-parent homes.

"There are a number of single fathers, as well as single moms," she says. "We really scramble to accommodate them all; we hate to turn anyone away."

Fortunately for Gonski and other camp directors, help is at hand. In addition to partial scholarships from synagogues and Jewish community centers, two major funds enable scores of needy families to send their kids to Jewish summer camp.

One of these funds was set up in 1948 by wealthy brothers Arthur, William and Hugo Newhouse for the express purpose of helping needy Jewish youth. In 1984, the Newhouse brothers' bequest became part of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund. It awarded $100,000 in "camperships" last year.

In addition, the Albert L. and Janet A. Schultz Supporting Foundation, set up in 1991, focuses on "developing the Jewish identity of youth" through summer camp grants, trips to Israel and educational scholarships. It will award $50,000 for camperships in 1997.

Both funds are administered by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, which allocated more than $180,000 to 205 children last year. Since 1982, when the BJE distributed $6,800 to 77 children, funding has grown significantly.

"It's been a very rewarding process, to see this funding take off," says Kerin Lieberman, BJE's associate director.

"Camp costs rise by 5 to 20 percent a year, but so far, the Newhouse and Schultz funds have kept pace with the need. There's no reason to suppose this won't continue."

Families submit applications for funding first to the individual camps, who then pass the applications on to BJE. Lieberman says the process is extremely efficient, and fair.

"No-one gets to go for nothing; there's a 10 percent minimum, but we'll give a one-year interest-free loan if necessary."

Of the families who applied to BJE for aid last year, 39 percent had a household income of under $35,000.

Valerie Hanscom and 14-year-old son Caleb got help through the BJE's fund. A single mom from Belmont, Hanscom went back to school when Caleb was young and graduated with a master's degree and significant debt.

As a result, she couldn't afford to run a car, let alone send her son to summer camp. But with camperships, Caleb has attended Camp Tawonga every summer for the past six years.

"For Caleb to be able to go to camp is wonderful," says Hanscom. "He's gained a sense of independence, a feeling for continuity and tradition, and he has male role models there."

For his part, Caleb says he's enjoyed Camp Tawonga's arts and crafts and rope-climbing courses, and he's learned a lot about friendship and Judaism.

"The Shabbat services are really interesting, and we've analyzed lots of Bible stories," he says. "I think camp is a good springboard to get you interested in all that."

Lieberman hopes to be able to continue meeting the need of families like Hanscom's.

"I can't imagine not being involved with this organization," she says. "It's good work…really making a difference in a family's life."