Camps create passion for Judaism, Yoffie says here

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

"I'm in a hurry," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "We're losing the allegiance of too many of our young people."

Speaking at the dedication of UAHC's newest site earlier this month, Camp Newman in Sonoma County, Yoffie affirmed UAHC's commitment to double the number of children attending its camps in the next 10 years.

Of 120,000 camp-eligible children in UAHC congregations, only 8,000 currently attend summer camp, according to Yoffie. "That means that over 110,000…are denied the benefits that informal Jewish education at its very best can provide."

Of these benefits, says Yoffie, the most gratifying is a renewed or strengthened sense of Jewish identity. "Jewish camp is about creating passion for Judaism, and it's about joy."

And although Jewish day school and cheder (elementary school) are also important, he said, they don't engender as much enthusiasm as camp. "How many people do you know who've come up to you and said, `Religious school changed my life?'"

Yoffie's remarks at the dedication came in the wake of fresh evidence about summer camp's effectiveness. Two recent studies show that Jewish summer camps have a profound impact on the youth they serve.

Not only is camp one of the best vehicles for creating Jewish identity, say the studies, but it can also be a preeminent force in preventing intermarriage.

One study, conducted by Professor Bruce Phillips of Los Angeles' Hebrew Union College, in association with the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, concludes that Jewish summer camp is a more powerful predictor of "endogamy" (marriage within the faith) than Jewish day school.

The recently completed work, which focused on intermarriage and assimilation, ended by recommending that American Jewish adolescents spend at least two summers at Jewish summer camp.

"We compared formal and informal Jewish education," Phillips said, "and found that where they were combined, there was the lowest rate of intermarriage. But taken singly, informal education had more impact on preventing mixed marriages."

Another study, conducted in 1996 by the Atlanta Jewish Federation, examines the impact of Jewish summer camp and day schools on Jewish affiliation and Jewish observance.

It shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that those who attended summer camp in their youth are consistently more observant than non-campers. The news is that ex-campers are also, in some instances, more observant than ex-day schoolers.

In a section entitled "Influences on Jewish Continuity," statistics showed that 45 percent of camp alumni in Georgia were then synagogue members, vs. 29 percent of non-campers and 40 percent of day schoolers.

Also, 26 percent of former campers donated at least $100 annually to a Jewish federation, vs. 14 percent of non-campers and 18 percent of day schoolers.

Reacting to the studies, Rabbi Allan ("Smitty") Smith, director of UAHC's Youth Division nationwide, said he was glad that "informal education's legitimacy has been proven."

Smith, who is spearheading the UAHC camp expansion program, said UAHC hopes to establish six new camps within the next decade. It also plans to send all of its camp graduates on trips to Israel when they are in 11th grade.

Yoffie welcomed Camp Newman as a great new addition to the UAHC camp family. "Our best camps have waiting lists," he said, "and we've done little to impress on parents the importance of camping for the development of a healthy Jewish identity.

"Now, the Reform movement can wait no longer."