Scholarships not just for schools anymore

With the economic recovery still struggling to take hold, many American Jewish families are finding they face a difficult question as deadlines for summer camp enrollment approach: Can they both pay their bills and send their kids to Jewish overnight camp?

“It’s a difficult decision,” said Shelly Zemelman, a school psychologist in Cleveland with four children. Her 16-year-old daughter, Batya, has spent four summers at Camp Stone, a modern Orthodox camp in Sugar Grove, Pa. that charges $3,500 for a four-week session. Other Jewish camps charge as much as $1,500 per week.

“It’s not a necessity like school –– it’s a luxury,” Zemelman said. “If we had to send all four kids at the same time, I don’t think we could have done it.”

She said she knows several families who are considering dropping camp; one family made it work by alternating the years their children attend camp.

Jewish summer camp is not for the faint of wallet. But with new studies suggesting that the camp experience is a key component in boosting the Jewish identity of American Jews, it shouldn’t be expendable, say champions of camping.

A 2011 study “Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Camp,” paid for by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, found that Jewish campers were much more likely to feel attachment to Israel, attend synagogue at least monthly, light Sabbath candles and donate to a Jewish federation than those who had not gone to Jewish summer camp. The study found that 70,000 kids attended Jewish overnight camp in 2010.

For many parents, the answer to the dilemma is in financial aid. Camp industry insiders say applications for financial aid have risen sharply since the economic crisis hit in 2008.

 “Absolutely there’s been an increase in request for financial aid,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The 150 nonprofit camps in the FJC’s network have reported increasing scholarship allocations by 25 to 100 percent –– often in addition to support offered by local foundations, federations or synagogues.

Yehuda Rothner, director of Camp Stone, said that requests for financial aid at his camp have gone up by 10 percent, but that the amount requested has gone up significantly more.

“People are asking for more money,” he said.

Over the last five years, the camp has more than doubled the yearly allocation for scholarships, from $100,000 to $220,000.

Ramah, the Conservative movement’s camping wing with eight overnight camps and three days camps, has increased scholarship awards to $4.3 million in 2011 from $3 million in 2008, according to Amy Cooper, Ramah’s national director. The Ramah scholarships have benefited 500 families among the 6,500 attending Ramah camps each summer.

Not all aid is doled out according to financial need. Over the last four years, the FJC says its Happy Camper program has provided 30,000 financially blind grants of up to $1,000 to entice first-time campers.

Despite the weak economy, camp enrollment has continued to climb. Camps in FJC’s network report an increase of 4 to 5 percent over the last four years. Fingerman attributed the rise in part to a drop-off in enrollment at for-profit Jewish camps, which tend to cost more.

Many credit the mix of scholarships and grants for boosting enrollment. Rothner said another factor may be at play: Some parents are sending their children to Jewish camp instead of Jewish day schools, which cost more.

Some camp administrators say the recession hasn’t had much of an impact on enrollment because their constituency is mostly high-income families.

For the campers themselves, the focus is on the relationships they forge, not on how their parents pay for camp.

 “I’ve never made friends like that –– they were the people who have made the most impact on my life,” Batya Zemelman said.

Asked if she’d known anyone who had trouble affording camp, she paused as if she hadn’t considered the question before.

 “There were a few,” she said, “but there were scholarships available.”