Kyle Meranus had a powerful experience at Pinemere Camp last summer. "I connected with myself and learned about what Judaism means to me -- while having fun!" declared the 14-year-old, who attended the Jewish overnight camp thanks to a grant from the Overnight Camp Incentive Program. Designed to attract new campers to this important Jewish identity-building tool, it is a joint project of the Philadelphia-based Neubauer Family Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Meranus, an eighth-grade student who lives in Wyncote, plans to return to Pinemere this summer for a second year. His parents, Carol and Steve Meranus, said that the incentive grant was the impetus for the decision to send their son to an overnight camp under Jewish auspices. Kyle had attended a secular overnight camp for the first time in 2007 and would probably have continued there if not for the grant.
"I attended Jewish overnight camp, and loved the feeling of being part of a Jewish community," said Carol Meranus. "Now, Kyle has had the same positive experience, and our younger son wants to go, too!" She urged "all eligible families to consider participating in the incentive program."
Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz said that "Federation is grateful to the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Neubauer Family Foundation for their ongoing support of the Overnight Camp Incentive Program. This remarkable initiative makes this powerful Jewish identity-building experience available to more Jewish families in the Greater Philadelphia area. We salute the Neubauer Family Foundation's commitment to making this important investment in our community," and helping to ensure that Jewish life remains rich and vibrant for generations to come.
The program, now in its second year, will provide 185 grants for campers for the next two summers: $1,250 for the first summer and a $750 grant for the second one. Last year, 155 campers participated in the program.
As a result, enrollment at the primary Jewish camps that serve the Greater Philadelphia region increased by 3 percent for the summer of 2008.
Grants are allocated on a rolling basis, and are still available for this coming summer.
Campers between the ages of 8 and 16 as of June 1 are eligible for the Incentive Grant to attend a nonprofit, Jewish-identity overnight camp in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Maryland.
Children must reside in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery or Philadelphia counties. Qualified applicants may not be day-school students or have previously attended an overnight Jewish summer program of three consecutive weeks or more.
Participating camps include B'nai Brith Perlman Camp, Camp Galil, Golden Slipper Camp, URJ Camp Harlam, Camp JRF, Pinemere Camp, Camp Ramah in the Poconos; Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake and Camp Tel Yehuda.
Toby Ayash, executive director of Pinemere, terms the program a success: "The majority of the 18 campers who received the Incentive Grant for summer of 2008 are returning this summer."
The program provides "financial incentives that make it easy for parents to choose Jewish summer camp," stated Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a national organization that raises support for Jewish camps, and is a partner in the Philadelphia Federation's program. He noted that 30 other Jewish Federations throughout the country, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston and Baltimore participated in incentive programs last year, and will also make it available for the 2009 camping season.
Programs are administered by local Federations, and are tailored to fit the needs of each community. All programs share the same mission -- to offer more children the opportunity to experience living Judaism in an overnight camp, where Jewish teachings, values, and culture are intertwined with every activities.
"Jewish camp is one of the experiences that we know provides long-lasting Jewish identity," according to Rabbi Frank DeWoskin, director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Camp Harlam. "The positive, intensive social Jewish experience of overnight camp becomes transformative for campers. It becomes an impetus to live a more connected Jewish life outside of camp," he maintained.
Forty-four campers used the Incentive Grant to attend Camp Harlam last summer; as of early this month, more than half of them have signed up to return to camp for year two of the grant.
Kyle Meranus said that his Pinemere experience afforded him a powerful connection to Israel.
"It's the first time I ever talked to an Israeli for an extended period of time. It made me want to learn more about the Jewish homeland, and I definitely want to visit Israel," he said.
This summer will be a milestone year for Kyle, as it's the last year he meets the age requirements for a camper. However, he's already planning ahead to the summer of 2010.
"I will definitely consider working as a counselor in a Jewish camp," he said.
Grant applications and a full set of guidelines are available at: www.jewishphilly.org/campincentive .
Completed applications must then be co-signed by a synagogue rabbi or JCC executive director, who will submit the grant application to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Grants will be made on a priority basis established by the Overnight Camp Incentive Program, in its sole discretion, consistent with its mission. Grants are not based on financial need, or whether the grantee has received other financial aid.