Connecting Jewishly

Jewish Summer Camp Is Actually Serious Business

By Lauren Leon

At the Dr Lynn B Harrison Science CenterWe boarded a bus on a rainy Tuesday morning, 25 of us in total – philanthropists, rabbis, Jewish communal lay leaders and professionals, educators, and others. We all took a day off from our usual routines to travel by bus to visit two Jewish overnight camps, learn about our camp outreach program, participate in camp activities, and experience for ourselves the excitement of Jewish camp.

Most of us had experienced camp for ourselves or through our children, but this was different. When you or your child is the camper, it’s personal. Is she making friends? Is the food good? Is he brushing his teeth? And you fail to see the big picture. But the big picture, in this case, is very powerful, and so important.

Between this particular trip and the one held a few weeks earlier, both organized by the Greater MetroWest NJ Jewish Camp Enterprise in collaboration with the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, trip participants had the opportunity to visit five Jewish camp sites which all serve a large number of GMW campers. These camps couldn’t be more different in their scale, their scope, or their approach. But what they all share is joy. Joy of being with friends. Joy of being outdoors. And, most importantly, joy of being Jewish. (View the video at right.)

At camp“These camps are providing our kids with a joyful Jewish experience, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” reflected Paula Gottesman, a member of the expedition and a generous supporter of Jewish camps. “And where else would they be surrounded by so many other Jews?”

And this is where it gets serious… It has been proven that children who attend Jewish overnight camp (a camp that is built on a Jewish mission with Judaism woven through the program, including Shabbat experience and Israel connection, not just a camp that is attended by mostly Jewish kids with a few Jewish aspects) are more likely to stay engaged in their Jewish communities as adults. According to “CAMP WORKS: The Long-term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp (2011),” a study done by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), “the influence of summer camp on the ways in which adult Jews choose to engage with the community and the degree to which they associate with other Jews can be felt long after the last sunset of the summer. The impact is striking, especially when compared to their peers who did not spend their summer months at Jewish camp.”

Specifically, camp attendance increases the likelihood of adult participation and identification in the following areas. As adults, former campers are:

  • 30% more likely to donate to a Jewish charity;
  • 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles;
  • 45% more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more; and
  • 55% more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel.

At campSo getting our kids involved in Jewish overnight summer camp is an investment in the future of our community.

That is precisely why the Greater MetroWest Jewish Camp Enterprise at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life was conceived. Its mission is to attract the greatest number of children in our community to Jewish summer camp, and it’s succeeding. Through public awareness, education, and financial incentives, and in partnership with FJC, area synagogues, schools, JCCS and other community partners, the organization has seen a 33 percent increase in the annual number of Greater MetroWest kids attending Jewish overnight camp since its inception in 2009 – that’s an incremental 270 campers each summer. An impressive $1.5 million in One Happy Camper incentive grants have been awarded to new campers – and more than 75 percent of grant recipients return to camp for a second summer.

A summer day at campGetting the kids into the camps is just part of the equation. In order to keep them there, and compete with the private specialty camps, Jewish camps must continually adapt, make themselves stand out from the pack, and extend their reach into the communities throughout the year. Jewish Camp Enterprise is helping with that as well. They are currently working on number of strategies, including:

  • making camp more affordable for increasing numbers of children that want to attend;
  • creating incentives for teen campers to return as counselors (keeping this demographic engaged in Jewish life is crucial);
  • providing opportunities for shared positions in the community (which will bring that camp ruach into our JCCs and synagogues during the year);
  • tapping into the Jewish community at large to bring top-level programming and instructors into the camps (and at the same time exposing campers to inspiring Jewish role models);
  • focusing on inclusion and specialization, making the Jewish camp experience attractive and accessible to all kids.

So while Jewish camps offer our kids the opportunity to be out in nature, explore their interests, build lifelong friendships, and strengthen their Jewish identity, it offers something much more – the foundation for a strong Jewish community for generations to come.

For more information about the GMW Jewish Camp Enterprise – or to find the right camp or teen program for your child(ren)! – visit or contact Director Tracy Levine at (973) 929-2970 or One Happy Camper NJ is brought to you by The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, in conjunction with Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ and Foundation for the Jewish Camp.

Campers at NJY Camp Nah-Jee-Wah singing in the lunchroom.