Local Jewish camps offer hint of optimism during recession

In times of recession, no one is a happy camper — well, almost no one.

Despite the harrowing financial and job losses of recent times, at least one industry doesn’t seem to be experiencing the slowdown seen by most other businesses. Jewish camps might be one of the few recession-proof areas of the economy because people still have to provide care for their children.

“When people have to work, their kids need to be somewhere during school vacations,” says Deborah Pinsky, the executive director of the Peninsula Jewish Community Center.

Despite the muddy economic waters that threaten to deepen into a deluge, local Bay Area overnight and day camps have not experienced a precipitous drop-off in enrollment. In fact, this December, the Peninsula JCC’s two-week winter session day camp had higher enrollment than last year.

But while enrollment may be up, requests for scholarships are also rising.

It has long been a priority for Jewish organizations that run camps to offer scholarships to anyone in need. But with increasing aid requests and a challenging fundraising environment, the biggest struggle facing Jewish camps is sticking to their values of inclusiveness.

“Last year 25 percent of campers received scholarships, and this year we anticipate that number will rise to 35 percent. We’re working very hard to raise as much money as we can to make sure every kid can go to camp,” says Adam Weisberg, executive director of Camp Tawonga, a Jewish overnight camp near Yosemite.


Campers participate in a tug-of-war at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center’s summer camp in 2008.

At Camp Kee Tov, associated with Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, camp director Adam Ganes says that he is anticipating more demand for financial aid, but that the camp has seen an increase in donations.


Ganes is pointing families interested in camperships (camp scholarships) to the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, as well as to the East Bay Regional Park District, which gives campership vouchers.

Jewish camps are also adding value to their services by keeping session prices low and offering parents more for their money.

The Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto has created new camp programs such as performing arts, television and movie production, construction and engineering, and chess. They have increased the camp director’s hours from part time to full time and spent extra energy and funds on revamping the camp schedule. The JCC saw a boost in winter camp enrollment, which doubled to 115 campers this year, compared with only 60 last year.

Camp Kehillah at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael is also offering more specialty camps, which are shorter than regular camp sessions.

“I think a lot of people will have to stay home this summer and do ‘staycationing,’ ” says Debbie Tuttle, youth and team program director at the JCC. “We’ve had to diversify our camp offerings so more people can come.”

Tuttle notes that last year the camp saw a “huge increase” in requests for financial aid, which is given by the JCC and the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, and she expects there to be even more this year.

The Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos is trying to bolster summer camp enrollment by concentrating its efforts on keeping JCC membership attrition low, says youth director Andrew Mendes.

Free family member events, such as the recent Chanukahpalooza, are intended to add extra value to JCC membership. Another event is planned for the spring.

“Because a majority of our members enroll their kids in our camp, we want to make sure our members are happy,” says Mendes.

Some camps are also offering financial incentives, like Camp Kehillah, which is offering a multisession discount for those who register online.

The Addison-Penzak JCC is offering a tuition discount for members, as well as an early bird special for kids who enroll before Feb. 13. Last summer the JCC had more camp participants than the year before. This year it hopes to hold steady at 600 campers spread throughout the four two-week sessions.

While registration hasn’t yet started at most day camps, Weisberg reports that Tawonga’s sessions have begun to fill up.

While most camp directors say it is still too early to predict summer enrollment, a sense of cautious optimism pervades.

Last summer 700 campers attended Camp Kee Tov, and Ganes anticipates that number staying around the same.  “Being that it’s summer, people still need a place to send their kids,” he says. “We’re reasonably priced and have a good campership program. We’re still a lot less expensive than residential camps, so if there’s a shift in the market, there should still be campers.”

The Oshman Family JCC anticipates it will see an increase of enrollment for the summer session, according to chief program officer Karen Einbinder, and Tuttle of Camp Kehillah also expects enrollment to stay the same or increase.

Even in a flailing economy, religious and cultural values often trump financial concerns — which is why many families may choose camp over other luxuries.

“If you look at other discretionary spending in areas such travel, you see that it is significantly off,”  Weisberg says. “But people are still willing to invest in a Camp Tawonga experience, because the Jewish and bonding experiences their kids have in camp is important to them.”