December 8, 2019

For Jewish Camps, There’s Wisdom in Being Special

Long a cornerstone of the American Jewish experience, Jewish summer camp provides kids an unbreakable link to their past and a head start into their future.

For years, most Jewish camps offered a general program of swimming, sports, and arts and crafts, along with color wars, song sessions and, my personal favorite, Capture the Flag. But the world is changing and if our Jewish communal institutions do not adapt, our aspirations for a more vibrant Jewish future are at risk.

In camping, for example, we have noted parents’ growing demand for specialty camps to bolster their children’s skills and to address their increasingly sophisticated interests. Indeed, to remain competitive and to attract and retain even more campers, the field of Jewish camp has had to evolve.

Ten years ago, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) created our Specialty Camps Incubator with the support of the Jim Joseph Foundation, later joined by the AVI CHAI Foundation. The Specialty Camps Incubator has launched Jewish specialty camps with a new model of high-quality skill-building activities combined and integrated with vibrant, experiential Jewish education. These new camps — including outdoor adventure, environmental sustainability, science and technology, and sports — have created a new dynamic in the field of Jewish overnight camping, offering alternatives to existing secular models, while infusing Jewish wisdom, tradition and joy into daily life.

To date, the new specialty camps have drawn more than 7,000 unique campers, most of whom had never considered Jewish camp as an option. Independent evaluations of the Specialty Camps Incubator demonstrate the lasting impact on campers who have not only improved their skills related to their passion, but also have become more engaged in Jewish life year-round.

Lessons learned from creating these camps from scratch inform and motivate the entire field of Jewish camping in forward-thinking adaptation and innovation. Not only do these new camps offer expertise and elite personnel in fresh, new areas of interest, they offer a new model in leasing existing spaces at universities and boarding schools with outstanding facilities. This efficient approach to creating sacred communal spaces
opens up opportunities across the field and beyond.

The Specialty Camps Incubator is dramatically changing the Jewish camp landscape in California and throughout North America, serving as an example of how the larger Jewish community must adapt and grow.

The Specialty Camps Incubator is dramatically changing the Jewish camp landscape in California.

This summer, six new overnight specialty camps will open, including two in Southern California. Havaya Arts will offer a unique creative and performing arts experience on the campus of the University of Redlands. The new URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy West will engage campers’ curiosity about the world through hands-on scientific and technological exploration, experimentation, and reflection, while immersing them in a vibrant Jewish community on the campus of Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

With funding from AVI CHAI, FJC’s Specialty Camp Accelerator launched two additional camps in 2016, including URJ 6 Points Sports Academy California, on the campus of Occidental College.

The new camps created through the Incubator and Accelerator programs have motivated all Jewish camps to think creatively and maximize their reach and Jewish learning.

This means that traditional camps are beginning to create and implement specialty tracks within their regular offerings in an effort to retain older campers and to attract those who might want to specialize in a particular activity. Some traditional camps also are rethinking session length influenced by the Incubator camps’ models, recognizing that shorter sessions
might attract campers who have a packed summer. The way Incubator camps approach integrating Jewish learning, values and reflections into their programming has had a lasting impact on campers’ Jewish engagement.

The evolving work of Jewish camp encourages our communal organizations across North America to raise the bar and attract more young people, engaging them in Jewish life for years to come.

Jeremy J. Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp.