Jewish summer camps have always been recognized as one of most successful Jewish communal endeavors. When American Jews talk among themselves about their past experiences that inspired them to become or remain active in Jewish life, “Jewish summer camp” seems to be at the top of the list.
Despite its recognized success, there has been a feeling growing among leaders involved in overnight Jewish summer camps that the traditional “one size fits all” program has lost some of its luster.
Lifelong Jewish friends! Positive Jewish identity! Fun in the great outdoors! Cool counselors!
Whatever motivated Jewish youth in the past to attend Jewish camps still appeals.
“There are Jewish kids, out there, though, who never thought of attending a Jewish summer camp,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs at the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). “Whether they come from unaffiliated families…or are just plain too busy to consider the option of a Jewish summer camp, these kids enroll in summer activities where they pursue a personal interest or where they develop their skill or talent in a particular area.”
These are the youth that the URJ and other institutions involved in Jewish summer camping are now targeting with initial generous grant support from two philanthropic sources, the Foundation for Jewish Camping and AVI CHAI.
“We are developing a variety of new Jewish specialty camps that offer programs in line with what they are already doing,” Reichenbach pointed out. “We are using their special interest, talent or skill as a hook to pull them in and experience the magic of Jewish summer camp. All the wonderful ways where Judaism comes to life in a Jewish summer camp can be interwoven and become integral to the overall program.”
At 92 Y Passport NYC, Jewish campers can now pursue their interests in fashion, film, culinary arts, the music industry or music theater. Business and entrepreneurial skill will be the focus at Camp INC. soon to open in Colorado, science and technology the topic of inquiry at a new URJ sponsored encampment in the Boston area, while “Wellness, Health, and Fitness” the key subject at Camp Zeke based on the East Coast.
Developing one’s skill at a particular sport or exploring an interest or activity in the great outdoors is the theme of five other specialty camps that the Foundation for Jewish Camping and AVI CHAI have or soon will help incubate to life in various other North American locations.
For information on these nine new innovative specialty camps that target a new demographic group and geographical area underserved in the American Jewish community, go to www.jewishcamp.org/specialty-camps-incubator-0.
Why Specialty Camps?
The importance of school is being emphasized more and more today. The 21st century is a world of accelerated change. The need to adapt by being a “lifelong learner” is considered the prerequisite to success. What one learns in school, the need for every student to do well academically, is more important than ever.
On the surface, one would think, the traditional Jewish summer camps would thrive today. Wouldn’t the appeal to Jewish youth of taking a natural fun break from the more intense environment of school be appealing? Wouldn’t Jewish parents want to provide this more lax summertime type of experience for their children?
More intense schooling, though, is often not the only significant demand made on American youth. There is a second demand today that often equals, sometimes even surpasses, the importance of academics.
It involves an expectation placed on students at younger and younger ages that they will develop a serious talent or interest outside of school that could help lead them to future success.
In recent years, I have attended three high school commencement ceremonies. On each occasion, I heard the same story.
The valedictorian, the student in the graduating class with perfect grades and the highest achievement test scores, makes an initial list and applies to 10 colleges. He or she receives a rejection letter from each school.
While the valedictorian makes a second list, other students in the graduating class, students with lower academic class rankings, receive acceptance letters to universities that rejected the valedictorian.
What do the other students possess that the valedictorian lacks? College admission personnel from elite universities do not hesitate to answer.
In addition to performing outstandingly well in the classroom, elite colleges now want students who stand out in a crowd. They want students who passionately involve themselves as leaders and participants in extra-curricular activities that define their identity.
I feel for these three outstanding students. They each deserved, but didn’t receive, a standing ovation when their name was mentioned at their high school graduation. They were the best students in a given year that their schools had to offer.
One of these three students I encountered is Jewish. His younger brother is also an outstanding student.
Perhaps if his younger brother attends a summer program like one of the new innovative Jewish specialty camps mentioned above, he won’t have to settle for his second choice when selecting a college.
It’s unfortunate that being the best isn’t always good enough anymore for Harvard.