When the first Jewish summer camps were founded over a century ago, they offered youngsters respite from urban blight and disease, opportunities for friendship and independence and a taste of Jewish culture.
Nowadays, the relationship between Jewish summer camping, Jewish identity building and the continuity of the Jewish people is well documented. Yet, in order to keep Jewish families interested, camps are finding they must offer more than those traditional benefits to keep campers engaged … and enrolled.
“This is [now] a trend at Camp Ramah in the Poconos; [we are] driven by external trends,” says director Joel Seltzer. “Parents are looking for specialties. They want to see growth and increased skill levels in their kids by the end of the summer. We have to really think about the level of instruction we are providing.”
To meet this need, several years ago, the camp began offering the Ramah Basketball Academy, run by Baltimore basketball star Tamir Goodman. This year, it will add the Ramah Tennis Academy, run by Julian Krinsky.
“Julian is an amazing guy who runs phenomenally successful camps [with] a high level of instruction,” Seltzer says. “He told us, ‘What we don’t have [at my tennis camps] is community. We miss that. I would kill to have that sense of community in a camp.’”
Seltzer points out that community is something that Ramah can offer. “It’s a camp within a camp,” he says. “Kids can come to camp and have a specialty experience along with the warm embrace of the Jewish community.”
Ramah is not the only camp adding specialty programs this summer. Although Camp Milldale, a JCC camp, has offered an arts specialty for many years, this year, the JCC will offer another option, says Melissa Berman, assistant director for arts and culture. Habima Performing Arts Camp, which will take place at the Owings Mills JCC instead of on Camp Milldale’s campus, is part of the JCC’s new emphasis on the performing arts. Berman says Milldale’s arts camp will still exist, but it will focus on the visual arts; the new camp at the JCC, for children entering first through fifth grade, will focus on theater arts.
In addition to a more intensive focus on the performing arts, the JCC has also added some aquatics camps that will take place at the JCC in Owings Mills: Kickstarter will serve first- and second-graders; Junior Varsity will be for third- through fifth-graders; and Varsity will serve sixth- through eighth-graders. Tiyulim Travel Camp, for fifth- and sixth-graders, is also planned for 2014; for teens, the JCC will offer a new leadership training camp for those entering the ninth grade.
Also new, Camp Milldale will be led by first-year director Amy Bram.
At Beth Tfiloh, campers can take advantage of a new theater camp for grades 3 to 5. The camp, directed by Doug Kotula, head of theater at Pikesville High School, will be getting a new space on the Reisterstown campus as well.
“We built a brand new barn with a hayloft, where light and soundboards will be set up,” said director David Schimmel. “We’re also building a new stage. It’s all in the tradition of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies: ‘Let’s put on a play!’”
Like Camp Milldale and the JCC camps, Beth Tfiloh also will be making changes to its travel camp. This summer, says Schimmel, “the camp will be running out of [Beth Tfiloh’s] Old Court campus.” This will make the camp more affordable, he says.
Travel camp will feature day trips in and around the Baltimore-Washington area, and overnighters will include a visit to Hershey Park for younger campers and Kings Dominion for the older set. For the first time, Beth Tfiloh will offer travel opportunities for 10th- and 11th-graders as well. The weeklong overnight sessions will take campers on trips to Cleveland, New York and areas of New Jersey.
At the Shma camps, which include Camp Sternberg, Camp Anna Heller, Camp Avraham Chaim Heller and Camp Mogen Avraham, every summer brings changes, says Racheli Indig, co-director of Shma’s teen girls’ division. Indig says the most noticeable changes at the camps, located in New York, have been in facility improvements. The aquatics program includes new kayaks, a water trampoline, pool water slides and paddle boats.
This summer, Shma’s boys’ camps will offer Blitz flag football, a program designed to take campers’ skills to the next level. The boys will have access to professionally lined football fields and stadium lighting. A new game room will include foosball, air hockey, dome hockey and dance machines.
“We know Jewish families are choosing all kinds of wonderful camps, but we also know the choice of a Jewish camp is very important to the longevity of the Jewish people,” says Seltzer.