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Summer, Endless?

Camp’s increasingly challenged future

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The New York Times had a terrific article (and accompanying video) yesterday on the obstacles, both social and economic, facing traditional overnight summer camps. The featured camp, Pine Forest, is an especially specific kind of traditional summer camp: Expensive; northeastern; owned and run by different generations of the same family; and, of course, implicitly (though not exclusively) Jewish. I can’t claim to know the sociological reasons behind it (other than the whole city-dwelling and upwardly mobile thing), but if you are a Tablet Magazine reader then you know that Jews disproportionately took and take to non-sectarian summer camp.

Pine Forest and its brother and sister all-boys and all-girls camps (they’re in the Poconos) are faring okay financially, but camp director Mickey Black—grandson and son of the founder and longtime director—finds himself beset by (to give a partial list) the rising cost of everything; an economic downturn that threatened to lower enrollment; a litigious atmosphere that requires extra vigilance, stress, and (again) money; a digitally dependent generation of campers; and a résumé-obsessed generation of parents for whom, as Black puts it, “It is not enough anymore to just go to camp to have fun and make friends and improve independence and self-esteem.” He adds, “Some parents want actual takeaways. They want to see skills, achievements, patches and certificates.”

That the Bobos in Paradise want to ruin even summer camp was by far the most infuriating and depressing part for me to read (I desperately wanted to blame this on the Boomers, but most of them have already sent their kids to camp; are these new helicopter parents members of—gasp—Generation X?). And what made me happiest was to learn that there are still places like Pine Forest, where the old rules apply: “No swearing or bullying. No cellphones, iPads or Internet. Parents can call twice and visit once.” Camp is about highlighting all the wonderful parts of childhood that must necessarily disappear when age makes them no longer wonderful (which is why single-sex camps are best, but I digress). Knowing that fewer camps understand this—and that the ones that do are expensive enough to make them the preserve of the upper-upper-middle class and up—is depressing.

This article is fruitfully read against parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall’s defense of Zionist summer camp published last week. “If American Jewish identity is to be something more than silver-and-blue wrapping paper instead of red-and-green wrapping paper in December,” Marjorie wrote, “Zionist summer camp can be a parent’s best ally.” I’m thrilled that Marjorie has found this. But I also swear that my time at Camp Winaukee, a Jewish-in-everything-but-name, family-run (sorta—don’t get me started), century-old camp in New Hampshire was integral to my conception of an American Jewish culture that definitely consists of more than Hanukkah presents. Here, the Pine Forests and Winaukees and Firewoods are getting squeezed in yet another way. It is not so difficult to pass on specifically Jewish tradition if you are all explicit about it. But how is a thoroughly Jewish yet insistently non-sectarian institution—whether a camp, or even, say, an online magazine—to deny itself the crutch of ideology and still carry the flame forward into an ever more melted pot?

When S’Mores Aren’t Enough: The New Economics of Summer Camp [NYT]
Related: In the Zionist Camp [Tablet Magazine]

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“Knowing that fewer camps understand this—and that the ones that do are expensive enough to make them the preserve of the upper-upper-middle class and up—is depressing.”
The camps you wax nostagically about cost over $1,500 per week. It’s wonderful that your parents were able to afford such extravagance. But is the average American, let alone the average Jew, supposed to relate to or even regret the decline of such exclusive, privileged institutions? Are you similarly depressed about the decline of suburban nominally Jewish private golf clubs? Also, could you elaborate on your statement that your secular but Jewy camp was “integral to my conception of an American Jewish culture that definitely consists of more than Hanukkah presents.” I have no idea what this could possibly mean in any positive sense.

Richard Diamond says:

I read the same article – I think the decline is caused by greed of the camp owners. My guess is that camps have increased their pricing at 2x the rate of inflation – making them only for affordable for the wealthy. This is a country where the median income is $50k per year. Secondly, as the parent of two children who spent a couple of summers at camp, they resented not having iphones, etc. Whether we like technology or not, it helps to adopt with the times.

Gil Student says:

The solution: explicitly Jewish camps

Scott Sperling says:

While I certainly understand that without much by way of additional information, it can certainly seem like camp owners are greedy. BUT, the changes in the market, the world at large and demands by this current generation of parents and campers account for why summer camp costs have increased at double the rate of inflation. Security concerns and insurance costs, technology needs, transportation costs, lower camper to staff ratios, special needs camp programs, competition for quality staff driving up salaries, changes in the marketplace requirements for substantially changed/upgraded menus etc. etc. – all these have driven up the costs of summer camping. Like virtually any business, summer camps have to respond to market forces. Many camps and camping systems (like Ramah, the URJ camps, etc.) are working ferociously hard to raise large sums for camp scholarships. Most of us recognize the positive impact of Jewish summer camping and are struggling to both stay competitive and at the same time, not price many families out of the market . This is a complicated and difficult task, but everyone from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camping, the Grinspoon Foundation, and many others, are trying to solve these complex problems. Please don’t rush to judgment without a generous helping of facts.

Since I never went away to overnight summer camp as a kid, I kind of shrug my shoulders at this whole topic. Push comes to shove, parents are going to save the thousands of dollars toward a college fund rather than send their kids to summer camp. None of the kids I knew who went to predominately Jewish non-sectarian camps ever saw their camp experiences as having any impact on their Jewish religious or cultural development. They just remember friends and good times – the way memories of summer camp should be. The demanding parents of today want their kids to get more than “friends and good times” for the thousands of dollars that their doling out. Ironically, the older you get, the value of “friends and good times” far exceeds the dollars we ascribe to the stuff of our upwardly mobile lives.

I look for reasons why Jewish kids (not all, but many) can be very clicky, clannish, entitled, etc. I think camp (and perhaps the Bar Mitzvah year) can be partly to blame. When my Jewish kids who didn’t go to “camp” go anywhere – college, internships, etc. – all the Jewish kids somehow know each other and never talk to anyone else. Pile criticisms on me all you want but ask any non-Jewish or non-camp Jewish kid and you will not hear anything good about those kids. Perhaps spending 10 summers with adults catering to your whims, being paid so that you have a good time will do it.

Summer camp is like Broadway–a relic of an earlier era in American Jewish history, rendered irrelevant by the economic, social and cultural changes of the last fifty years. They were both lovely while in their prime, but neither were exactly necessities, and their decline is hardly one of the community’s most pressing current problems.

Ellen says:

That’s why I went to Girl Scout sleepaway camp (Camp Henry Kaufman). It was inexpensive, fun, and you learned a lot. And could earn badges, too!

I think M.T.’s concern from the NYT article is not about losing expensive camps, but the change, as he quotes, to some camps offering ‘resume’ items. My wife went to both an ‘expensive’ camp as well as NJ “Y” camp and both provided that summer freedom, growth, friendships and activities M.T. discusses. My camp cost $600 ($4000 in today’s dollars)and my parents borrowed money to pay for it, and I borrowed money to pay for my sons’ camp years.

jeff says:

I went to the greatest camp in the world, Winaukee, from ’97-’03, and if I had ever heard anything from a parent,counselor, or camp director about anything regarding my “resume” (I put it in quotes because it’s a joke to think about a resume during any summer between the ages of 9-15), they would have promptly earned a smack in the face (maybe a metaphorical one, but still, they would have deserved a nice back-hand).

The only unauthorized phone call I ever made in my 7 years at camp was in my final summer, in the final week, after I won our camp’s highest award, “Best All Around Camper.” You want your kids to still have their iPhones on them in case of emergency or impressive, once-in-a-lifetime accolade? Be my guest. But if I hear one more story about a parent or camper complaining about technology restrictions at summer camp, I’m gonna hurl. Quit playing Angry Birds and go outside and enjoy yourself. You’re only a kid once, and I promise you will have plenty of time to be bored by electronics later in life.

esthermiriam says:

Yes, in this context it would be helpful to know more about how the author’s “conception of an American Jewish culture that definitely consists of more than Hanukkah presents” derived from his ‘Jewish in all but name’ camp experience. Based on discovery that Jewish boys could play team sports?

Gail Abramson says:

We sent our kids to the NJ Y camp in the late 80′s, early 90′s. I am convinced that it provided them with their single most positive Jewish experience as they grew up. A nurturing Jewish nursery school was the other wonderful influence. Camp was a bit of a financial stretch, but our parents helped out (one insisted she would only help if the camp was Jewish) and I think it was a great investment for us all. NJ Y Camp was not fancy, but every aspect of the place reminded the kids who they were as they went through each day and helped bring Judaism alive through the food, programming, respect for Shabbat (and most of the kids were from secular backgrounds), and even the names of their bunks. Jewish culture was everywhere there. Some parents may have found that camp too basic, not Jewish enough, or any number of other complaints. For us, our kids faces on visiting day will stay with us a lifetime.

Ruth says:

There is a definite middle ground between the hardcore Zionist camps discussed by Ms. Ingall and the “secular-ish” camps covered in the present article. My (teen) son is a couple of weeks away from attending his 3rd summer at URJ Camp Harlam. We afford it by the grace of G-d, but mostly due to Federation, our synagogue, and camp-based scholarships; the 4-week tuition of more than $4,500 for 4 weeks would otherwise not be remotely possible for us right now. He can’t wait for camp to start; we wish we could send him for the entire 8 weeks.

It’s not a stretch to say that he honestly adores going to Harlam, and that the camp has made Judaism resonate and come alive for him in a way that nothing else in his life has managed to do so far. The integration of Jewish life/learning – songs, Hebrew, art, history – as a natural part of a day that also includes swimming, tennis, mtn bikes, ropes course, etc. has proven to be a perfect mix. So is being in a place where being a Jew does not mean you are an “other”. He came home last summer and announced, out of the clear blue, “I love being Jewish!” How cool is that??

The level of observance at the URJ camp is one that is a good fit for how we live our lives at home. Meals are kosher-style; few of the boys, if any, don kippot; girls can wear bikinis. It’s definitely CAMP: Kids who are of “that age” flirt, they compete in inter-camp sports, they may whine about the heat(this is a decidedly NON-”country club” camp). They may listen to iPods during free time (but no phones); they seem just as likely to sit around playing guitar and singing.

And yet … there is *something* special that happens up in those mountains. Boys who would not dream of being “uncool” enough to sing and dance to Jewish music in the “real world” do so with abandon at camp. Shabbat services are joyous gatherings attended in shorts, sneakers, and a t-shirt … especially when your bima is up on a hill under the trees and “seating” is on logs. Magic.

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Summer, Endless?

Camp’s increasingly challenged future

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