January 18, 2019

Happy wallet, happy camper

The economy is bad. Money is tight. And yet the news isn’t all negative for youngsters hoping to attend Jewish summer camp this year.

“The truth of the matter is, most of the summer camps have increased their financial aid,” said Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “We’ve increased financial aid. So a lot of the challenges of the economy so far have been mitigated. We invest close to $1 million in summer camps.”

Local attendance is down slightly but has been pretty consistent. Over time, though, he said, “We would love to see the number of young people going to camp go from 4,000 to 8,000. Our goal in the medium term is to find ways to double it.”

That goal may seem far-fetched, considering the stranglehold the economy has over so many people and the fact that private, non-Jewish camps have seen national attendance decline by 10 percent or more over the last three years, according to Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

But figures from the New York-based organization indicate that Jewish camp enrollment is holding steady or even slightly increasing. Fingerman expects this past year’s final numbers to be up more than 3 percent nationally.

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“I think it’s been viewed as a communal imperative to make sure that kids have the ability to go to camp in the face of these economic times,” he said. “Federations have stepped up to the plate and increased scholarship assistance, and the camp communities themselves have their own scholarships.”

More than 70,000 kids went to Jewish, nonprofit overnight summer camps this summer, paying an average of between $700 and $1,000 per week, Fingerman said.

To help, FJC distributed more than 10,000 grants this past summer, totaling about $6.5 million, through two programs in particular. One Happy Camper offers $1,000 incentives to youths attending their first summer at a nonprofit, Jewish overnight camp. FJC partners with local Federations, camp movements and sometimes camps for these programs. Then there’s JWest, which is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and offers incentive grants for the first and second summers.

In Los Angeles, Federation gives out camper incentive grants to close to 1,000 youths. Some are based on financial need while those in conjunction with One Happy Camper focus on first-time campers.

At Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, fundraising efforts have gone into overdrive since the recession hit. As a result, more attendees are on financial aid — 42 percent last summer compared to 29 percent a few years ago — but more are enrolling, too.

“Our goal is to get every kid into camp, so we’ve raised the money,” said Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, which is home to the camp.

Now the camp, which usually hosts 800 youths over the course of a summer, gives out $250,000 in scholarships based on financial need. Some campers receive assistance from other sources as well. The cost of attending Camp JCA Shalom generally is between $900 and $1,000 per week, Kaplan said.

There is a new challenge, though: Some potential campers simply aren’t asking for help.

Josh Levine, director of Camp Alonim, part of American Jewish University, said, “There are families out there who don’t send their kids to Jewish camp because they think they won’t qualify for financial aid, or they don’t know that financial aid is available. It is available, there is certainly no stigma in applying for financial aid, and it exists for a reason.”

Still, summer enrollment at the Simi Valley camp has increased to more than 900 overnight campers and 270 day campers. On average, overnight camp costs $850 to $900 per week and day camp costs $250 per week. Increased financial aid has certainly helped attendance.

“We have been raising more for scholarships,” Levine said. “I think the community is responding in knowing that there’s been an increased need out there, which is very heartening.”

Finding ways to get kids into Jewish camp despite the recession is incredibly important to the Jewish future, Sanderson said.

“If you go to camp for two or three years minimally, your Jewish identity is solidified,” he said. “Almost everybody I know, including myself, among the most meaningful experiences we had in terms of Jewish engagement was camp. That’s where lifelong friends are met. It’s where love of Judaism happens.”