Jewish summer camps changing with the times


Jewish overnight summer camp used to mean days spent in the woods, learning about nature, swimming, hiking, and arts and crafts, and sleeping in tents or maybe cabins. The whole experience was infused with Jewish values, observing Shabbat and eating Kosher food.

If you weren’t an outdoorsy kind of kid, you either didn’t go or you went and weren’t too happy.

Today’s children and their parents want more choices. They still want the Jewish part of the experience, but they want options in camp activities. So specialty camps are popping up at all levels of observance.

Today, Jewish summer camp might still mean a trip to the woods of New England for a traditional experience. Or  it might be a week or two on the campus of a private school, learning about science and technology, or practicing your cooking skills or your sports skills, or focusing on performing arts. It could mean a trip to the beach in Southern California for a surfing experience, or a stay on a farm in upstate New York, focusing on environmentalism.

“We have Jewish experiential education across the spectrum, from Ramah camps to Reform camps,” said Michele Friedman, director of new camp initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). These camps offer programs for children through pre-teens or teens.

Ramah camps are affiliated with the Conservative movement while many Reform camps are affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Friedman oversees a 10-year-old FJC project, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, that acts as an incubator for new specialty camps. Since 2010, nine new camps have started. This summer, the third cohort of startup camps will open – six in all. The participating camps get training, professional development and support, as well as funding for the first three years. 

“The focus is to help the camp attract children and teens longer for something special,” said Friedman. “These are children who may have rejected traditional camps.”

She also said that more than half the campers at these new specialty camps have never gone to a Jewish overnight camp. Or if they did, their parents reported that they didn’t intend to return.

The Jewish-specialty camp trend reflects what is happening in the general camping world, where there are now plenty of specialty camps. And there are specialty camps that operate within existing Jewish camps (see story about JORI performing arts camp, page 16).

“There’s something for all interests,” said Friedman. “Campers have an opportunity to specialize in something with Jewish experiential education, a love of Judaism and ruach infused in the program.

“This is not just a way to stay relevant. It’s a way to respond to what’s going on in society. Why should we lose the kids who want something different?” 

And if past success is any indication, the specialty camps are here to stay: Friedman said some of the staff for the third cohort of camps opening this summer were campers in the first group, which opened in 2010.

“We are keeping them engaged,” she said.

For a searchable list of Jewish camps go to the Foundation for Jewish Camp website at: 

FRAN OSTENDORF ( is the editor of The Jewish Voice.

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