December 11, 2018

New grant program will extend Jewish camp outreach

For some children, attending Jewish summer camp is a quintessential part of growing up Jewish. But not all families can find the kinds of camps that fit their children’s needs or appeal to their interests.

This month, as part of a nationwide effort to get more children, teenagers and families to attend Jewish summer camp, the nonprofit Foundation for Jewish Camp launched a $100,000 pilot grant program. 

Titled the “I Belong to Jewish Camp” initiative, the program is offering camp providers up to $25,000 each to develop new types of camps or marketing strategies that engage populations frequently left out of, or not retained by, traditional Jewish summer camps. These include children with disabilities, interfaith and multi-ethnic families, youth with a variety of perspectives on Israel, families with young children, high schoolers, emerging Jewish leaders and people from the LGBTQ community.

“We have been working for a number of years to help camps be more reflective of the diverse Jewish community of today and tomorrow, but we wanted to be a catalyst to engage even more of those who are not yet engaged in the Jewish community,” said Jeremy J. Fingerman, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “We believe camp is a wonderful, joyous way to experience Judaism and can be an important step in one’s Jewish journey.” 

Camp providers have until May 16 to apply for an “I Belong to Jewish Camp” grant. The money is for summer 2017 and can be used to support recruitment, staff training, retention and efforts that raise awareness about an organization’s programming for one or more of the targeted populations. Fingerman said if the grant program is successful, the goal is to expand it in subsequent years.

The grant program is just the latest in a string of efforts by the New York City-based Foundation for Jewish Camp to make summer camps more inclusive and to attract families that are disengaged from the Jewish community or are simply harder to reach. In the past two years, the foundation has invested at least $2.5 million in camp programs targeting specific groups of Jews such as Russian speakers, the LGBTQ population and multi-ethnic communities, Fingerman said.

As part of a strategy to reach more low-income and disengaged families, the foundation also has poured millions of dollars into its One Happy Camper program. That program offers families up to $1,000 to help pay for their child’s first Jewish summer camp experience. Around 64,000 children have attended camp over the past 10 years as a result of the program, Fingerman said.

Research indicates children who attend Jewish summer camp are more involved in the Jewish community as adults. According to a 2011 study conducted by the foundation, children who attend Jewish summer camp are almost twice as likely to attend synagogue as adults and much more likely to light Shabbat candles, donate to Jewish charities and feel emotionally attached to Israel. 

“Jewish summer experiences are the key to the Jewish future,” Fingerman said. They’re positive, they’re warm, they’re immersive, they’re spirited, so it’s a wonderful way to experience and enter into the Jewish community.”

Welcoming Jewish people of different backgrounds to summer camp is important because the Jewish community built at camp needs to be reflective of the larger Jewish community, he said.

Joel Charnick, director of Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, applauded the “I Belong to Jewish Camp” initiative, saying it supports a trend that is unfolding across the country. Camp JCA Shalom already has efforts and programs in place to bring in the types of groups the grant initiative is targeting, including teenagers, families with young children and people with disabilities, he said.

So far, the camp’s efforts to increase diversity have resulted in greater enrollment numbers and have enriched the camp experience for all attendees, he said.

“It has made our camp healthier, stronger, and it’s also more enjoyable for our participants,” Charnick said. “I think people come to camps to meet different types of people. When you’re at home, you have your own circle of friends and your own bubble, and part of the camp experience is to meet new people.”

Charnick attended the foundation’s 2016 Leaders Assembly Conference in New Jersey earlier this month when the new initiative was announced. He said that Camp JCA Shalom likely will apply for a grant to help it expand outreach to intergenerational and interfaith families, special needs children and the LGBTQ community.

“I think we are scratching just the surface of what we can do,” he said.