When choosing a sleep-away camp, ask (lots of) questions


Sleep-away camp is a rite of passage. In Southern California, we are fortunate to have many wonderful Jewish residential camps to choose from. But how do you choose the camp that is best for your child? 

Seek recommendations from friends, for sure. In many cases, you can even tour camp facilities. During your research, it’s vital to ask the right questions, even the ones that may seem trivial or silly. 

The Journal reached out to officials at a variety of Jewish residential camps from San Diego to the Bay Area who suggested 10 important questions to ask when considering a camp, or simply when looking for reassurance about the one you’ve chosen. 

1. What activities do you offer and does my child get to choose them? 

It’s a basic question, but if you have a child who lives and breathes basketball or photography, you’ll probably want to seek out a program that offers those. And since overnight camp is all about building the independence of a child, how much freedom there is to choose is significant. 

“It’s the opportunity to explore,” said Dan Baer, director of Camp Mountain Chai in Angelus Oaks. “Camps are trending more toward an elective model where campers get to choose. Everybody has a choice built now into the schedule. But every camp’s balance is a little different. Kids love the ability to choose.”

2. What is a typical day like at camp?

Learning the specifics about the daily schedule can go a long way toward determining if a camp’s activities, program and structure are right for a particular child, said Josh Steinharter, director of JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in the Bay Area. Some camps are highly structured with little or no choice for campers, while others are based around free choice and tailored to a camper’s individual needs. This is important, he said, because some campers thrive on structure while others are more comfortable being able to do their own thing. 

3. How are the counselors trained, and where do they come from? 

The return rate of staff and the retention of campers into the staff corps are important.

“Each Jewish camp that I know of uses their counselors and their staff to impart important lessons about how to live, how to relate to a community, and how to be better Jews and people … This happens best when the staff is stable, and has grown up in this type of mission-based community,” explained Doug Lynn, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps, which runs Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop in Malibu.

4. What is the ratio of campers to counselors in each cabin?

Some parents feel that smaller ratios of counselors living with their children is the way to go, as it provides closer supervision and can foster closer connections between campers and counselors. Others, according to Lynn, feel that a smaller ratio is stifling to campers interacting with other campers and that it leads to overbearing supervision. 

5. What kinds of financial aid are available?

It’s no secret that sleep-away camp can be expensive. One Happy Camper, a partnership between the Jewish Foundation for Camp and Jewish communities across North America, offers grants of up to $1,000 to eligible first-time Jewish sleep-away campers. Also, many camps provide significant needs-based scholarship assistance.

6. How can I learn about how my child is doing while at camp? 

It used to be that the only way for parents to find out how their child was doing at camp was through snail mail or by calling the office and requesting an update. But parents, many of who are accustomed to their child being a cell phone call away, are asking for more. 

“Camps are responding to this desire while keeping the special bubble of sleep-away camp intact,” said Josh Levine, director of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley.

As a result, many camps employ photographers whose sole job is to take hundreds of pictures, which then get posted to a website every day for parents and loved ones to see. Some camp directors send out general emails looping parents into the highlights of the day’s activities, and at least one local camp, JCA Shalom, does camper-led morning radio broadcasts that parents can listen to online.

7. How is Judaism defined at your camp and infused into the day? 

When parents are choosing a Jewish camp, they are not doing so based solely on a ropes course or art program, as amazing as those might be. That means it’s important to learn about the Jewish ethos — that secret sauce that defines a camp’s Jewishness, said Ariella Moss Peterseil, associate director of Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai.

8. What is the level of religiosity at your camp? 

It’s key that a camp reflect a parent’s value system, and religion and level of observance may be part of that. 

“Parents may choose a camp with similar rituals and observance level as in their home for the comfort of the camper and religious priorities of the family,” said Dalit Shlapobersky, executive director of Habonim Dror-Camp Gilboa in Big Bear Lake. “Or a family might prefer for the child to experience a summer at a camp that’s more observant, so that the child develops a stronger control of rituals they might not be practicing at home. Or a family might place as a priority the intellectual, social and emotional growth the programming provides, with a lower priority given to level of observance.”

9. Is your camp accredited by the American Camp Association? 

Yes, there are many good — and beloved — camps that do not have this accreditation. But the 2,400-plus camps throughout the country that do have it have met multiple health, safety and program-quality standards, so it’s definitely a plus. 

10. What makes you different from other camps in the area? 

There are a lot of Jewish camps in the area. They have a lot of similarities, but the camps also do a pretty good job of differentiating themselves, according to Joel Charnick, director of Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. 

“The best way of ensuring a good match is to ask the camps. They should be able to articulate that pretty well,” he said. “In Southern California, we all know each other very well. We have a very friendly relationship. … So I think we are well equipped to talk about each other and each other’s camps. I still think parents should do their due diligence and call each of the camps they are interested in.”

MORE QUESTIONS:

  • How’s the food? Can you accommodate my picky eater and her allergies? 
  • What happens if my son is homesick, gets sick or bullied, or hurts himself? 
  • What is your camp’s Shabbat experience like? 
  • How do I prepare my child for a first time away from home? 
  • How much time will my child get to spend with siblings and friends in different age groups?

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