Camps & education | Trend-spotting: 10 ways Jewish camps are changing

Nostalgia about summer traditions notwithstanding, Jewish camps have changed dramatically from a generation ago.

Camp’s value for Jewish education and identity-building is now a major focus of communal attention. Major Jewish foundations, federations and organizations are investing heavily in the sector.

Many camps have become more deliberate about incorporating Jewish learning, Shabbat and Israel into their programming. They’ve also evolved to meet families’ changing expectations and demands: offering a wider range of choices  (from food to activity to session length), providing more frequent communications to parents, accommodating medical requirements and allergies, and placing greater emphasis on safety and security.

At the same time, the Jewish camping field is becoming more professionalized. The job of camp director has been shifting from a seasonal gig to a year-round career, and counselor training is more intensive.

With all this change in the Jewish camp world, here are 10 specific trends:

1. Shorter sessions:
Once upon a time, summer camp meant the entire summer, with the majority of campers attending for seven, eight or even 10 weeks. Now it is the rare child or teen who spends the full summer at camp (or at one camp), and most programs offer multiple sessions, ranging in length from just six days to seven weeks. “Our three-week session has always sold out more quickly than the four-week, and our new two-week session has been a quick hit as well,” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

Kids celebrate at the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in Atherton, which had its inaugural season last summer. photo/jeff bayer

2. Specialized programs: Whether a child’s passion is sports, the environment, outdoor adventure or science and technology, there’s a Jewish camp experience. An incubator under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp spurred the creation of nine specialty camps. The idea is to attract kids who might not otherwise consider a Jewish camp and to show them they can combine their passion with Judaism. Increasingly, established general-interest Jewish camps are adding specialty tracks and electives. For example, the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, located on the campus of Menlo College in Atherton, offers two-week overnight sessions focusing on developing skills in such sports as baseball, basketball, soccer or tennis.

3. Healthier food:
Serving healthy, locally sourced food is part of the mission of some specialty camps like the new health-and-wellness-focused Camp Zeke in Pennsylvania and was a component of Ramah Outdoor Adventure from its beginnings in 2010. In addition, many established Jewish camps have been redoing their menus to make them more nutritious and environmentally friendly: adding salad bars, replacing “bug juice” with water, offering more vegetarian fare and even planting their own organic vegetable gardens.

4. More affordable options:
The Foundation for Jewish Camp introduced a program called BunkConnect that enables first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families to search for a variety of discounted Jewish summer camp options. In addition, most Jewish overnight camps offer financial aid, and the One Happy Camper Program, initiated in 2006, offers $1,000 grants for all first-time campers regardless of need.

5. Broadening definition of camp:
While rural settings and rustic accommodations are still the norm, two specialty camps — the Union for Reform Judaism’s Six Points Sports Academy and Six Points Science & Technology — are located on boarding school campuses, and another, the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC, is in the middle of Manhattan. Programs like USY on Wheels and Adamah Adventures blur the boundary between camp and teen travel.

6. Day camps brought into the tent:
While the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah has long operated both day and overnight camps, Jewish day camps generally haven’t interacted much with overnight camps, nor have they received the same level of attention from Jewish communal leaders or philanthropists as their sleep-away counterparts. That is changing. The Union for Reform Judaism opened its first day camp last summer. Meanwhile, the philanthropic group Areivim is funding Hebrew-immersion day camps throughout the United States.

7. Including children with disabilities:
The Foundation for Jewish Camp is currently working to raise $31 million to serve these children by offering relevant staff training, revamping physical facilities to make them accessible, and creating vocational education and life-skills training programs at multiple camps. One goal is to include them at regular camps.

8. Year-round programming:
Growing numbers of camps are offering educational programming during the school year through partnerships with institutions like synagogues and day schools. Such partnerships often involve sharing staff members, under the auspices of programs like Ramah Service Corps and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Nadiv initiative. In addition, camps within easy commuting distance of major metropolitan areas and in temperate regions are hosting a range of family-community programs in the off seasons.

9. Family camp:
Now virtually every Jewish overnight camp offers at least one family-camp session, usually a three-day weekend, each year. A number of camps “got into the business just trying to use the facility more, but it wound up being a great recruiting tool,” said Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman. Several camps also host sessions specifically for families of children with disabilities.

10. Pew-fueled camp enthusiasm:
In response to the much-discussed 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, a wide range of Jewish communal leaders have offered their prescriptions for engaging more youth. Almost all have cited Jewish summer camp as something that “works” and is a worthy investment. Jewish camps are already popular with funders, but all the pro-camp buzz will likely generate even more dollars for the field. ­