Many American Jewish families are facing a difficult question, as deadlines for summer camp enrollment approach: Can they pay their bills and send their kids to Jewish sleepaway camp?
Its a difficult decision, said Shelly Zemelman, a school psychologist with four children. Her 16-year-old daughter, Batya, has spent four summers at Camp Stone, a modern Orthodox camp in Pennsylvania, that charges $3,500 for a four-week session. Other Jewish camps charge as much as $1,500 per week.
Its not a necessity like school its a luxury, Zemelman said. If we had to send all four kids, at the same time, I dont think we could do it.
She knows several families who are considering dropping camp. One family made it work by alternating the years their children attend camp.
Jewish summer camp is not for the faint of wallet. But with new studies suggesting that the camp experience is a key component in boosting the Jewish identity of American Jews, it shouldnt be expendable, say champions of camping.
A 2011 study found that Jewish campers were much more likely to feel an attachment to Israel, attend synagogue at least monthly, light Sabbath candles and donate to a Jewish federation than those who had not gone to Jewish summer camp. The study also found that camp attendance was correlated with moderate increases in the size of ones circle of Jewish friends and the importance one ascribes to their Jewish identity.
For many parents, the answer to the dilemma is in financial aid. Camp industry insiders say applications for financial aid have risen sharply since the economic crisis hit in 2008.
There has been an increase in requests for financial aid, Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), told JTA. The 150 nonprofit camps in the FJCs network have reported increasing scholarship allocations by 25 to 100%often in addition to support offered by local foundations, federations and synagogues.
Yehuda Rothner, director of Camp Stone, said that requests for financial aid at his camp have gone up by 10%, but that the amount requested has gone up significantly more. People are asking for more money.
Over the last five years, the camp has more than doubled their yearly allocation for scholarships, from $100,000 to $220,000.
Not all aid is doled out according to financial need. Over the last four years, the FJC says its Happy Camper program has provided 30,000 financially blind grants of up to $1,000 to entice first-time campers.
There are some families for whom the money is critical when deciding to send their children to Jewish camp, Cooper said. Our commitment is: that every child who wants to go to Jewish camp can.
Despite the weak economy, camp enrollment has continued to climb. Seventy thousand kids attended Jewish sleepaway camps in 2010.
The 150 nonprofit camps in FJCs network have grown by 4 or 5% over the last four years. Fingerman attributed the increase in part to a drop-off in enrollment at for-profit Jewish camps, which tend to cost more. Many credit the mix of scholarships and grants for boosting enrollment.
Some camp administrators say the recession hasnt had much of an impact on enrollment because their constituency is mostly high-income families.
Howard Salzberg, who has co-owned the for-profit Camp Modin in Maine for the last 32 years, said that enrollment at the camp, which costs $6,300 per four-week session, hasnt suffered at all.
People forgo other things before they decided not to send their kids to camp, he said.
For the campers, themselves, how their parents pay for camp is easily forgotten once theyre there.
Ive never made friends like the ones I made at camptheyre the people who have made the most impact on my life, Batya Zemelman said.
Asked if shed known anyone who had trouble affording camp, she paused as if she hadnt considered the question before.
There were a few, she said, but there were scholarships available.