Growing up, June was always a month of unbearable anticipation. As the weather got warmer and the final days of school dragged on, talk of summer plans bounced around the classroom at remarkable speed. Many would spend the time off on family vacations. Others would be at home, spending time with friends and relatives. For me, however, the imminent arrival of summer could only mean one thing: it was time to go to camp.
From the ages of 7-17, I was lucky enough to spend my summers at Camp Ramah in Canada, a Jewish sleepaway camp tucked away in the Muskoka region of Ontario. My days were spent running free with friends, swimming in the lake and making life-long memories. The daily activities, however, were only the tip of the iceberg of what camp had to offer.
Jewish summer camps have been around for over 100 years. In the early 20th century, these camps offered freedom for Jews to observe Jewish traditions at a time when many were facing pressure to assimilate. Since then, Jewish camps have multiplied across North America, with the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) reporting over 150 different overnight camps in their 2021 Jewish Camp Census. These camps offer an enriching experience for Jewish children and young adults, immersing them in Jewish cultural and religious practices, while still offering them the authentic, fun camp experience.
Jewish camps vary widely in religiosity, serving all different sects of Judaism. For some, prayer is a part of the daily schedule, with services in the morning and evening. Hebrew may also be integrated into campers’ daily lives, with buildings and activities having Hebrew names, and staff and campers conversing in Hebrew whenever possible. Shabbat — the Jewish day of rest — is also a central part of Jewish life at many camps, with normal activities coming to a halt each Friday as the camp gathers to celebrate the end of the week with songs and prayer.
For some, myself included, camp is a glimpse of Jewish culture they may not get to experience otherwise. Growing up in a household where synagogue was a once a year event, Friday nights were nothing out of the ordinary, and no one spoke a word of Hebrew, summer camp was like superglue — binding me to a strong Jewish identity I would carry with me into adulthood. At camp, I was proud to be a Jew.
LSA sophomore David Lightman reflects on his camp experience with a similar perspective. From the ages of 8-15, he attended Camp Barney-Medintz, located in Cleveland, Ga., and was able to gain an incredible sense of Jewish pride and community during his time as a camper. “Camp made being Jewish fun,” he said. “It made me want to carry it with me into the future.”
The value of the experience is undeniable, yet the picture is far from perfect. For many Jews — low-income Jews in particular — Jewish summer camp is nothing but a pipe dream. Parents are expected to cough up a hefty amount for their child’s camp tuition, far more than many are able to afford. At a camp considered to be on the “inexpensive” end, a parent may be shelling out as much as $200 a day for their child, a number already far too high for many working class families. This is nothing, however, compared to the financial demand of other much pricier camps, where parents may find themselves dropping as much as $2000 a week on their child.
The rising prices are no surprise. Sleepaway camps are no longer just a few cabins by the lake, but instead high-end facilities decked out with the best, most expensive equipment — rock climbing walls, pools, water trampolines — all with a hefty price tag of their own. Not only that, but camp professionals are paid extremely well, with directors at non-profit camps having an average salary of $125,000 per year. For-profit camp directors can make even more. The financial burden is therefore left on the families who elect to send their children to these camps, but where does this leave low-income Jewish families?
For many — especially those covering the cost of a Jewish education during the school year — covering these exorbitant costs is simply unattainable. No amount of budgeting or saving can make something so expensive affordable. This leaves a large percentage of Jewish children unable to experience everything Jewish camp has to offer.
Many camps are aware of the inequity, and offer scholarships and grants to families in need. First-time camper incentive grants are available through One Happy Camper, a program funded by the Jewish Foundation for Camp, who also offer numerous other scholarships. Wildflower for Kids — an organization dedicated to helping children move through grief and loss — also uplifts the camp experience, offering scholarships to kids who have lost family members. However, these scholarships are often not near enough. Most consist of “discounts” off tuition that barely make a dent in the thousands upon thousands of dollars camp demands.
So the question remains — how can we make camp more affordable? Aside from investing in more generous scholarship opportunities, keeping the Jewish community informed on different available scholarships is incredibly important. The same way that college scholarship programs do outreach to inform prospective students of their scholarship opportunities, foundations like FJC should be reaching out in different communities in order to target individuals who would benefit most greatly from their scholarships, and who may not even be aware of the benefits of camp for their children.
In addition to getting the word out, the scholarships offered should be accessible to everyone. Many of the scholarships available now have time-consuming applications that often leave families feeling confused and hopeless. Simple scholarship applications that require only basic personal and financial information are most effective in matching families with the aid they need. FJC recently launched BunkConnect, a program that allows families to input only a small amount of information and be rewarded with a number of different Jewish camps that match their requests. More programs like this would lead to more families discovering aid opportunities they may not have even realized existed.
Some would argue that Jewish overnight camp is a luxury, and that if you can’t afford it, there are numerous other ways to instill your child with a strong Jewish identity. For many, the idea that camp is a “necessity” for a certain kind of social and religious experience is laughable. Many Jewish families, including working-class ones, live year-round in vibrant Jewish communities that provide their kids with everything they need. A summer spent at camp is simply an added bonus. Yet this is not the case for everyone. Many Jewish kids do not attend Jewish school, or live in an area with a high Jewish population, and may rely on camp for the religious connections that some take for granted.
At the end of the day, every single Jewish child deserves the opportunity to have a loving, Jewish community in their life, and that is why making camp affordable is so important. With more generous, accessible scholarship opportunities, more children will be able to experience what camp has to offer, regardless of their family’s economic status.
Summer camp is magical, and no kid anywhere deserves to miss out.
Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.