The Jewish Advocate: Jewish camps crafting new strategies

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – Jewish camping has always been an element of the Jewish experience in New England in summer, but recently it has moved front and center on the field of the organized Jewish community.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping last year appointed a new president, Newton resident Jerry Silverman, a former executive at the Stride Rite shoe company, and is aiming to create an agenda around Jewish camping for all of North America. And this year, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies launched the Jewish Camping Initiative, a pilot program with the goal of making Jewish educational overnight camping a part of the synagogue culture by providing incentive grants for first-time campers. In Waltham, the Hornstein Program for Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University has added a class on the Jewish camping experience, combining a study of the history of Jewish camping in America with in-depth research into practical issues on the topic.

The last decade has seen a sharper focus on the informal side of Jewish education, with Greater Boston leading the way in areas such as family education and youth groups.

The new focus on camping is an outgrowth of this trend. The CJP’s Commission on Jewish Continuity and Education “views Jewish educational overnight camping as a critical rite of passage for youth that has the ability to transform a commitment to Jewish identity and a commitment to Jewish community,” said commission director Cheryl Aronson.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping, established in 1998, approaches the issue from a different perspective, limiting its work to nonprofit camps but including many residential summer programs that would not qualify under CJP’s program. Because of the discrepancy in how Jewish camping is defined, exact figures of participation are difficult to come by. FJC has identified 120 nonprofit Jewish overnight camps in North America, serving approximately 50,000 youths, or less than 7 percent of the 750,000 Jewish children believed to be of camp age.

While the FJC gives money only to nonprofit camps, Silverman said that all camps “deliver Jewish pride and spirituality wrapped in fun.” And when so many options exist, “it’s the Jewish community that wins,” he added.

Michael Chartock, the lay chair of CJP’s initiative, believes that camping can be “profoundly impactful to children, the campers’ families and their congregations – and not just during summer, but potentially year-round and potentially spanning years.” While Chartock views camp as a complement to after-school religious instruction, he acknowledged that the experience is not yet universally part of synagogue culture.

Ultimately, Chartock envisions synagogues “contextually integrating the work they are doing with kids and families with the work the camps are doing.” He is quick to point out that synagogues are but one starting point, noting that other communal institutions, such as the Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, can reach different populations.

As for CJP’s initiative, Chartock is confident about its direction. Next year, the pilot program will extend to four synagogues and will increase funds for the congregations to implement programming at home to build on the camping experience.

While Greater Boston’s Jewish community may not be the first to invest resources in camping, the region is ahead of the game on several levels, Silverman said. “The Boston community is so blessed to have great professionals leading the camps,” he said.

The directors of the New England camps meet on a regular basis to share ideas and collaborate. Pearl Lourie, of the Eli and Bessie Cohen Foundation’s Cohen Camps, is helping to take this vision national, serving on the executive committee for the first-ever North American Conference on Jewish Camping, an event being organized by the FJC for March 2006.

Looking ahead, Silverman is optimistic; by way of example, he cited the development of “specialty camps,” such as the Berkshire Institute for Music and Arts, a four-week Jewish arts camp created through a collaboration between Gann Academy and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, now in its second year in residence at Williams College in western Massachusetts. He foresees more Jewish camps developing programs catering to specific niche markets, from sports to social justice. He also praised Camp Yavneh’s new family camp in Northwood, N.H., an extended weekend for families to join in a Jewish camping experience that is already “filled to the gills” for its premiere run.

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