Campers at Camp JRF in Pennsylvania, shown here, soon will have a counterpart camp near Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Camp JRF

Reconstructionist summer camp will feature the arts

The Reconstructionist movement is planning for a sunny future with the launch of a summer camp in the Los Angeles area.

An overnight camp focused on the arts is set to open in the summer of 2018, thanks in part to a $1.4 million grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

Camp JRF — which originally stood for Jewish Reconstructionist Federation — will be the Reconstructionist movement’s second. Its first, in northeast Pennsylvania, was founded 15 years ago.

“It’s an amazing camp,” Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said during an interview at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades. “There’s no way you can’t feel optimistic about the Jewish future when you go to this camp.”

A major reason for a second camp is the Reconstructionist movement’s strong presence on the West Coast.

“By opening in Southern California, the new camp will be within a few hours’ drive of three of the largest congregations affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement,” its website says.

Movement leaders are scouting for a location “within a two-hour radius of Los Angeles,” Waxman said.

Waxman is based in Pennsylvania. When she became the leader of the movement in 2013, she also became the first woman rabbi “to head a Jewish congregational union and lead a Jewish seminary,” according to the website of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which also said she “was key in the successful integration of the rabbinical college and the congregational union.” She was named to the Forward 50 list of America’s most influential Jews in 2015.

The camp is planned as a “film- and arts-based specialty camp” for children in the third to 10th grades, according to the movement’s website,

“We really want to take advantage of folks who have a background in the entertainment industry, many of them here [at Kehillat Israel] or at our affiliated congregation in Malibu [Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue],” Waxman said. “So we want both to draw from the greater L.A. area and to ask folks to drive out and teach for a day or a couple of days, and for it to be a reasonable commuting distance.”

According to the American Camp Association, specialty camps are a growing trend.

FJC awarded the grant as part of its specialty camps incubator, one of six camps under development and financed, in part, from a grant of more than $12 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation.

The grant was provided with the expectation that the camp will be self-sufficient by its third year, Waxman said, adding that FJC preferred renting a location, rather than purchasing one, to avoid “a burden of capital.”

Meanwhile, FJC is interested in pursuing specialty camps because they have “proved to be a huge success for Jewish camp,” Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of FJC, said in a statement, adding that research shows “the specialty model attracts new campers — 66 percent said they only went to Jewish camp because they were attracted to one of the specialties.”

The camp will offer one-week or two-week sessions to campers who have an expertise in the performing arts and those who want to “deepen it, and also some beginners … who want to learn about acting or learn about filmmaking from the beginning,” Waxman said. There also may be a day-camp component to it, she said.

The Reconstructionist movement, the smallest of the four major Jewish denominations, was founded on the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement. The Reconstructionist movement takes a progressive stance on interfaith marriages — its seminary generated buzz in 2015 when it announced it would ordain rabbis married to non-Jews — embraces the LGBT community and is vocal on political issues. The Reconstructionist website features statements expressing concern about the election of President Donald Trump, for example.

The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) is the former name of the congregational arm of the movement before a 2012 merger between the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the movement’s seminary in Wyncote, Pa., and the JRF. n

From disable to enable: Summer camp shifts focus

The positive impact that summer camps have on Jewish identity is no secret, but a report released last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) found that much progress remains in making this a viable opportunity for young people with special needs. 

To help move things forward, experts on disabilities convened in the fall to follow up on the report, released last May by the New York-based organization, and the FJC received a grant that led to the hiring of a director of disabilities.

The FJC survey found that approximately 2,340 to 2,590 special needs children, most of them with neurological disorders, are among the 75,000 who attend Jewish summer camps. While 93 percent of those parents reported being “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with their child’s camp experience, the study found that few camps are able to provide for children with physical disabilities. Right now, only 36 percent of Jewish camps offer a special needs program. 

“We were pleasantly surprised that there were more children with disabilities in summer camps than we had guessed,” said Abby Knopp, vice president of program and strategy at the FJC. “It affirmed our confidence in the field to meet the needs of Jewish kids with disabilities.”

Still, the organization, which works to boost the number of Jewish children that go to summer camp, is taking steps to help the numbers of campers with special needs rise. 

“About a third of camps have staff that have special education training and experience working with kids with disabilities,” Knopp said. “We’re incentivizing them to make the kind of hires they need at camp to serve the children.”

Among the study’s participants were 170 staff members from 124 camps around the United States, along with 141 campers and 262 parents. Knopp said FJC conducted the survey because, “there are not enough opportunities for children with disabilities in the summer and year round. We figured that we needed to start with a baseline to make it more accessible for them. We couldn’t build out until we knew what the baseline was.”

At Camp Ramah in California, the Conservative Jewish summer camp located in Ojai, Elana Naftalin-Kelman is director of the Tikvah program, which serves special-needs adolescents ages 11 to 18. One of the people interviewed for the study, she said that at Ramah, the biggest focus is on inclusion and offering campers with special needs the same experiences as others. 

“Camp inclusion is much more than building facilities. It’s about attitude changes. We include all people who want to be part of the community,” she said.

There is a higher counselor-to-camper ratio among Tikvah participants, as well as a buddy program that brings together a special-needs camper and a non-disabled, older camper. Kelman said that a crucial aspect of the program is training. 

“We do awareness training to make sure everybody at camp knows why we do what we do, and this is an important piece to the Ramah puzzle,” she said. “It’s an ongoing conversation that we’re constantly having with staff at all the camps. Inclusion is important for everybody, not just the kids with special needs.”

Michelle Wolf, a disability parent advocate and Journal columnist, has a 19-year-old son with special needs who attended the Tikvah program. While she was pleased with her son’s experience, she said that there is room for improvement at all summer camps. 

“My son uses a walker for short distances, and for longer distances he uses a wheelchair. At Camp Ramah, in the boys’ area, they had loose gravel, which is really hard to walk on with a walker or go over in a wheelchair. [So] they put down plywood,” she said. “The same thing happened at Camp JCA Shalom [in Malibu]. People create camps that look nice but aren’t accommodating for wheelchairs and walkers. The camps are not built with disabilities in mind.”

One of the issues highlighted by the FJC study was the fact that camps with facilities and services for those with special needs often don’t highlight that information in their brochures. 

Wolf also encouraged an attitude adjustment among counselors, employees and campers. 

“We need to create structures [that ensure] the typical campers aren’t afraid or freaked out by having kids like my son who has trouble talking and uses a walker,” she said. “Other campers need to be educated and have the general feeling of acceptance and openness throughout the camp. It needs to be a whole camp-wide attitude.”

The whole Jewish community, Knopp said, is responsible for including children with special needs and making them feel welcome. 

“Every Jewish child deserves an opportunity to have a great summer experience, she said. “It’s important that these kids have a place in Jewish camps. We all become much more cognizant of the variety of different kinds of people who live among us. The moral imperative goes for all of us.”

Donors struggling to defray the rising costs of Jewish camp

Spending the summer at Jewish overnight camp once was a spartan affair, often little more than a collection of ramshackle buildings scattered in the woods by a placid lake.

Those were the days.

“Today it's all about the toys,” said Rabbi Allan Smith, the former head of the Reform movement’s camp network and a 46-year veteran of the summer camp business. “You have a go-kart track, a climbing wall, a swing, a Burma bridge.

“When I was a kid, 90 percent of the camps were by a lake. Today if you don't have a pool you're a loser. Kids don't like lakes, they're dirty.”

Such amenities may make camps more appealing, but they don’t come cheap.

Parents can expect to shell out anywhere from $800 per week per child at one of the less expensive nonprofit camps to $2,000 per week at some of the pricier options. For families already struggling to cover the costs of Jewish education during the school year, sending a child to camp might be one expense too many.

In a bid to help defray the cost, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has awarded more than 43,000 grants to attend a nonprofit summer camp. The grants can be up to $1,000 per family .

“We believe summers at Jewish camp are an important component in one's Jewish identity,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the foundation’s CEO. “Camp teaches a joyful Judaism and becomes an important building block for a Jewish future. We believe families challenged economically should not be penalized.”

The high tuition at Jewish camps, which directors at the camps agree is considerably costlier than at their Christian counterparts, is cause for concern among those who fear that a potent identity-building opportunity is slipping away from middle-income families.

For Debra Hollander of Shaker Heights, Ohio, sending her children to Jewish camp is a top priority, despite the costs.

“Our three kids go to secular education schools, so for us Jewish camping became even more important,” she said. 

A 2011 study commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp lends credence to Hollander's view of Jewish camps as important shapers of Jewish identity. According to the study, Jewish camp alumni are 30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity; 37 percent more likely to light Sabbath candles; and 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue.

“The analysis indicates that [camps] bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat lighting candles to using Jewish websites and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” the study concluded. “Secondly, they bring an inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

The FJC, which has a mission to increase the number of Jewish campers, is working to identify ways for camps to slash costs. In recent years it has coordinated the sharing of resources, encouraged the development of alternative revenue sources and helped camp directors improve their managerial skills through a program the organization likens to “an MBA in camping.”

Ultimately, the foundation wants to see camps profitable enough to be self-sustaining.

“Camps that are full are profitable and reinvest back in scholarships,” Fingerman said. “So there is a power in numbers, and we're working hard to get them full.”

Other organizations also have taken steps to make camp more affordable, particularly for less-affiliated families and first-time campers who might be less sold on the value of the camp experience. The Avi Chai and Zell foundations jointly made a $600,000 donation to Ramah to help the Conservative movement’s camp network attract first-timers.

“We're calling it the Ramah Open Door Program, where we're opening up to less Jewish-affiliated families,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national director.

Paul Reichenbach, the director of camp and Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, said a significant number of children attending his movement's summer programs also receive scholarships.

While camp directors agree that the costs of Jewish overnight camps are high, they offer varying explanations as to the reasons. Some say it’s the relative abundance of staff — a ratio of one supervisor for every two campers, according to Cohen. Others point to the salaries of directors, which average about $125,000 per year at nonprofit camps, according to public tax filings. Directors at Jewish for-profits can make even more.

Perhaps the biggest factor driving costs, however, is the Jewish community's relative affluence and the resulting expectations.

“What [Jewish camps] provide may be higher with regard to facility, to program options, with regard to staff structure,” Reichenbach said. “And we are dealing with a community that has a certain expectation for quality.”

Despite a growing recognition of the importance of making tuition affordable, Reichenbach predicted costs would continue to appreciate at a rate of 2 percent to 5 percent each year.

“We live in the real world,” he said. “In the last few years our practices have reflected the rise in the cost-of-living index, the cost of energy, of food, of transportation. Right now we are doing the best we can to stay even.”