Think Expedia or Hotels.com or countless other vacation discount finders online, but this one connects kids to Jewish camps in the Poconos and elsewhere.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp announced last week that it is piloting a new program this summer offering first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families camp sessions at prices that are 40 to 80 percent below the camps’ standard rates.
Called BunkConnect, the program, in partnership with the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, will make available 1,100 discounted slots at 35 camps in the Northeast, New England and mid-Atlantic regions. While only families from those regions are eligible to participate this summer, the foundation hopes to expand the program to Jewish families and camps throughout North America in future years.
The camps in the program that serve the Philadelphia region include B’nai B’rith Perlman, Galil, Golden Slipper, Harlam and JRF.
“This is an affordability initiative to help families who think camp might be out of reach,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “It gives them a chance to find a camp that’s right for them.”
In recent years, Jewish overnight camps have gained considerable standing among Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists, who view them as one of the most powerful tools for Jewish education and identity-building. However, with tuition often exceeding $1,000 per week, they serve a disproportionately affluent clientele.
In many ways, BunkConnect is more incentive program than scholarship, a marketing tool to recruit families who may not otherwise consider Jewish overnight camp or who might be unaware of, or reluctant to apply for, financial aid. Only children who have not previously attended a Jewish overnight camp are eligible. If they return in future years, they will have to pay the full price or apply for financial aid. Foundation officials said the participating camps are all committed to offering BunkConnect families financial aid in future years.
Meanwhile, participating camps are offering discounted slots for sessions or cohorts that might not fill otherwise.
“Some camps are over capacity in the first sessions and might have available slots in the second session they’re offering through BunkConnect,” Fingerman explained. “This is modeled after the hospitality industry, but the difference is you’re not just buying a hotel room, you’re buying a whole experience.”
Parents fill out an online questionnaire at Bunkconnect.org to determine their eligibility based on annual gross income, number of dependents, place of residence and if they have children enrolled in Jewish day school. The income ceiling is higher for day school families and those in pricier regions such as New York in order to account for higher household expenses.
Once deemed eligible — a determination made instantly — parents key in the child’s age, gender and preferences. The website then displays options and urges parents to contact the camp directly for more information.
Before registration is finalized, families must submit tax forms to prove their eligibility.
BunkConnect is distinct from the One Happy Camper program, which is supported locally by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and the Neubauer Family Foundation. That program provides $1,000 off of tuition for first-time campers at a nonprofit Jewish camp and is not based on income. Families who receive help from One Happy Camper are not eligible for BunkConnect and vice versa.
Also, students who attend a Jewish day school are not eligible for the One Happy Camper program but that does not preclude them from BunkConnect.
“We have parents who say, ‘We’re doing all the right things and yet we can’t apply’ ” for the One Happy Camper program, said Warren Hoffman, associate director of the Philadelphia Federation’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning. “This is another source through Foundation for Jewish Camp where they can apply. I think at the end of the day, it’s going to hopefully increase the number of kids who can go to Jewish overnight camp.”
Although the individual camps are absorbing any losses incurred by making slots available at a discount, many may come out ahead by filling beds that otherwise would have gone empty. In addition, after attending at the “introductory rate,” campers may return the following summer at the full rate.
Several funders, including the Avi Chai Foundation and the Leader Family Foundation, are covering the costs of the BunkConnect technology and marketing.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp also has explored the possibility of helping launch lower-cost camp programs, Fingerman said, but “we’re not sure the economic model of that is sustainable and attractive.”
JTA’s Julie Wiener and Jewish Exponent staff writer Eric Berger contributed to this report.