Sitting in a SHADED arts-and-crafts pavillion on a recent weekday morning, a table of 9-year-old girls furiously pound bags of raw chocolate, hoping to produce a batch of Israeli-style truffles. Nearby, a group of boys works to make bottle-cap necklaces displaying the Coca-Cola Bazooka Joe logos in Hebrew letters.
In a wide open field in the bright summer sunlight, a slightly older band of boys whacks a yellow ball across the ground, playing an Israeli version of dodgeball known as ga-ga.
Welcome to Israel week at the JCC Camps at Medford, where, according to the director, the idea is to make Jewish experiences part of the fun — and make them count.
“We are feeders for overnight camps,” said Aaron Greenberg, who started as a 6-year-old camper and now runs the 71-year-old operation. “But the majority of kids in any day camp are not necessarily going to overnight camp. So we had better make an impact on our kids for whatever amount of time we have them.”
For years, Jewish overnight camps have been viewed as one of the best tools to get youth excited about their Jewish identity. Many policymakers and funders looked at day camps as something of an afterthought — a nice way to entice families to send their kids to overnight camp, where the really important formative experiences take place.
But lately, there’s been a growing realization that many families will never opt for overnight camp and that day camps, at their best, can provide kids with that Jewish spark that comes with summers of fun, deep connections and friendships.
With 1,500 campers and more than 600 staff members, the JCC Camps at Medford in Medford, N.J., is believed to be the largest Jewish day camp in North America. Jewish day camps on the Philadelphia side of the river, including Ramah and Camp Kef at the Kaiserman JCC, have roughly 1,300 campers combined.
Nestled on 120 acres of wooded areas, situated about 25 miles southwest of Center City Philadelphia, the camp is run by the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, N.J. It looks more like an overnight camp than a typical day camp. It boasts a lakefront with an inflatable aqua playground, six pools, giant water slide, digital photography lab, indoor hockey rink, ropes course and a petting zoo. The grounds are dotted with signs in Hebrew and other posters detailing facts about Judaism and Israel.
The pool and lakefront are kept open on the weekends for camp families and Katz JCC members. Friday afternoon Shabbat programs usually include an educational element and short service.
Greenberg said the facilities at a Jewish camp have to be as good or better than secular camps for parents to consider it.
“When I was a kid, anyone who was a Jewish family pretty much sent their kids here,” said the 47-year-old director, who lives in Cherry Hill. “Now, parents are a lot more consumer-oriented. They are happy to send their kids to the Jewish camp, if everything else is equal.”
The South Jersey institution, which draws kids from as far away as Margate City, N.J., was founded in Camden in 1942 and moved to its current location in the 1960s. An estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of campers identify as Jewish, according to camp and JCC officials.
Tuition depends on type and length of program. Generally, the full eight weeks costs $3,230 for JCC members and $3,890 for non-members. Although it’s not well-known in Philadelphia, the camp is trying to change that with a marketing push. Last year, it had 15 campers on the bus from Center City. This year, the number’s 35.
When Camp Harlam, a Reform movement overnight camp in the Poconos, decided it wanted to open the country’s first Reform day camp in the Philadelphia region, its professional leadership paid several visits to Medford to seek advice and to learn about best practices. When searching for a location, Harlam immediately ruled out South Jersey. Officials at Harlam Day Camp, which is planning to open its new camp next summer, say they still haven’t officially settled on a location.
“One of our goals in opening Harlam Day Camp was to provide another asset to the Jewish community for a high-level summer program as a complement to what is already offered,” said Aaron Selkow, Harlam’s director. “With such a successful and massive Jewish day camp already in South Jersey, we can’t imagine focusing on that specific location.”
Three years ago, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, a Massachusetts-based organization that has long funded overnight camps through its JCamp 180 program, made the strategic decision to start working with day camps. The Medford camp was among the initial eight day camps it connected with. It has received $35,000 in matching grants from Grinspoon. Because of Medford’s success in fundraising and strategic planning, the foundation decided to reach out to more day camps, according to Mark Gold, director of JCamp 180.
Bella Vista resident Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the mother of an 8-year-daughter and 6-year-old son, had never heard of the camp, but decided to try it this year after parents at her kids’ elementary school raved about it.
“I was really shocked when we went out there to tour the facilities. How could I not know about this place? It’s humongous,” she said. “It’s part summer camp, part amusement park. The things they offer are so much more than I expected.”
Erdely, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, was hesitant to have her kids take the long bus ride each way, but in the end decided it was worth it.
“We had two goals,” said the member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. “One was to give them a true camp experience and give them a break from the urban environment. And one was to be in an environment that reinforced their Jewish identity.”
The verdict? “We are already mentally signed up for next year.”
And who knows where it will lead her children. While there are countless stories of couples meeting at overnight camp and getting married years later, the same apparently can happen at Jewish day camps.
Taylor Mach, a 28-year-old account executive with the Jewish Exponent, first started at the JCC camp as a 10-year-old, when her family moved from northern New Jersey to Cherry Hill.
When she became a junior counselor four years later, at the age of 14, she met Jeremy Orlin, of Voorhees, N.J., on orientation day. They started dating immediately. Since he was a lifeguard, one year her senior, they often only saw one another in the cafeteria. Years later, they would still joke about what was on the menu for the day.
Though they “broke up about 100 times,” Mach said, they got engaged in 2011. After hearing the story of how they met, their photographer urged them to have their engagement photos taken at the camp — which they did, on a chilly March day of that year. When they were married in October 2012, a number of camp friends attended.
So, would they think of sending any future children there?
“Oh, absolutely,” said Mach, who now lives in Center City. “100 percent.”
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