Special for Jewish Youth Professionals: Six Strategies to Help Families Find the Right Camp for Their Children

  • If you work with children and families in Jewish settings – whether a synagogue, a Hebrew school or a youth group – you know that families depend on you for expertise. At this time of year, family talk turns to summer camps: Where should we go? Why should we consider a Jewish camp? How should we choose? Here at the Cohen Camps, we have encountered just about every question imaginable, so I thought I would share some of that experience.Camp Tel Noar - Shabbat

    As you may be aware, research done by Brandeis University (recently  revisited too)  has measured the positive impact of Jewish camps on the children who attended camp (something many of us knew intuitively from our own experiences). Bottom line: Jewish camp strengthens children’s lifelong connection to Judaism and Jewish institutions, which strengthens the community as a whole.

    Knowing this, your institution may already invest in the resources, with staff or volunteers, to help direct families to Jewish overnight camps. A terrific model, if you are considering such an approach, is Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA; their Youth Programs staff visit camps and blog about their visits to educate their families. We welcomed Beth Elohim staff at our own Camp Pembroke (read their blog write-up here) and Camp Tevya (read their blog write-up here) last summer, and hope to see them at Camp Tel Noar next summer. Try it, if you can: it’s like going back to your own camp memories – or creating some!

    However, even without onsite visits, you can help families think through this decision, find the right fit, and give each child great, fun summers with lasting Jewish impact. Here are six EASY tools you can use right now to support your families – and strengthen your own work.

    1. Keep a running list of where each of your young people attends camp, and ask the kids for their points of view on what makes their camp great. Refer to this list to help families learn from each other.
    2. Do your own research by looking at websites and talking by phone with camp directors, and then offer yourself as a resource to parents so that everyone has a better sense of Jewish camping options. Use your usual newsletters, posters, flyers, letters home, or blog posts.
    3. Tell/remind your students’ parents that it is never too early to think about camp – or too late. Enrollment typically starts in the fall, but many camps still have some spaces into the spring and early summer, especially for second session. Many, like the Cohen Camps, offer tours and information sessions all year, so families can jump into the process at any time.
    4. Encourage parents of young children (6-8 years old) to think about summer camp even before their children are old enough to attend. Suggest that families add camp tours to their summer travel plans. There is no better way to get a feel for a camp than seeing it in action.
    5. Invite camps to visit YOU. The Cohen Camps would be happy to sit down with you and a few of your families to share more about our three camps. Our colleagues at other camps would as well.
    6. Recognize that each camp is special, and no camp is one-size-fits-all. Be sure to learn about a variety of camp choices that families can make so their children can be in an environment that is best for them.

    When talking about specific camp choices, it may be helpful to suggest that parents begin their search thinking through some of the larger camp decisions, and then narrow it down from there. The common big decisions that parents face:

    • Co-ed or single-sex? Co-ed camps offer wonderful communities; single-sex camps give children the freedom to be and express themselves in dedicated environments. Camp Pembroke is the only all-girls trans-denominational camp in the eastern US. Boys-only camps exist, too.
    • Affiliated or trans-denominational? You’ll find there are many wonderful Jewish camps, deeply committed and caring, that excel by engaging kids in a wide range of practice and Israel discovery. Ask your families: what atmosphere will refresh and enliven their children’s level of engagement? Evaluate the camp, not the affiliation!
    • Sporty or arty or well-rounded? Camp provides a “reset” button for many children, an opportunity to try their favorite activities but also discover new ones. Consider the mix of activities available and the amount of choice a child will have.
    • Small or big? This depends on the child. While Camp Tevya and Camp Tel Noar share a common philosophy and vision, their physical spaces create two very different camp experiences, wide-open to close-knit. Families can make the right match through tours and talking with the directors.

    Please share these strategies with your colleagues – and let me know if you would like further ideas. By collaborating we can engage your young people in their Judaism year-round – and life-long!

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