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?

Happy Campers


We are driving to pick up our son from camp. He’s been there three weeks, the longest stretch he’s been away from us since his birth.

In this age of e-mails and BlackBerrys and cell phones, the rule at Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley is no e-mails, BlackBerrys or cell phones. He’s sent us a few postcards home, clearly written by an 11-year-old who has put away childish things, like parents.

“Dear Family: We prayed and prayed and had havdalah end of story. Love, Adi. P.S. I love you. P.P.S. Tomorrow’s our overnight and we’re creating our own fire and no letters on Sunday.”

We follow a dusty procession of cars making its way toward the bunks — the one time of year these SUVs will touch actual dirt. Our son and his friends pour out — and they are different. Taller. Browner. A bit of manly bunk-stench still clinging to their clothes. We ask them how it was and they laugh among themselves and break into secret jokes and chants and hints of midnight sneak-outs, leaving the details to our imaginations. For a decade their lives have been lived out solely on our turf. Now we are strangers on theirs.

On this warm August morning, the endless agonizing over Jewish continuity and how best to ensure a Jewish future seems especially vapid. You want to know what works? Camp.

A fraction of American Jewish children attend Jewish summer camps, despite a small but growing body of evidence that no other institution is as effective in passing Jewish values and community to the next generation.

“The 24/7 experience can’t be replicated,” said Jerry Silverman, the executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping (www.jewishcamping.org). “It’s living communally outdoors, integrating Jewish learning with fun.” A former executive with Levi Strauss and Stride Rite, Silverman’s change-of-life moment came when he picked one of his own children up from her first stay at Camp Ramah New England and found she had been transformed by the immeasurably positive experience. Jewish camping, he said, “evolved into a family passion.”

Silverman joined up with the foundation, which was founded in 1998 by Wexner Fellows Robert and Elisa Bildner to be a national advocate for the Jewish camp movement. There are 120 nonprofit Jewish camps in the United States and Canada, serving between 55,000-60,000 children. That’s just 8 percent of the total Jewish population. The Foundation’s goal is to double the number in five years.

The obstacles are as close as your checkbook. Sleepaway camps range from $475-650 per week, with the average close to $600. An Avi Chai Foundation study found that while 67 percent of Jewish professionals are summer camp alumni, the high tab puts off many families.

Those that aren’t deterred often confront a lack of camps themselves. There is no camp on the West Coast serving the Modern Orthodox. The high price of land and start-up costs in the millions mean few new camps come on line with any frequency. Film producer Doug Mankoff, the Foundation’s only Los Angeles-area board member, put it this way: “There are three fundamental ways to strengthen Jewish identity among young people: day schools, Israel and camping. But nobody seems to be doing much about the last one.”

But the Foundation hopes to chip away at these problems, and money and effort are starting to flow in the right direction. In Western Massachusetts, the Grinspoon Foundation gives every Jewish child a $1,000 scholarship to attend the first year at camp. The Avi Chai Foundation is funding improved Judaic and leadership training for counselors and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation is funding specialized courses in the dramatic arts for camp leaders. And here in Southern California, home of sticker shock by the square foot, organizers in San Diego have just broken ground on a new, pluralistic camp in the San Bernardino Mountains — with a lake.

Mankoff said such camps offer something unique, “learning about Judaism in a cool way.”

I thought of my son’s postcard — how prayer and Havdalah fused with the thrill of an actual campfire.

“It’s that heartfelt excitement about Judaism kids can feel with their peers,” Mankoff said.

It was that excitement I read on my son’s face and heard in his stories.

That morning we picked Adi up, he and his friends decided to take us on a hike around Brandeis. We ended up climbing a hill claimed by the junior counselors-in-trainings. “This is the J-CIT hill, that one is the CITs,” said one of them, pointing across the landscape like Gen. Tommy Franks on reconnaissance.

They had their own language, had formed their own tribe with its own stories. We scrambled past a garden where the kids learned about the (old) kibbutz life, and up a steep path that a month earlier we couldn’t have begged these boys to climb.

On the way down we heard an ear-jolting thrum. Two feet in front of us, a large rattlesnake shot across our trail and slipped under a toyon bush. Its body was thick as a man’s wrist, but all I noticed were its pointy eyes facing us down, and its furious rattle.

These boys, raised in the wilds of Rancho Park, Carthay Circle, Hancock Park Adjacent and West Los Angeles, slipped sideways around the snake and continued their march down the hill. The we-came-this-close-to-a-rattlesnake story joined the other stories and jokes and experiences they would pass down about Alonim 2004, as their little tribe happily merges into the larger one, the one to which we all belong.

Q & A With Moshe Wein


All-inclusive Passover hotel programs cost anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000 per person and take place all over the country — from ski resorts in Utah to the legendary scene in Miami. Most have one thing in common: Lots and lots of good food.

Moshe Wein and Elisa Septee Lunzer at Kosher Travels Unlimited have been running programs for 23 years in Southern California, at locations like La Costa and the Desert Princess in Palm Springs (now the Doubletree). This year the program is at the Rancho Bernardo Inn near San Diego, where they are expecting around 450 people, many of them extended families.

Aside from the hotel chefs, waiters and other hotel staff assigned to the program, Kosher Travels Unlimited brings in a panel of scholars and entertainers, 10 kashrut supervisors, about a dozen counselors for the day camp and another dozen staff members for other tasks.

The quantity of food is enormous, when taken as a total: 400 pounds of handmade shmurah matzah, 350 pounds of other assorted matzah, 1,500-2,000 pounds of chocolate just for the 24-hour tea room, not including what is used for baking.

Jewish Journal: Tell me about this 24-hour tea room.

Moshe Wein: I fast and pray for three days before I order the cake and the candy and all the junk for the tea room so that I should order enough. We have dried fruit, fresh fruit, chocolate, candy, cake, soda, potato chips, baked goods — anything you can think of. It’s a kid’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. We’ve had kids sneak down at 3 a.m. to look to see what new things will be out for the next day. Every day we put new things out — a new chocolate or gum or candy. We keep them wondering.

JJ: Do you ever run out of food?

MW: No. Never. No. That is my worst nightmare, so I make sure it never happens.

JJ: But you must have some leftovers at the end of the holiday. What do you do with those?

MW: They go to Tomchei Shabbos [which distributes it to needy families]. Some years I truck the leftovers up to L.A., some years to San Diego, depending on how much it is and who wants what.

JJ: How do the chefs feel about having to work within the laws of Pesach?

MW: The chefs are extraordinarily excited by the opportunity. A person who is really a master of the art and a professional is not afraid of something new and wants to broaden his horizons and add it to his own resume. I say to them I am going to give you a blank canvas and you paint a picture. There are no constraints except that it has to be kosher products and there are some traditional foods we want to have. It’s an opportunity for them to learn a whole new area of cooking.

JJ: Can you give me a sample menu?

MW: Let’s do the first night: We start with an appetizer of gefilte fish and an Italian antipasto salad and then matzah ball soup. There is a choice of entrées: slow roasted prime rib with horseradish whipped potatoes, basil-scented vegetables in red wine sauce; marinated grilled duck breast with orange star-anise spicy glaze with basil-scented vegetables and quinoa pilaf; or poached halibut with spinach and olive oil lemon garlic sauce.

Dessert is an ice pyramid sorbet with papaya and raspberry coulis, served with assorted cakes and cookies.

In addition, there is always just plain roasted chicken or boiled flanken or chicken, and we always have early dinner for the children with hot dogs and hamburgers and fries.

JJ: Have you had to adjust your menu to popular diets, such as low-fat a decade ago and low-carb now?

MW: We always have available a vegetarian choice, low-fat, low-salt — whatever people need. There is always someone in the back of the kitchen preparing special meals and needs.

JJ: But I bet most people give up on dieting for the whole week.

MW: Absolutely. One-hundred percent correct. I know people who go on diets two or three weeks before Pesach in anticipation of coming to the hotel and absolutely blowing it.

JJ: Do you ever take a step back and say, ‘Wow, this is really a decadent display of gluttony?’

MW: Not really. The truth of the matter is that given the natural advance in food technologies and the products available for Pesach, I would estimate that the cumulative consumption of people staying home for Pesach would not be very different from what they consume as a group in a hotel for Pesach…. It only sounds unreasonable when we add up all the numbers. When you break it up and divide it into people, it’s quite reasonable.

For more information on upcoming programs, visit www.koshertravelsunlimited.com .