The Jewish Summer Camp Dilemma

One of my favorite bloggers, Orthonomics, wrote a great piece the other day about Jewish Summer Camp.

She was responding to the post of a (new to me) blogger, The Curious Jew, who had written about whether or not Jewish summer camp should be viewed as a luxury. (And The Curious Jew was actually responding to a Jewish Week editorial about summer camp written by Rabbi Burg, the International Director of NCSY.)

If you haven’t already, I recommend that you read all three posts/editorials – but in the meantime, I wanted to weigh in with my own thoughts on this subject.

Let me start by saying that I went to sleep-away camp as a child (Camp Young Judaea – I didn’t grow up Orthodox) and it was, without a doubt, the most formative experience of my youth.

Camp is where I learned to love Judaism. Although CYJ is no longer a very observant camp, from what I hear, at the time, it was very “masorati”. I learned to daven at CYJ. I learned to say birkat ha’mazon. I came home from my first summer at camp (in the 4th grade) and asked my parents to keep kosher. (Much to their chagrin, I’m sure. And yet they kept sending me. And I, eventually, became a vegetarian.)

Camp taught me the marvels of being a part of community – with all the privileges and responsibilities that come with that. Throughout my decade-long journey of becoming shomeret mitzvot, that feeling of community remained a driving motivation.

Perhaps most of all, the unabashedly Zionistic Camp Young Judaea taught me to love Israel – a love that led me to spend three years there as a young adult and then, at the age of 25, to finally make aliyah. (As many of you know, I lived in Israel from 1997 to 2008. My husband – also an oleh – and I married in 2002 and in 2008, we moved to Kansas City.)

Without any exaggeration, I can say that the years that I spent attending camp – and serving on the regional mazkirut and going to conventions – formed the person that I am today.

And yet, I can say with equal certainty that unless we win the lottery (literally or figuratively – but probably the latter, since we don’t play the lottery), our three children will not be going to summer sleep-away camp.

It’s just not in the budget.

This pains me to some degree, but I also know that many of the incredible gifts I got from camp – yiddishkeit, Jewish identity, Zionism, community — are values that we are already providing our children. Both in our home and in the communities we have chosen to live in.

To me, camp falls into the same category as expensive after-school activities. They are wonderful and can no doubt provide innumerable benefits to a child. But they are still a luxury.

If camp becomes a “necessity” in order to provide children with a positive religious experience, as The Curious Jew alluded to, then that tells me that my husband and I need to work harder at home.

If camp becomes a “necessity” in order to provide our children with a social experience that makes them feel “normal” (i.e. the chance to interact with a bunch of similarly identified peers), then that tells me that my husband and I need to reevaluate our choice of community.

If we made a million dollars a year, would we send our kids to camp? In a heartbeat. We’d also probably increase our food budget beyond $500 a month!

But unless and until our financial reality changes drastically, I will continue to maintain that Jewish summer camp – much as I loved my own camping experience – is squarely in the “luxury” category.

Hopefully I didn’t step on any toes. Obviously the conclusions that I draw are for my family – and my family alone. But I’d love to know how you all are dealing with summer camp decisions. Is this a dilemma you are facing in your home?

Comments

comments

Comments

  1. Great post! I was looking at the camps offered by the JCC, and these are day camps. At a rate of at least 250 per week, i can imagine sending a kid to a couple of weeks of camp in the summer, but how do people send their kids for the entire summer?

  2. First year camper scholarships, at least for us, were very large. You might want to see what you can receive first before you decide. We found it was very little out of our pocket the first year.

    • Marilia Roach says:

      Where can I get the help you got with the summer camp finiancial, I live in New Jersey. I have three kids and the funds are unavailable. Please help

  3. These match up almost perfectly with my thoughts.
    However, I will comment that I went to day camp as well for many years, and that was at least partially to provide childcare, since both my parents worked full time and they had to do something with me.

    • Good point. Even though I work from home, I do find that summer is challenging. We’re struggling right now with what to do for the big kids over the summer.

  4. Well put. I said on SL and Chana’s blogs that if people truly view camp as more integral than school, than they should consider sending to public school but also to camp – yet we don’t see this happening.

    I believe I owe you a guest post – my apologies!

    • No apologies necessary! I didn’t want to hock you, but I’d welcome it anytime :) (Honored that you’re still reading!)

      • Leigh Ann says:

        ***I feverishly work on a blog post about how we’ve decided to do exactly what Ezzie is saying we should consider doing*****

        (Will post later. Thanks lady. :))

  5. R. Schwei says:

    I hear what you say. I also went to summer camp as a kid. A very zionistic one called fittingly Sabra. It gave me a sniff of shabbas …it taught me a smidge about the wonderful country called Israel…hey…at least I knew it wasn’t an apartaid country- I knew more than many university kids!- but I also got to see the downside- I was not a social kid- prefering books to butterflies- marching to my own beat than that of a counselor. and now…now I have 7 kids – bli ayen hara- and now I KNOW what it is to pinch pennies- (If I pinch them any harder they will have holes in the middle like Japanese yen!) and yet and yet I DO send my kids to overnight camp- and not just when they are older and not just one- my son has been going since he was in 2nd grade and my oldest since 4th and now my 3rd grader wants to join. To sum up- this is my 2 oldest 4th year in overnight camp. The fourth year of running after every scholarship imaginable and the 4th of grabbing any small job that might yield even a pinch more money. Why? We struggle all year to pay for yeshiva so that my kids should be good Jews, leaders, self confident, and strong. We live in a concrete jungle where it is dangerous to play outside. It is especially dangerous during the summer. Given those two factors-my goals and the environment- I don’t want my investment to go down the drain. When people have a business they will put everything they have into into it even if they themselves struggle- I have never heard of a business man with a thriving business who closes it down for a few months to save money. No- if it is doing well he then expands. My dh and I see summer camp as a way of “expanding” the education of our children. We don’t expect our investment to pay off for 20 years- but when it does …then it will be worth it.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your “story” (that sounds so cliche, but you know what I mean.) I totally admire and respect what you are saying. You definitely present the other side of the coin, and maybe when my children are older (my oldest is just 7 now), the heart strings will be pulled more strongly.

      Ultimately, like everything I talk about on this blog, you have to do what works for your family – and clearly this does for yours! There’s a reason it’s called “personal” finances! ;-)

  6. Brian Nagorsky says:

    Mara,

    I won’t disagree with sentiment that you shouldn’t need to send you kids to camp. But as you point out, kids benefit in many ways from going to camp and there are plenty of scholarships out there. My mother has been finding scholarship money for people to go to camp for 30 years and she’s not stopping now. – Brian

  7. I was at my son’s JCC day camp this morning dropping off “early bird” registration forms and was told that they had extra scholarship $$ from last year b/c so few people applied for aid. The director encouraged me to tell my friends to apply for assistance. I wonder if its the same in other communities. Perhaps the $$ and resources are available but people are afraid to ask for help?

  8. We’d also increase our food budget if the budget allowed! Great post.

  9. See, I have to send my daughter *somewhere* for day care purposes regardless. I was actually averse to Jewish camp since she’s already in day school and I wanted to not keep her life so insular. However, secular camps don’t offer scholarships at my income level while I was very lucky to have roughly half the expense of the Jewish camp covered by generous donors. Moreover, I could not have been more impressed by the programs. I’m averse to drawing kids in by ruach only. We’re in a Conservative/Reform community and I see a lot of slack given to kids if only they’ll just have fun being Jewish on some level. I put the camp in that category as well. I need more substance than that and Ramah actually blew me away. I personally put her day school and camp at the head of my financial priorities (and lessons, too). Then again, I’m not as strong at home in Yiddishkeit and do rely on these experiences to help like they were for me. And it’s just her and me at home so sense of community is a much bigger effort. For the music and ski lessons, well, I just see how they grow her world so big and what that means in her development.

  10. Leslie F says:

    It is a proven fact that sending a Jewish kid to a Jewish camp is beneficial in so many ways. I won’t belabor the fact that there is scholarshhip money out there and you must be proactive to get it. It has been the only way that I have been able to send my three kids to camp. We are a Yeshiva family and I don’t know what the tuitions are outside of the Greater NYC/NJ area but here it tops over $15,000 and that is for elementary school. High school starts at $18,000 and you know all the nickle and diming that you are hit for during the year.
    I have sent my two middle children to Young Judaea camps (Sprout Lake and Tel Yehudah) and I will tell you that while they accept children from all streams of Judaism, they are kosher, shomer shabbat, and davening happens daily. My kids loved the fact that while they are observant, they got to show the other kids “how to do Shabbos”. It is what camps like these do to kids and did for you that put you “on the derech (path)” to observe Judaism, love Israel and participate in chesed activities. That aside and back to the money issue- It is expensive to live as an observant Jew here in the tri-state area (NY/NJ/Conn), send your kid to yeshiva and to camp. You have to have either family helping you out or an annual combine salary of over $500,000 (assuming you have 3kids and a mortgage to boot). Most families I know with kids in Yeshiva get scholarships and send their kids to camp on scholarships as well. I make sure that I send in an “early bird deposit”, get my taxes done early and apply for aid. It is for my kids; not me. That is why the money is there. The camps want all their beds filled. Did you all know that all the Jewish resident camps are offering $1000 scholarship for first time campers? It is being offered to the camps from the Foundation for Jewish Camp because they know how important it is for Jewish kids to be immersed in an environment where Judaism is practiced, Hebrew spoken and Ahavas Yisroel (love for our fellow Jews) is a part of everyday living. Now go out and seek support to send your kids to camp.

    • The scholarship is no longer being offered to day school students.

      • My children get such a wonderful Jewish education at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School that my husband and I didn’t think it’s necessary to send them to summer camp. In late December, Shoshana came home from school and asked if she could go to Capital Camps this summer. I hadn’t thought about sending Shoshi to camp, but when she explained that all her friends would be there, I told her I would discuss it with her father. We tried signing Shoshi up in February, and she got waitlisted. I got a letter from the camp recently saying that there was no longer space available for Shoshi. Shoshi was a little bit upset, and I looked for other camps that still had space. I found a non-Jewish gymnastics camp that Shoshi could go to for one week. I wasn’t afraid about her missing out on Jewish values because she gets that year-round. It makes sense why they don’t give scholarships to day school kids because they don’t need the education part of camp.

  11. camp was such a huge part of my childhood. I went to a regular, non affiliated day camp. My parents sent us to camp for childcare purposes, but it was so much more to us. And that had nothing to do with Judaism.

    Everything you wrote above about your camp experience I can say I got from USY.

    At this point we are looking for camps for our kids that aren’t expensive, they can both attend the same hours, and will occupy them. If they go to sleepaway camp when they’re older, it will be a Jewish camp. But if they stay home and go to a regular day camp, they can still get a camp experience. And they can get their Jewish experience at home, school, and at shul – things you and I may not have had as kids.

  12. Leigh Ann says:

    We are sending our kids to sleepaway camp, but not to Day School. Here’s the post:

    http://thefrugalima.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-jewish-day-school-vs-and-jewish-camp.html

    You are awesome, lady. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  13. I don’t know what the future will hold in terms of sleep away camp (my kids aren’t old enough), but we will definitely send to daycamp. Both myself and dh work so we need the childcare anyway. Instead of going with the popular traditional day camp options in the area, we are trying out a camp called Happy Feet. It is a frum dance studio that got together with the other creative arts merchants in the area to create a creative arts summer day camp. Basically, the kids get dropped off in the mroning, daven and then the counselors walk them from one “store” to another for each activity: ballet and tap (at the dance studio), karate (at the martial arts gym), gymnastics (at the gymnastics studio), music (they are going to learn the recorder at the music school), ceramics and art (at the art gallery) and cooking at the (Kids Can Cook store). There is a park around the corner where they go on nice days for sports, sprinklers and gardening. Oh, and my favorite- for boys they have “simcha break dancing” instead of ballet or tap. It is also almost half the price of the other camps.
    THAT SAID, the schools that were discussing losing your scholarship if you send to kids to expensive camps specifically mentioned high school kids. At that age, you do not need to worry about them being babysat for the summer while you’re at work, and they are old enough to get jobs of their own. The fact is that even with scholarship, some camps will run you $5-6K per summer, per kid. That is about a third of an entire child’s tuition. If a family can find the money for that, then they should be able to find the money to pay their tuition in full- because many of the schools are hurting and need that money.

  14. My kids have not gone to religious summer camps yet. That being said, my oldest has gone to boy scout sleep away camp and my daughter has gone to a week-long gymnastics camp – I actually went with her. These experiences were so beneficial to them that I wish so much that we could send them all to sleep away camp every year. But like you we can’t.

    A child can still benefit from a summer camp without going every single year. There are also options for paying for it. The gymnastics camp we went to offers scholarships for those that need it. We didn’t apply. But we did get the cost of the camp down from $900 to $495. First I sent in our application early to get a discount. Second, I went with her and worked at the camp for the week saving $300. Third we opted to go a less expensive week of the summer. July is peak time, prices were less in June and August. Fourth, we had her earn $200 of the money by doing chores around the house (yes I know we still paid that money, but it sure made her appreciate it more).

    So while you might not be able to send every child away every year, you can probably save money over time, look into ways to get discounts at camp, and plan ahead to send them once or twice throughout their growing up years. We are not sending anyone to camp this year, but my daughter is already planning and saving her money for the following summer to go away again. I really hope we can send her too, it is just so good for kids.

  15. My kids go to Solomon Schechter (in MA) during the school year which, even with financial aid, is not cheap. So over the summer, we opt for the way less expensive option and send them to a community camp. I figure it also gives them a chance to get out of their menschlich bubble and see that not everyone in the world is Jewish. Right now, they are very young, however, and I am sure that as they get to the age where they will want to go to sleepaway camp, we will do everything in our means to send them to a Jewish one.

  16. stephanie says:

    I hear you on the camp issue. We don’t live in an area with a large community (decisions my husband made with his now ex wife back in 1997 are going to haunt us until my stepson graduates in 2018) and the only Jewish day camp in the area is very reform- nothing wrong with reform and my stepson loves that camp but I personally want more for our daughters. It is a very reasonably priced day camp but not cheap.
    I am not seeing camp as a luxury per se, but as a supplement to what we do at home and religious school. Because the local community is small I think knowing as many Jewish age mates as possible is incredibly important. Later, if there are issues with kids at synagogue or school there are multiple groups of local Jewish kids to draw from for friends.
    That said, I have no idea how we would pay for any sort of camp for the girls so I will have to redouble my efforts at home. Luckily, they are 2.5 and 6 months so I have some time to figure this out better.

  17. I am so glad to see this discussed! We live in a larger frum community (Chicago) and it seems that is just expected to send your kids to camp. In my experience there is not as much scholarship money out there and both bnos and jcc camps will end up costing me thousands of dollars to send my 3 daughters to camp for 6-8 weeks in the summer. That’s not including my 2 year old who hopefully will go to a backyard camp. Because we send our kids to frum schools and are part of a community, I just can’t see putting money for camp on a credit card. And there is no extra money during the year to save for it-when it all goes to tuition! Also, I am a BT and feel strongly that because we send our kids to more insular schools we feel they need to have some exposure to the world at large. Luckily, my city provides great camps through the park district and they are quite inexpensive and accomodating to frum jews. That being said, it is important to know your kids and their needs!

  18. Now *this* is a giveaway you should consider! If you pay my children’s summer camp tuition (definitely not a luxury, as far as I’m concerned), I’ll be really happy! ;-)

  19. Hi Mara!

    Leslie F (2nd comment) put very well the way we “do Judaism” at Young Judaea camps (I am the director of CYJ Midwest and a former camper of Mara’s). We (CYJ) are Shomer Shabbat and strictly Kosher, but we have campers from just about every Jewish background. We don’t teach a right or wrong way to be Jewish – we strive to give our campers the tools to make choices and expose them to aspects of Judaism with which they were likely not familiar.

    Camp shouldn’t be a necessity, but it is a place where kids can take ownership of their Jewish Identity in a way that they can’t at home.

    For the kids who go to public school and rarely attend shul, meeting kids from more traditional backgrounds can lead to incredible learning opportunities. For kids who attend Day Schools, camp provides an opportunity to teach as well as learn.

    As for the issue of finances, we tell every family we meet that financial issues should not be an obstacle to summer camp. It takes a little work, but there are tons of us out there who believe so strongly in the power of Jewish camp that we won’t let any camper go without the experience.

  20. As both my husband and I work full time out of the house and my kids are too young to stay home alone, day camp is not a luxury, but a necessity. The other option is to leave them with a babysitter all day (who also watches babies so they can’t always do age appropriate activities). Not only is this not the best option for 10 weeks for 6 and 8 year old boys, but it would come out more expensive than day camp. The day camps in the area I live are very expensive. I save up all year to send them and try to find the lesser expensive options. Unfortunately there isn’t really any backyard camp for boys, so that option is out. I wish I could find a happy medium to keep my boys busy and safe, but not empty the bank.

  21. Summer camps for kids is great. I send my kids to a Jewish School and I do not have any issues.

  22. I have 3 children, aged 13, 11, and 7. Since my oldest child, Josh, was 7, he’s been going to Camp Ramah. My 11-year-old, Hannah, started camp when she was 8. My 7-year-old son, Sammy, is mildly autistic. While he isn’t completely socially and mentally disabled, other children his age know that he is not like them. This is a problem because he doesn’t belong with the other disabled kids, but he still needs help. I don’t know if or when I can send him to Ramah, and I don’t know where I should tell the camp to put him. Any ideas or advice?

Leave a Comment

*