Pack up your duffel bags

It will be an unexpected boon for purveyors of sleeping bags, sunscreen and postage stamps. Who knows, it may even be a boon for organized Judaism to boot.

San Francisco’s Jim Joseph Foundation this week announced an $11.2 million grant aimed at sending 3,000 young Jews, who otherwise would have stayed home, to Jewish summer camps.

“It’s a bold initiative focusing on pre-teens and trying to use camp as a wonderful portal of entry to create communities for these kids and create real exposure to having fun and at the same time building a pride and identity for their Judaism,” said Jerry Silverman, the executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, which received the grant.

The grant focuses on Jewish children between the ages of 11 to 14 who have never been to Jewish summer camps. It provides $1,800 toward camp tuition (that’s about 60 percent of the cost of a three-week program) to families regardless of their means.

“It helps support families in need without calling them out,” noted Silverman. “We have launched seven pilot incentive programs around the country and all have been oversubscribed.”

Chip Edelsberg was involved with a similar program back in Cleveland, where he was vice-president of the local Jewish federation. Now the Jim Joseph Foundation’s executive director, he’s thrilled to fund a program that will serve Jewish campers west of the Rockies and send kids to local camps Tawonga and Newman.

Camp “puts young people in a setting that, by everyone’s observation and experience, is a joyous one for young people and at the same time it brings them together with most of the values that are most important in Judaism,” he said.

“The intensive nature of it — it’s ‘immersive’ as they say in the jargon — creates the likelihood of bonds that will be formed with individuals among a peer group and retained. I find that’s very much the case. Many adults cite Jewish camping as pivotal in their lives.”

In addition to the $1,800 for first-time campers, the families of children who return to camp are eligible for another $1,000.

“Everything shows that parents do not walk away from financial incentives,” said Edelsberg.

Al Levitt, the Jim Joseph Foundation’s president, added that the grant is especially meaningful because Joseph himself was exploring such a move shortly before his death at age 68 in 2004.

Edelsberg said this may be just a first step. He and Silverman are talking about launching a series of Jewish specialty camps — emphasizing art, music, the environment or catering to special-needs children.

Added Levitt, “I hope this gift will serve as a catalyst for other philanthropists to do the same thing in other parts of the country and encourage others in the west to join us and expand on what we are doing.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.