It's that time of year again! Summer is just around the corner and Jewish summer camps are preparing for another year of adventure, Jewish values, and most of all fun.
For Jews in the Diaspora in particular, summer camp is often a life-changing experience that helps foster a sense of pride and Jewish identity, but also community.
But summer camp is no longer just for Diaspora Jewry – the Jewish Agency has a huge role to play through their emissary program as well, helping to connect Israel and the global Jewish community.
Through their 1,500 emissaries, they’re giving hundreds of thousands of American Jewish children a personal connection to Israel. Additionally, Summer Camp Israel is bringing the American model of Jewish camp to Israel and facing high demand.
In the United States, there are over 300 options for Jewish summer camps from a variety of religious affiliations and in a variety of formats (day camps, overnight camps, etc.). Most camps range from one week to 8 weeks and camps are available from K-12, depending on the camp, and you can expect the prices to be in the $2,000-$6,000 range in most cases.
The Reform movement has the URJ Camps, some of the largest camps, first established in 1954. Today, there are 14 overnight camps across the United States with most camps costing several thousand dollars per participant. URJ also offers day camps and camps for special interests.
Similarly, the Conservative movement has Camp Ramah camps, established in 1947, which are situated in the U.S., Canada and Israel. All of the Camp Ramah camps are Shabbat observant and keep kosher and emphasize the teaching of Jewish and Zionist values.
Campers have the option to spend two, four, or eight weeks at the overnight camp, but Camp Ramah offers day camps and specialty camps as well. For example, in 2003, Camp Ramah held the first camp (overnight) for Israeli children in New York who had lost a family member to terrorism, and at Camp Ramah in New England, they offer services for special needs campers.
There are also well-known youth movements that organize summer camps such as Young Judaea, JCC camps, Habonim Dror, BBYO, and Bnei Akiva.
Young Judea provides camps from a Zionist perspective but places an emphasis on pluralism, starting from first grade and continuing through 12th grade.
JCC camps also offer a diverse selection of camps in what they claim is the largest network of summer camps in North America. While there are a variety of camps for the Orthodox community within some of the youth movements such as the JCC, Chabad also offers multiple options for religious summer day camps.
Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), founded in 1988, is a nonprofit which works with hundreds of Jewish summer camps and “serves as an advocate and resource for nonprofit Jewish camp professionals throughout the world.”
They offer extensive training programs for camp counselors, executive leaders of camps, and beyond. They also provide a searchable database based on ages, type of camp, religious affiliation, and special interests.
The organization serves approximately 180,000 campers annually, and they also provide scholarships to assist campers whose families are unable to pay for summer camp through their program, “One Happy Camper.”
Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of FJC explains that the concept for the organization came out of a need to assist the community in making summer camp accessible to all Jews to support building leadership and Jewish identity.
“All the data says kids who experience summers at Jewish camp, it's essential in the formation of their Jewish identity and in their connection to the Jewish community,” he said.
FJC has succeeded in doubling enrollment since the establishment of the organization, and has also put summer camps on the philanthropic agenda as well.
“In order to grow enrollment, you have to have great leadership and a compelling program with excellent facilities – and so part of our work has been in those three areas to make sure camp professionals have the tools, resources, and support they need to continue to elevate their own performance as Jewish communal professionals and as leaders,” says Fingerman, who added that a large part of their work also includes working with the emissaries of the Jewish Agency.
The Jewish Agency’s Emissary (shlichut) program will welcome 1,500 Israeli camp counselors this year across North America, in 170 different camps, both day and night camps. This unique program was founded in 1965 by the Jewish communities in North America together with then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and has many notable alumni such as MK Idan Roll, actor Maor Zaguri and Wix CEO Nir Zohar.
Chairman of The Jewish Agency, Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog told Ynet: “...this summer The Jewish Agency will send hundreds of shlichim to serve at summer camps throughout North America…The shlichim also bring home some of the American Jewish experience to Israel.
These personal connections formed at summer camps create a wonderful, lasting bond that builds mutual understanding and strengthens the relationship between Israel and the North American communities for generations to come.”
Fingerman echoed the same sentiments sharing his experience in February witnessing the Jewish Agency’s training of emissaries: “I was overwhelmed, really inspired by the intentionality of the training, by the depth, and by the energy that was generated, and by the connections that they were making…and then knowing the impact that those Israelis are going to have on the 170,000 or more campers.”
“The Israelis play an essential role in a central role at Jewish camps in delivering the high-quality program and the connection and the mission of connecting the North American young people to Israel.
In addition, we've seen an increased interest in our, in FJCs, Machane Olami program, which places international Jewish staff members in summer camps, encouraging the idea of global peoplehood,” he added, noting also that there has also been a major increase in interest from Israeli children in taking part in Jewish summer camp.
In fact, Shawna Goodman, the founder of Summer Camps Israel, is working to bring the diaspora summer camp model to Israeli youth – and she's succeeding. Already 34 camps have been established in Israel, and 49 sessions have been held.
"Overnight summer camp is a unique opportunity for kids to learn to be independent and to bruins resilience and to have fun offline, while supported in a thriving community. The sense of belonging through friendships is everlasting and builds respect and tolerance for others," says Goodman.
That all being said, it’s true that summer camp isn’t the cheapest option – in Israel or the United States. In the case of Summer Camps Israel, the fees range from 4,000-5,000 NIS but already 625 scholarships amounting to 1.1 million NIS have been granted to campers and the organization is aiming for 18,000 campers this year.
In the case of FJC, they’ve established the One Happy Camper program, along with numerous grants, to assist families in need and help bring more campers to Jewish summer camp in the US.
“Since its establishment in 2007, we have helped to fund over 100,000 first-time campers to experience Jewish camp,” says Fingerman, adding that “80% of the kids that go with a first-time incentive grant with One Happy Camper, return for the second year, and 90% return for a third year.”
FJC and the Jewish Agency are at the forefront of bridging cultural (and geographical) gaps when it comes to Jewish summer camp. Unquestionably, the data shows that Jewish summer camps for both Israeli and American Jewry form a key bond between Jewish communities at the camper level, but also at the counselor level as well.
First published: 21:50, 06.06.23