Jewish summer camps across Maryland opened their doors last week and the rising enrollment rates are likely to mean a more engaged and involved Jewry for the years to come.
“Jewish day camp attendance is clearly a conduit for teen Jewish experiences, and there’s no question that teen Jewish experiences affect adult Jewish engagements,” said Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
A 2011 study showed an increased likelihood, between 5 and 55 percent, of adult Jewish engagement was linked to attending an overnight Jewish summer camp, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
“Jewish [overnight] summer camps strengthen Jewish social networks and commitment as well as Jewish knowledge,” said Cohen. “The effects are seen decades later,” even in cases when parents are from different backgrounds or exposure to Jewish education varies.
Camp Shoresh, “a day camp with an overnight feel” according to its staff, began its summer session on June 22.
Shoresh, which is 36 years old, started in Frederick as a three-week summer camp based in Beth Sholom Congregation with less than 20 campers. Today, its campus sits on 107 acres of farmland in Adamstown with 450 campers enrolled, an increase of 30 campers — more than 7 percent — from last year.
The word shoresh in Hebrew means roots, and the camp’s method of inspiring kids, some of whom do not come from Jewishly active households, to take an active role in Judaism ended up inspiring the camp’s name.
“Shoresh made sense for us because we are bringing kids back to their roots,” said Rabbi Dave Finkelstein, executive director.
Shoresh has become a model for success, not only in Maryland, but throughout the country, and Finkelstein said he is called regularly from other camps asking for advice. One factor he attributes to its growing popularity is the fact that it engages campers all year round, far beyond the seven weeks that camp is in session.
“You can’t expect them to get the whole experience [of Judaism] in seven weeks. You have to deal with them all year round, from baby to bubbie,” said Finkelstein. For Shoresh, this includes having Purim carnivals, Chanukah parties and Shabbat dinners together. Finkelstein has personally officiated at his campers’ b’nai mitzvahs, weddings and funerals of family members.
Shoresh, though, is not alone in reporting rising enrollment. According to several other Jewish camps, both day and overnight, the number of campers is rising.
The Baltimore-based Camps Airy & Louise run overnight camps for boys and girls, respectively. Executive director Jonathan Gerstl said more than 650 boys are attending Camp Airy for Boys in Thurmont, Md., and 950 girls are attending Camp Louise for Girls in Cascade, Md., this summer. He says their combined numbers make the institution one of the top five Jewish summer camps by size in the country.
Jonah Geller, CEO and camp director of Capital Camps in Rockville, said this year has the highest enrollment in the camp’s history.
“We take our responsibility seriously to inspire Jewish curiosity and let campers explore and discover for themselves what’s meaningful to them,” said Geller. The camp is located in Waynesboro, Pa.
Overnight summer camps in particular have proven to have an impact on Jewish teens lasting into their adulthood.
According to a 2010 study sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, a private foundation committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, 71 percent of young American Jewish leaders attended an overnight summer camp.
However, overnight camp can be intimidating for some kids, which is why day camps, such as Shoresh, are equally as important.
“A lot of kids will not go to Jewish overnight camp if they do not go to Jewish day camp first,” said Finkelstein.
Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s summer camp program, which started in 1943, is also seeing a rise in enrollment. David Schimmel, executive director, said its enrollment soared past 1,100 campers this year. He reported at least a 5 percent increase from last year.
One of the goals of any Jewish summer camp is to have a lasting effect on its campers.
“[Jewish summer camp] lends itself to an open disposition for a child to experience new things that they may not be open to experience in school,” said Chabad Rabbi Levi Kaplan, director of Camp Gan Israel.
Even though it’s not an overnight camp, conversations with Shoresh campers reveal just how transformative the camp experience can be.
“I can’t even describe how much I love this place,” said Keren Binyamin, 14, who has spent more than five summers at Shoresh. “When it’s not camp, I am counting down the days until it is. Everyone is so warm, accepting and friendly. They make you feel special here.”
Ella Messler, 12, has been going to Shoresh for six years and attends Jewish day school. Her peers tell her that she doesn’t need to attend a camp such as Shoresh to establish a Jewish identity, but she disagrees.
“There’s so much more to being Jewish than just keeping kosher and learning Torah,” said Ella. “No matter what kind of school you go to, there is always more you can learn about your Jewish identity.”
Messler, whose bat mitzvah is approaching, will be studying her Torah portion with Rabbi Tzvi Tuchman, Shoresh’s assistant director. For her, learning from a friendly face is important.
“I’m excited that there is someone from Shoresh that I know who will help me study and learn the parshah and what I need to do,” said Ella. “I feel like all of my Jewish identity is a giant web with Shoresh, my family and my bat mitzvah.”
Aside from making kids excited to learn, the camp’s staff has a strong relationship with each other.
“The head staff is more than just friends and [that deep connection] has passed onto the kids,” said Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky, head counselor for the younger boys division.
Although you’ll find a lot of smiles at Shoresh, the staff ensures that the older children learn about some of the realities of Judaism in the world today. The camp currently has a large piece of open land surrounded by trees. Through the trees there is a small opening where a broken down bus sits in two distinct parts.
here’s so much more to being Jewish than just keeping kosher and learning Torah. No matter what kind of school you go to, there is always more you can learn about your Jewish identity.
“It’s hidden at the end of campus, because you have to want to see it,” said Tuchman. He noted that the camp only shows the bus to older children.
On one of the trips to Israel that Shoresh coordinated for its teens, the delegation visited the site of the attack and said a prayer.
Understanding and dealing with anti-Semitism is a reality that the camp and its counselors take seriously.
“Kids will come back from Israel feeling excited and want to wear a pair of tzitzit or a kippah to school,” said Finkelstein. “One of our people here had their Jewish star ripped off of them by his own football teammates.”
Although visiting Israel is sometimes a somber experience, it has also been noted as one of the three pillars to young people establishing a healthy Jewish identity.
“Jewish camps, Jewish day school and a trip to Israel are the primary identity builders for young Jews,” said Barbara Schlaff, co-chair of the Center for Jewish Camping advisory committee run by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “I’ve seen it in my own life and my kids’ lives. Their friends today are all their camp friends; many of them are clergy or active lay leaders in the Jewish community.”
The Center for Jewish Camping advocates for different Jewish camps around Baltimore to maximize the number of campers enrolling each year.
Directors of many camps agree that beyond going to camp, counselors play an important role in terms of giving kids positive role models.
“When you come to Shoresh and you work on our staff, you’re told, ‘You’re not going to sleep for seven weeks,’” said Finkelstein. “You’re going to be non-stop and always be involved as a role model for kids.”
The campers at Shoresh not only have energetic counselors like Krawatsky, but some of Baltimore’s star athletes as role models.
“I met Rabbi Dave through a teammate and he brought some of us [to Shoresh,]” said Prescott Burgess, former linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. “He calls me every summer to come out and I just enjoy my time with the kids, and teach them to play soccer and football.”
Burgess noted earlier that day he played Ga-Ga — Israel’s form of dodgeball — with some of the campers.
“I think all the girls wanted to get me out so they were all against me,” said Burgess, laughing. “The kids are very respectful and they ask a lot of questions to me as a football player and me as a person.”
Shoresh has such a lasting impact on its campers that many go far beyond simply observing Shabbat or becoming counselors. Sharon Nicholas wears several hats, but her position is special events director. Although she said she wasn’t raised in a very observant background, Shoresh has had a huge impact on all of her children.
After Nicholas moved to Frederick, she began looking for a synagogue to practice the small aspects of Judaism that she knew. Eventually her oldest son said he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. Nicholas found Beth Sholom, where Shoresh was originally based, and was approached by Finkelstein.
“I put [Finkelstein] off for a couple of years,” said Nicholas. “But once we joined, the kids loved it. They loved going to camp.”
Nicholas also noted that when her sons attended, the camp was nothing like what it is today in terms of facilities and space available.
“What they built from almost 36 years ago, it’s tremendous,” said Nicholas. “I can’t say enough about what this organization does, and does year round.”
Two of her sons moved to Israel, one serves in the Israel Defense Forces and one studied at a yeshiva. Her other
two sons embraced Orthodoxy. Her 13-year-old daughter has attended Shoresh since she was 3.
“Shoresh has just been amazing for all of the kids,” said Nicholas. “What I respect about Shoresh is the way they do things. They don’t try to throw things down your throat. It’s baby steps and whatever you choose to accept or grasp onto.”
Regardless of who attends or where they have been, Shoresh’s mission is clear.
“All kinds of Jews walk through our door,” said Finkelstein. “There are no labels, everyone is a loved and respected Jew. We just want them to become a better Jew whatever that means for their families.”