American-style Jewish Summer Camp Arrives

Three years ago, international relations lecturer Ronen Hoffman of the School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, borrowed $100,000 and brought a common American concept to Israel: the Jewish summer camp.

"Every Jewish community across America has its own summer camp," explains Hoffman, "an isolated location to which children aged 7 and up are sent for a few weeks of outdoor activities and a taste of Zionism."

For nine consecutive years, starting from his first year at university, Hoffman was sent to a summer camp each summer by the Jewish Agency to work as counselor and director of a delegation of counselors.

"Every time I came back [to Israel], I tried to describe to those around me the intensity of the experience," he recalls. "I tried over and over, and failed every time. There is something purifying about a highly-charged meeting with a group of young people who spend several weeks cut off from their normal surroundings."

Hoffman observes, "This is a life experience that is both fun and develops a strong connection to the Holy Land, but one has to be there to understand."

As time passed, Hoffman realized the true gold mine was not in the Rocky Mountains but rather in Israel.

"I thought to myself," continues Hoffman, "that instead of sending Israeli counselors to the Diaspora, the Diaspora should be brought here. Instead of meeting three Israelis at an American camp, [American kids] could meet hundreds of them here. Why send Jewish youth to a camp in New Jersey when they could be brought to the Galilee and given lots of fun, including meetings with Israelis, an introduction to Israel and lots of Zionism, too?"

So what's different about this idea? After all, groups of Jewish youth from around the world visit Israel all the time.

"A summer camp offers a few weeks of activities for children aged 7 and up from Israel and around the world, in a closed compound where all the activities take place. This is basically a supplementary product to the tours conducted under the auspices of the Jewish Agency or other organizations. This is not competition, but rather a new segment in the market."

In 2004, Hoffman recruited businessman Erez Roll to his idea, and decided it was time to put ideas into action. Hoffman quickly realized that the limited funds at his disposal were insufficient for building a camp and searched for something that already existed. After some long, convincing conversations, the Mevo'ot Yam maritime studies dormitory high school in Mikhmoret, north of Netanya, agreed to rent out its facilities, which are vacant in the summer months, and Camp Kimama ("butterfly" in the Shoshone Native American dialect) was born.

The next stages involved recruiting staff for the camp and marketing it in Israel and abroad, for which Hoffman employed all his connections from the time he spent in the United States.

The first camp had 190 participants - 70 percent from Israeli families that could afford the NIS 5,000 price tag. In the second year, registration more than doubled to 440. A third came from abroad. Last year, despite the Second Lebanon War, 600 children came - 40 percent from the Diaspora.

This summer, Camp Kimama will welcome 1,000 participants, half of them arriving from 20 countries around the world, including China and Thailand. Many are "repeat customers," or have siblings who enjoyed their stay here.

Activities at the camp include traditional outdoor and water sports and camping skills-building exercises, plus environmental awareness (such as volunteering to help clean nature reserves) and community involvement, such as making art and giving it to old age homes in Israel. The camp owes its growth to a second locale on the banks of the Jordan River, in Kibbutz Amir.

What do you tell parents who are afraid to send their children alone to Israel? "That the campus is in a closed, protected area," says Hoffman. And to Diaspora parents who think their child's visit to Israel should include more touring, Hoffman suggests organized tours before or after the camp.

With the growth in registration came increased profits for Camp Kimama, whose annual revenues have grown to NIS 5.5 million. Hoffman repaid the loan for his startup costs back in the first year. Still, until recently he did not draw a salary. As the enterprise grew, Hoffman brought in an American partner, Evan Muney, who purchased an 18-percent stake and is in charge of marketing in the Diaspora.

"After three years in operation, demand has outstripped supply," says Hoffman. "I could have opened three or four camps, and filled them all, but this is a business whose success depends on thorough planning to avoid mistakes." That said, Hoffman is now planning to open 10 camps throughout Israel, with projected annual revenues of over NIS 10 million.