Hurry &mdash West Coast Jewish camps say spaces fill up quickly

Summer is still five months away, but the race to register for Jewish overnight camp has already kicked into high gear. “A lot of families don’t realize that you’ve got to act fast,” said Stacey Barrett of Sherman Oaks, whose daughter has attended Brandeis-Bardin Institute’s Camp Alonim in Simi Valley for seven summers. “One year I mailed in the application in February and my daughter was placed on a waiting list.”

A 1995-1997 study by the Foundation for Jewish Camping found Jewish camps significantly increase Jewish identity, affiliation and practice, while decreasing the likelihood of intermarriage. Unfortunately, getting into a local Jewish camp is not as easy as finding a reason to go. With only a handful of Jewish residential camps in California, parents must act quickly.

Admission to Camp Ramah, which has seven overnight camps around the United States and Canada, including one in Ojai, has gotten so competitive that administrators now accept applications as early as September. The camp will serve 1,200 to 1,300 in the summer months.

While cabins for certain age groups fill up faster than others, however, Ramah’s Assistant Director Zachary Lasker said some children miss out on the experience because parents take for granted that Ramah is full.

“The big myth is that Ramah in California fills up right away and certain parents think, ‘Why bother trying?'” said the camp administrator. At this point, “our eighth- to 10th-grade cabins are filling quickly,” he said this week. However, there are openings in the Gesher program for third- and fourth-graders, which has been extended to include both one- and two-week sessions. And there are other slots for fourth- through seventh-graders.

In addition, there are openings in the six-week Israel program, for those entering 11th grade, and in the Meytiv program, which will serve about 15 11th- and 12th-graders along with about 10 Israeli kids. And there are sopenings in other programs for 11th- and 12th-graders.

Even if the programs are full, Lasker said, parents should get their kids on the waiting list as slots frequently open up in the spring. Ramah, which also runs five day camps, is the only Conservative Jewish residential camp on the West Coast. The National Ramah Camp Commission Inc. is currently looking at establishing an overnight camp in Northern California, where it operates day camps in Berkeley and Marin.

Like Ramah, the two Jewish overnight camps in Northern California fill rapidly, but administrators tell parents to get on the waiting list, as cancellations occur.

Linda Herkes, registrar for the Union for Reform Judaism camps, expects the situation will be a bit tighter this year, as all programs will be at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. Camp Swig in Saratoga is closed for renovations and is slated to reopen in 2005. Newman is expected to serve around 1,300 campers this year, from those entering second grade in the fall to high-schoolers.

“We’ve been enrolling since October,” she said, noting that some of the programs for ninth-grade girls were full as of December. Generally, all of the sessions are filled by late spring. The teen institutes, she said, which include social action programs and other themes, tend to fill rapidly.

At Camp Tawonga, an independent Jewish camp near Yosemite, registration for returning campers began early in December and opened to the general public later in the month.

“Historically, we tend to fill by the end of the year,” said Sarah Lefton, Tawonga’s marketing director. But there are still openings in some sessions. The teen travel programs, she added, tend to fill up more slowly, and the teen leadership and service-learning programs, which involve a selection process, still have slots. The camp serves about 1,300 kids.

“It’s really smart to get on the waiting list,” said Lefton. “No. 1, a lot of movement happens on the waiting list in March and April. And No. 2, if you’re on the waiting list, next year you will be put on a priority list.”

Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute: Camp & Conference Center, which runs Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, anticipates that the camp will fill up more quickly than last year, because the economy is picking up. As the camp is affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish community centers, Camp JCA Shalom finds most of its campers through those groups.

One California Jewish overnight camp that still has space available is Camp Gilboa Habonim Dror. A small, Zionist youth labor movement camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, it draws a number of campers and staff from Northern California.

Judith Landau, volunteer coordinator for the camp, which operates two-, three- and five-week sessions, said it has room for a total of about 140 campers in overlapping sessions.

“Our site is small,” Landau added, emphasizing that the camp, which will be in Barton Flats this coming summer, operates like a kibbutz and develops people who will go on to leadership roles here and in Israel.

In addition to the camps in California, two Jewish overnight camps in Oregon draw Bay Area youth, and both have openings. Camp Young Judaea West in Salem, a Zionist youth movement camp sponsored by Hadassah, serves kids entering third through eighth grades, with a one-week session for the youngest campers as well as a three-week session for all age groups. Last year, the camp served 65 youngsters and hopes to double its enrollment this year, according to Aliza Olson. Places are usually filled by spring.

Like Young Judaea West, B’nai B’rith Camp on the Oregon coast, which draws a number of kids from California, is less impacted than some of the Jewish camps in the Golden State. The camp serves a total of 450 youths entering second through ninth grade in three sessions, with leadership-training sessions for 10th- and 11th-graders.

“In good economic times, we fill up in January,” said director Michelle Koplan. But she doesn’t anticipate a problem for those registering in the winter months.

Information:

Camp Alonim: Brandeis-Bardin Institute, (805) 582-4450 or http://campjcashalom.com.

B’nai B’rith Camp: (503) 244-0111 or www.bbcamp.org.

Camp JCA Shalom: (818) 889-5500, ext. 1 or http://campjcashalom.com.

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa: (818) 464-3224 or www.campgilboa.org.

Camp Ramah: (310) 476-8571 or www.ramah.org.

Camp Tawonga: (415) 543-2267 or www.tawonga.org.

Camp Young Judaea West: (503) 244-9322 or www.youngjudaea.org/html/cyj_northwest.html

Union of Reform Judaism Camp Newman: (415) 392-7080 or www.campnewmanswig.org.

Sharon Schatz Rosenthal is the education writer for the L.A. Jewish Journal. Janet Silver Ghent is senior editor at j.