Jewish summer camps feel the heat

Directors fight dropping enrollment with scholarships, flexible payments.

Camp Miriam 1 298.88 (photo credit: Amir Mizroch)
Camp Miriam 1 298.88
(photo credit: Amir Mizroch)
It was a telling moment earlier this year, when camp director Rabbi Ira Spodek found himself with more applications from prospective staff members than from children looking to spend the summer at Camp Morasha. And when camper registrations started rolling in, so did requests for scholarships. "We obviously do see the impact of the economy," said Spodek, who expects to have 500 kids at camp this summer in Lake Como, Pennsylvania, slightly fewer than usual. "Our parents have lost their jobs... a lot of people are giving us postdated checks." While Jewish summer camps grew during boom times, some are now struggling under mounting economic pressure facing campers' families. Last year, 70,000 children attended Jewish summer camps in North America, up from 47,000 in 2003, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp. This year, camp directors - as well as organizers of teen tours to Israel - say anecdotally that their numbers are down, though some still hope to break even by the start of the summer. "All the trips that I know about all have the same issues: It's harder to get kids to sign up, they need more scholarship money, parents are more hesitant," said Roger Braverman, director of Young Israel's Achva summer tours, down 15 percent from last year. For many camps, the impact of the economic crisis has been felt as families tighten their belts. But Young Judaea, an organization sponsored by Hadassah, was hit doubly hard. In March, Young Judaea lost $2 million in funding from Hadassah, which was hard hit by the Madoff scandal. It was forced to lay off 40 staffers, including 20 in Israel, and the reorganization prompted "a painful ordering of priorities and downsizing of our program," said Rabbi Ramie Arian, the national director of Young Judaea. Arian said funding for Young Judaea's year-round programming was slashed, largely sparing the organization's six camps and its trips to Israel. "We took pains to make sure that whatever cuts we had to make, we protected the ability of the camps to continue," he said. Longtime members of the camp community say the economy is taking its toll in the form of lower enrollment, later registration and later payment. "I think that first-time camper prospects in some places, parents are just saying, 'We can wait,'" said Charlene Wendell, a Jewish Community Center Association consultant on camping and children's services. Other parents may sign their children up for fewer weeks of camp. But parents whose children have already attended camp may hesitate to keep them home unless absolutely necessary. Nina Jaroslaw, a mother of four from New York City, said her family's income took a hit in the past year, but sending her children to camp was a priority. "It is a luxury to the degree that it's not food and shelter," she conceded. But, she added, "The formative experience in my life as a Jew was in camp... so I'm committed to that." In response to the tough times, camps are creating flexible payment options, promoting discounts and working with parents in other ways. For the first time, Camp Seneca Lake in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, is letting parents put camp tuition on their credit cards. "The economy sort of mandated it this year," said Irv Bader, the camp's director. Seneca, an upscale camp, charges $8,200 for a full summer and $5,100 for four weeks. So far, about a quarter of families are paying with plastic. "The loss of jobs is hanging over people's heads," said Bader. Genna Singer, the camp director at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, said she understands parents' predicament. About 10% of campers signed up for shorter sessions than usual for the coming summer, she said. In November, the JCC extended the due date for camp deposits. "I was getting lots of calls from people saying, 'We'd love to send our kids. We know we will not be able to pay the full balance in March,'" Singer said. "After 10 or 12 calls like that in a week, you realize you have to make a change." In the case of BBYO Passport, which takes teens to Europe and Israel, the organization began promoting its competitive fees - they claim to offer the least expensive teen tour to Israel - in early February as a way of attracting participants. On its Web site, BBYO compared the cost of its Israel Journey, $4,250, to a competitor's trip that cost $5,500. "We had a good story to tell, so we decided to tell it," said Avi Green, BBYO Passport's marketing director. Between December and February, BBYO was projecting 35% fewer participants in 2009, but in April there was an uptick in registrations, largely closing the gap, Green said. Still, about 5% of registered campers have called saying they may need to cancel their trip if scholarships don't materialize, he said. To that end, many camps are helping parents tap into scholarships offered by the Federation system, or incentive grants from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which offers "campership" incentive grants to first-time campers. The grants, ranging from $750 to $1,800, are not need-based, although the economic downturn has made them more attractive. The foundation estimates that, along with its partners, it will offer grants to 7,000 campers this summer, compared to 5,000 in 2008. Last year, the foundation distributed $4m. in grants, and this year it hopes to distribute $6.1m. "It's been a very aggressive push and some great work by Jewish camp communities to really be sensitive and work with families," said Jerry Silverman, the foundation's CEO. At least one camp, Camp Ramah in Conover, Wisconsin, started its own drive to raise $150,000 in scholarship funds for campers in need. So far, camp enrollment is still down about 10%, according to Benji Bearman, the camp's business manager. But unlike years past, he expects sign-up to continue late into the spring. "It's an ongoing process that will continue almost until camp begins," he said.