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Camps Take Aim at Recession

March 5, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Campers learn about Israel and strengthen their love of Judaism through music at Pinemere Camp.

Beth Berman knows about instilling Jewish values in kids. As director of early childhood education at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, she oversees day care, pre-school and summer camp, and she teaches Hebrew school on the side to earn some extra money. After her family's bills are paid, she always puts something aside toward furthering her own daughter's Jewish identity in the best way she knows how: through a summer camp experience.

But this year, Berman and other parents are facing a considerable hurdle -- affording an overnight summer camp as the recession bears down on the economy. While camp can be a major expense even in the best of times, smaller paychecks and tighter budgets have made it that much more difficult for some families to get kids out in the wilderness this year.

The squeeze comes as many in the Jewish professional world view a Jewish camping experience as pivotal to the formation of a child's Jewish identity.

Rabbi Todd Zeff, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, said he is seeing increasing number of parents trying to give their children this experience in these tough economic times.

"They feel that camp is their lifeline to the child's Jewish community and Jewish identity, and they'll do anything they can to get their kid to come to camp. But they also have to pay their mortgages and other expenses."

Berman's daughter Samantha, age 11, is a perfect example. She "talks about camp from the day it ends to the day it begins," said her mother. But this year, she said, "I can only send her for four weeks because of the cost, though she'd prefer eight weeks. It's worth the money, but it's extremely expensive."

The price tag for overnight Jewish camps can range from close to $2,000 for a two-week session to $8,000 or more for a full summer. Camps, federations and synagogues have found themselves deluged with requests for assistance as the 2009 camp season quickly approaches.

Lewis Sohinki, director of B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp in the Poconos, noted that his camp has already received twice as many requests for needs-based scholarships over last year.

"The major increase I've taken note of is families that have sent their kids full-session and can no longer afford it because a spouse lost a job, or they're sending their kids to college, or the funding they had put aside is now going to paying the mortgage," said Sohinki. "We're seeing kids that have been going for six or seven summers and culminating their camping experience by asking for scholarships."

Sharon Waimberg, executive director of Camp Galil in Bucks County, is finding a similar trend."People are struggling to pull the funds together. Sadly, this incredibly transformative Jewish communal experience just might end up at the bottom of the list when people are trying to figure out priorities."

Susan Levine, who asked that her real name not be used, is self-employed and, whenever possible, works extra hours, including evenings and Saturday mornings. The recession hasn't hit her Lafayette Hill business yet, she said, but for the last seven years she has struggled to pull finances together for a session for her kids at Camp Harlam, the Reform movement's camp in Kunkletown, Pa., in the Pocono mountains.

While paying for camp was never easy, Levine said it became more of a problem after her divorce five years ago. She turned for help to the camp, to her synagogue and to Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Scholarships Offered
Like many cities, Philadelphia's Federation offers grants and scholarships to help cover costs of Jewish camp. The Overnight Incentive Grant, instituted last year, provides non-needs-based financial aid of $1,250 for first-time campers. The grant is offered in partnership with the Neubauer Family Foundation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a national organization that joins with Jewish federations to encourage attendance at Jewish camps.

In 2008, Federation awarded 155 of these grants, totaling $193,750. This is the program's second year of a three-year commitment. Federation also offers a $750 grant to second-year campers, and has needs-based assistance available for third-year campers and beyond.

"Federation has been really generous," Levine said. "It wasn't hard to get; it's just being able to ask the question, 'Is there any aid available?' But they've definitely made it possible."

Last year, Federation saw a 20 percent increase in applications for needs-based scholarships to overnight and day camps and expects to receive more in 2009, according to Brian Mono, Federation's allocations manager. He said that Federation's board of directors recently approved an additional $30,000 in needs-based scholarship money for overnight camps in 2009. "Increasing attendance at Jewish identity summer camps is an important priority for Federation," said Federation CEO Ira Schwartz. "We intend to do our best to make sure that such camps remain an affordable option for Jewish parents struggling to make ends meet."

Not all of Levine's children will be eligible for the grants this year, meaning that she will likely have to pay more this summer than in the past.

"This year, I'm probably writing a check out of my home equity line for at least some part of it," she said.

Working to Pay for Camp
Sometimes parents even choose to work at the camps, which helps lessen tuition costs.

Such is the case for Gail Sternberg, who has spent the last seven summers working at B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp, and originally did it to help pay for her children to attend. This summer she will serve as campus director at the Lake Como, Pa. site.

The camps themselves are also facing recessionary challenges: Feeding, housing and keeping hundreds of children occupied for several weeks can be expensive. Directors and staff are looking for ways to trim budgets -- but there's only so much that can go, some said.

"There's not a lot of flexibility in my operating budget," said Waimberg. "I need to staff appropriately, I need to buy food, buy my insurance, maintain my building." She added that it's most important that "the program not be diminished because we had a bad year financially. We just have to ride it out."

Because camps often bill themselves as helping to create the next generation of Jewish leaders, congregations have a stake in the experience, too, and many offer scholarships to their members. At Congregation Keneseth Israel, Bill Schur, the scholarship committee chair, has noted an increase in the number of applicants.

Schur said that the synagogue's target is to provide a grant equal to 50 percent of the cost of one camp session, though he noted that donations overall have decreased in recent years and that this season's recipients may receive less than he'd hoped.

Funding like this is important to parents like Sara Greenbaum, a divorced single mother who also asked that her real name not be used and that her daughter's camp not be mentioned. She noted that her oldest child's love of Judaism "grew exponentially" after her first camp experience. Greenbaum said that the scholarship organizations have made the process relatively painless.

"It's not an easy process emotionally, and they've made it with as little difficulty as possible," she said. "I don't dread the process at all; I just wish I didn't have to rely on it."

At the end of the summer, after camp, Beth Berman makes her daughter Samantha write thank you notes to the groups that helped her get to camp that summer.

"I make sure she knows that she goes to that camp because the Jewish community helps us," said Berman. "I want her to leave with that feeling when she's older that somebody helped her to get this experience. I do wish it was a little cheaper, though."  

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