By Sean Savage/JNS.org
For those who attended the Jewish camps of the previous generation, summertime likely invokes memories of smelly old bunks and rickety dining halls. But now, in what has been described as a new golden age for Jewish summer camps, those camps have received a massive facelift.
What has allowed for this transformation? One of the players behind the scenes of the process has been JCamp180, a philanthropic organization dedicated to helping Jewish camps meet modern challenges.
“Jewish camping is a life-altering experience and JCamp180 is dedicated to transforming Jewish summer camps into to a firm financial and business situation,” Mark Gold, director of JCamp180 says.
Founded in 2004 by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation as the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, and later renamed JCamp180, the initiative matches funds that are raised by the camps themselves and also provides camps with consulting services from mentors, who focus on areas including fundraising, governance, strategic planning, and technology.
Gold says that philanthropist Harold Grinspoon’s inspiration to support Jewish camps came from a visit several years ago to a Jewish camp near his home in western Massachusetts. During the visit, Gold explained how Grinspoon was disgusted by the camp, even going as far as saying that he would “never send my kids to this dump.”
“Harold told the camp director that if he could raise $50,000, he would match that amount. However, when the camp director came back to him and said he raised just $15,000, it quickly became apparent that these camps were going need to be run like professional organizations with a strategic plan, fundraising, and capacity building,” Gold says.
According to JCamp180, over the past nine years, the organization has contributed more than $13 million in matching grant funds and $11 million in consulting services, helping to boost Jewish camp attendance from 43,000 in 2004 to 70,000 campers nationwide today.
“Harold Grinspoon is a visionary,” says Stefan Teodosic, executive director at the Beber Camp in Wisconsin and the Perlman Camp in northeast Pennsylvania.
“His commitment to the field of Jewish camping, both at a personal level and at large, are staggering. When Jewish camping wasn’t the cool thing to fund, Harold was putting the big dollars in when others were just thinking about it. … JCamp180 has been a driving force behind the professionalization of the field,” Teodosic says.
Teodosic, who has worked with JCamp180 for several years, described its work as “transformational” for his camps, allowing them to use the matching grant programs for infrastructure improvements like bunks, pools, and health centers.
Jewish children today have a growing number of options each summer, with for-profit summer camps specializing in a wide range of areas such as sports, science and technology, and summer school. Alternatively, some families simply want to spend more time with their children during the summer in a non-camp setting. Non-profit Jewish camps, therefore, face stiff competition.
“If you look at the camps we have worked with the longest, most of those have fully renewed their camps. They realize they have to compete with the for-profit camps and others,” Gold says.
He joked, “It is no longer acceptable to say we have 1940s World War II surplus cabins. That’s not going to attract kids.”
Teodosic says the Jewish camping world was unorganized before Grinspoon’s foundation became involved.
“It was a fractured experience, with various different movements running their own camps,” he says. “If you had a strong system around you, you got the kind of support you needed to be a successful camp. But there were a lot of independent camps that didn’t really have their act together in the way that they do now with the help of JCamp180.”
Michelle Koplan, executive director of B’nai B’rith Camp in western Oregon, says that JCamp180 and the Grinspoon foundation have helped grow “our tiny summer camp into a formidable agency.”
JCamp180 worked with B’nai B’rith Camp to improve fundraising, strategic planning, and professional development for staffers. Koplan said a JCamp180 mentor helped implement two strategic plans that have helped “transform” the camp.
“Our first strategic plan helped us purchase the camp from the Portland Jewish Community Center, and now our second strategic plan is helping us to become a year-round agency and not just a summer camp,” says Koplan.
As the Jewish community becomes more diverse, with rates of intermarriage and unaffiliated Jews increasing, summer camp can also play a role in helping some Jews maintain religious values and practices.
“B’nai B’rith Camp is serving more unaffiliated and interfaith families than anywhere in the country,” Koplan said. “Our work is important because it helps the kids continue to have Jewish values and practices in their home, continue to give tzedakah (charity) and to contribute to our community.”
“JCamp180’s ability to continue to support us in our growth to serve these communities is really important to us,” she adds.
Indeed, studies have shown that Jewish summer camp plays an important role in shaping a child’s Jewish identity throughout life. A 2011 Foundation for Jewish Camp study titled “Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp” headed by Dr. Steven M. Cohen, a sociology professor of American Jewry at Hebrew Union College, concluded that Jewish overnight camp leads to “an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives” and “an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community.”
“What we find is that for young Jewish millennials, they think more highly of their Jewish camps than even their university. There is a strong recognition and bonding with the camp experience. Most kids go to camp longer than they go to college,” Gold says.
Moving forward, according to Gold, one of the biggest issues Jewish summer camps face is affordability, something JCamp180 is seeking to address.
“Camp is expensive and we know it. We provide incentive grants for first-time campers. But even so, for many families [paying for camp] is a real challenge,” Gold says.
Families can expect to pay anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 per summer (eight weeks) for overnight camp. One of JCamp180’s programs is called PJ Goes to Camp, an extension of the Grinspoon foundation’s highly successful PJ Library literacy initiative. That program provides funding to first time campers through the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s One Happy Camper program. PJ Goes to Camp provides incentive grants of $700 or $1,000 for first-time campers. Additionally, JCamp180 focuses on boosting camps’ endowments to provide their own scholarship programs.
“One of things we have been working on is how to help these camps develop sufficient endowments to subsidize campers going forward,” Gold says. “Our biggest concern is that camps will end up pricing some people out of the system. So we want to work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
B’nai B’rith Camp’s Kolplan said JCamp180 “has given us a really strong foundation to create an infrastructure that allows us to be better for kids.”
“When you have more fundraising dollars then your programming excellence rises, and most importantly, we are able to give children more scholarship dollars, so it becomes more affordable for them and grows our camp attendance,” she says.
Teodosic of Beber Camp and Perlman Camp feels that in the future, many will look back at this current era of investment in Jewish camps as a replicable and successful model.
“In a couple of decades, Jewish camping will be looked at as a real lever of success in the Jewish world that will help drive the continuity of the Jewish life, and not just a place to send your kid for a few weeks to have fun,” he said.