Can summer camp fire up young Jews?

A "24/7 experience" does not necessarily increase Jewish identity.

summer camp 88 (photo credit: )
summer camp 88
(photo credit: )
The impending "merger" of the Solomon Schechter High School in Manhattan with the newer and more successful Schechter High School in Teaneck means that there soon will be no Conservative high school in New York City, a datum that adds to the already imposing list of indicators of the movement's woes. Despite valiant and costly efforts, the Manhattan school never gained sufficient traction. In its early years, when it was housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, it had the appearance of a neglected waif.
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With exceptions, Solomon Schechters are in trouble around the country, as they are beset by declining enrollment and escalating budget deficits. Several have closed, while others have been transformed into community day schools, a transformation that invariably means a diminution of the religious character of the school. Additional Solomon Schechters appear to be on the ropes, with the movement unable or unwilling to provide aid, or even comfort. Arnold Eisen will have his hands full when he becomes the new chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I sense that the Conservatives are returning to their earlier emphasis on Ramah camps, with day schools accorded a lesser role in the scheme of things. There is, of course, the recognition that for ideological or financial reasons, many and perhaps most within the more traditional wing of Conservatism do not regard day schools as the preferred mode of formal Jewish education. For them, supplementary education gets the nod. Thus there is some logic to the expansion of Ramah camps, even as Solomon Schechter schools are closing. Unlike the attitude a half-century ago when Ramahs were regarded as excellent vehicles for training Conservative youth, the current emphasis on camping arises from more prosaic sociological factors. There is the significant factor that in most families both parents work, which adds immeasurably to the attractiveness of sleep-away camps. In any case, there is the question of what to do with the kids during the long summer break and the attendant feeling in many homes that parents and children benefit from a period of less togetherness. Relative American Jewish affluence feeds the ability to pay the high fees that even the nonprofits charge. Of note, a study of Conservative parents conducted several years ago showed that they were more willing to spend for summer camps than for day schools. ACROSS THE spectrum of American Jewry, summer camping has gained currency as an effective approach to Jewish continuity and identity among youth who are at-risk Jewishly - including all of the non-Orthodox and quite a few of the Orthodox. For all the marketing of day schools, only a small proportion of non-Orthodox children of school age are enrolled in these institutions. Sleep-aways, at the same time, have a great advantage because they are 24/7 experiences, allowing for the totality of the camping environment to induce greater Judaic commitment. Camps sponsored by the Orthodox, including Chabad and outreach organizations, have demonstrated the efficacy of camping. In Camp Agudah more than 60 years ago, I saw how boys from marginally observant homes were powerfully affected by being enveloped in a strong and positive religious environment. There is a flaw, however, in the current advocacy of camping because it does not take into account the reality that few non-Orthodox camps are willing to create the ambiance and programming that may serve as the foundation for a transformative Jewish experience. After all, kids do not go to camp to become more Jewish, at least not in most situations. They are there for the enjoyment of the experience, for being outdoors and with friends, for sports and a wide range of activities, for getting away. They are not there to be taught or influenced. In a book of essays called The Ramah Experience that I read in the early 1990s, Charles Liebman, the late eminent sociologist, noted that an official Conservative survey of Ramah alumni that was never published showed that Ramah had a negligible impact on Judaic outcomes. More recent research by Amy Sales and Len Saxe of Brandeis University demonstrates that a key determinant of whether camping is Jewishly effective is whether the camp leadership regards this goal as central to the camp's mission. At least as often as not, they do not. Ramahs do have a religious mission. IN SHORT, it is easy to oversell camping, in much the same way that we have oversold nearly all else that we label as "continuity," including many day schools that are minimalistic in their Judaic curriculum and ambience. What is critical, as I have underscored regarding day schools, is the willingness to be religiously purposeful. In short, we ought to be more careful about the products that we are promoting - not that they are without merit, only that not all of them are structured to achieve what we want them to achieve. Camping is now in favor and there is abundant philanthropic interest in the field. To an extent, this comes at the expense of day schools, which are regarded in some quarters as yesterday's story. The Foundation for Jewish Camping is an effective advocate, attracting attention and funding. Somehow, it fails to include nearly all Orthodox camps in its reckoning of Jewish camps, a failing that, to be gentle, tarnishes its work. As with all else that we are doing to stem the tide of Jewish losses, there is an obligation to establish performance standards for camps, as well as the means to measure outcomes. It is not sufficient to say that because camping is 24/7, the results have to be good and camps merit support. It also isn't sufficient or acceptable to exclude from communal and philanthropic support those outreach camps that have a proven track record. The writer is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva in New York City.