Children in Israel participate in an activity at a scout  summer camp.
Children in Israel participating in an activity at a scout summer camp. Photo by Limor Edri
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Around this time every year most Jewish communities in the U.S. find themselves flooded with summer camp flyers. From local day camps to lengthy overnight camps in rural areas, parents are faced with a plethora of choices on how to provide their child with enrichment opportunities during the school break. Recently, JTA published an article on struggling Jewish families in Bulgaria: amongst economic downturn, a fund was established to provide Jewish families with funds for children’s’ schoolbooks and food, as well as, surprisingly, a fund for children to attend summer camp. This implies that summer camp can be a basic necessity. Why has summer camp taken such a hold on the Jewish community at large?

I have had a fair amount of experience with Jewish day camps. Starting off as a camper, I later moved on to counselor-in-training and counselor positions, which ultimately culminated in being both an Arts and Crafts and Drama teacher at various Jewish Day Camps in my area. My parents were secular, but viewed camp as a healthy way for me to connect with Jewish and Israeli culture. Summer camp was one of the best activities I did - it that strengthened my connection to Judaism and Israel. It was an inherently unifying and unpolitical environment in which all denominations were accepted. As a camper, I could swim, play outside and have a barbeque like all the other non-Jewish kids I knew, but I could also make a menorah in Arts and Crafts class and no one would question my reason for doing so. For a kid who was used to being the only Jew in school, Jewish summer camp was incredible.

Summer camp provides children with a fun, social setting that also helps them grow as Jews. In many areas that don’t have large Jewish communities, summer camps are an easy way for Jewish kids to meet and become friends. This allows them to connect to their background and heritage; seeing other kids their age practice the same religion is an affirmation.

Jewish summer camps can also help children learn about Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel has run “shlichut” programs for years, which bring young Israeli adults to summer camps and Hillels around the world. All of the camps I worked with had active schlichut programs, in which Israelis interacted with the camp community at large, providing events such as “Israel Day” and giving children a taste of Israeli culture and history. Many campers who come in knowing little – or nothing – about Israel come away from camp being able to talk about monuments in Jerusalem and pronounce basic words in Hebrew.

Unfortunately, Jewish summer camp is expensive. According to JData, a Brandeis University project, the average Jewish summer camp tuition as of August 2011 was a whopping $1230 per week. For many families, spending upwards of $14,000 for a three-month summer period is not only out of reach, but unacceptable. Especially during this time of economic downturn, it is unreasonable to ask families to pay the equivalent of one year of college tuition at many universities in order for a child to attend a summer camp.

Sky-high tuition goes against the very tradition of camp. By excluding a large percentage of campers whose families cannot afford the fees, the benefits of a Jewish summer camp are lost on the neediest of children – those who traditionally cannot afford membership at synagogues or Jewish day school. While camps are businesses in a sense, they also have a stated, greater philanthropic vision of helping create Jewish communities. By pricing out many families, they are acting hypocritically.

Action must be taken. Scholarship programs aiming at needy children, as well as more options for parents – half-day programs, evening programs, or even-once-a-week camp activities – can be useful and helpful for a child’s Jewish education. Camps should utilize every avenue possible to lower costs, while maintaining a safe and healthy environment. Jewish summer camp provides many Jewish kids with the opportunity to feel part of a larger community while still enjoying the summer break. It would be a great shame to limit that wonderful feeling to only those who can afford it.

Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.