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Identity: Camp Magic
by Sheryl Lechner

Shabbat walk at Camp ColemanIt’s a cool, rainy day in early August at URJ’s Joseph Eisner Camp in the verdant Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, so the evening’s Shabbat service is taking place in the Beit Am, instead of the outdoor sanctuary. The auditorium is packed with campers, counselors, staff, and, as honored guests, more than 200 people here for a camp Alumni Shabbat weekend. The youngest campers, Bonim (builders), are taking their turn on the bimah, leading services with a skit, a dance, and ample song, accompanied by the folksy guitar strumming of the camp songleaders and the voices of preteens and teens joining wholeheartedly in singing the prayers. The atmosphere is relaxed: Counselors aren’t shushing campers (except during the Shema) and the campers feel free to have a whispered conversation, get up to greet a friend, even peruse a comic book. After everyone joins in singing Birkat Shalom, Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, a visiting rabbi who is officiating this evening, comes up to the microphone. “Look around at the other campers,” he says to them, “and think, there might be someone here that you might end up marrying.” The room fills with giggles, and he adds, “I said might.”

And now comes the highlight of the evening: Jaffe, himself a former Eisner camper, calls to the bimah twenty of the alumni couples who had met at camp to reconsecrate their wedding vows. Several rabbis and prominent Jewish leaders, including then URJ Board chairman Robert M. Heller and Union Vice President Rabbi Daniel Freelander, are among the group. So are Paula and Rabbi Herman Blumberg. Paula, Rabbi Jaffe tells the crowd, was here at camp in 1958, the year Eisner opened; the couple met the following summer. Later their son Jonathan attended; this summer he’s back as a camp doctor. And Jonathan’s son, 11-year-old Joseph, is Eisner’s first alumni grandchild.

The alumni couples exchange vows, the Bonim campers sing a love song to the group, some preteen boys collapse into paroxysms of nervous laughter, but in the row in front of them, an older boy puts his arm around the girl next to him, who leans into his shoulder. Once again, camp is working its magic.

“Camp magic” is a phrase that comes up all the time when talking to former campers and camp staff about Jewish overnight (or resident) camps. And it’s a phrase that, increasingly, educators and philanthropists are banking on to ensure that the Jewish communities of North America groom future generations of engaged Jews.

When American Jews established the earliest Jewish camps in the early 1900s, their primary goal was to help recent immigrants assimilate into their new society. By the early 1950s, when the Union founded its first two camps, Olin-Sang-Ruby and Swig, visionary Jewish leaders had realized that summer camp could also be a valuable tool in solidifying kids’ Jewish identities. This realization has now become the subject of great interest among Jewish sociologists and philanthropists. Foundations, academics, researchers, and consultants have been demonstrating through new studies what until now had been largely intuitive and anecdotal: that Jewish camping is among the best ways to keep young Jews Jewishly engaged, and one of the key tools in inspiring them to live intentional Jewish lives. Specifically, young people who attend Jewish camps are more likely to become practicing Jews, more likely to affiliate with a synagogue, more likely to choose a career as a Jewish professional (rabbi, cantor, educator), and less likely to marry outside the faith.

For example, consider “Limud [Learning] by the Lake,” a 2002 study by researchers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, later expanded into the 2004 book, How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences. Brandeis sociologists Leonard Saxe and Amy L. Sales, along with a team of researchers, spent three years studying camps across the country to pinpoint “how camps educate Jewish children and how their potential to do so can be maximized.” Camps, they learned, have a powerful opportunity to shape a young person’s emerging sense of identity because they are intense, focused experiences, away from the safety net of home, revolving around youth culture, and normalizing the practice of Judaism. Most of all, camps are fun. One mom, quoted in a 2006 marketing study for the Union’s four Northeast Region camps, says at camp her kids “view Judaism as something you get to do rather than something you have to do. It’s not broccoli; it’s ice cream!” When Jewish education comes wrapped up in something as fun, normal, and kid-centric as summer camp, it goes down easy. Another parent likened her kids’ Jewish education at camp to “hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes.” (Count on parents to sum up things succinctly with food analogies.)

Campers might “live a completely kosher life for two months, and they won’t even give it a second thought,” Sales observes. Or, at a Havdalah service at the close of Shabbat, they might spend an hour singing Hebrew songs, “effortlessly.” While she cautions that “the world [should not] think [camp] is the be all and end all—it’s a piece,” when Jewish camps are done well, she says, “you have this isolated, enclosed, total community in which you induce these behaviors that you can’t get back home.”

“It’s cool to be Jewish” at camp, where “Jewish teachable moments” are integrated into the fun, says former URJ camper Rabbi Robert H. Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, Louisiana. This past summer he went mountain biking with a group of kids at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp. When they reached a steep hill it was suggested that the rabbi go first. He did, and after he reached the bottom he said to the kids, “I was the korban, the sacrificial offering.” Then he expounded upon his comment during a rest break. “They didn’t realize they were learning about the Book of Leviticus while they were mountain biking.”

In 2007, nearly 150 nonprofit Jewish resident camps in the U.S. and Canada served approximately 65,000 campers. The URJ operates a dozen of those camps in the U.S. and Canada, as well as an active Israel trip program for teens that builds on the camp experience. In 2007, just over 8,500 children attended the twelve URJ camps, and nearly 8,100 (about 95%) came from the pool of 112,000 students enrolled in religious school at 600 of the Reform Movement’s 900 synagogues. Still, only between four and seven percent of kids from URJ congregations are attending Union camps. “We’d like to see the number of campers grow to ten percent,” says URJ Director of Camping and Israel Programs Paul Reichenbach. Such growth will necessitate a multi-pronged approach—including opening new camps, adding beds at existing camps, and enlisting Reform rabbis, cantors, religious school directors, and other temple leaders to promote the value of camping.

At a number of Reform congregations, Reichenbach explains, going to the regional Union camp is part of the culture. That’s especially true for congregations in areas less densely populated with Jews.

When you visit the home page of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas, for example, a prominently featured link takes you to “Temple Beth-El at Greene Family Camp.” Roughly fifty of the congregation’s nearly 400 religious school students spend summers at Greene, says Rabbi Barry H. Block. “We view Greene Family Camp as an extension of our congregation, and as a partner to our congregation in Jewish education and Jewish continuity.” One barrier to higher rates of attendance, he believes, is the misperception that Jewish camps do not provide “the full balance of the camp experience.” Boys, especially, may be more drawn to camps that emphasize sports; they may not realize that Greene’s recreational offerings are “outstanding,” including a ropes challenge course with an alpine climbing tower and zip line.

Congregation Etz Chaim in the Chicago suburb of Lombard also actively promotes camp, specifically the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Last summer the congregation sent seventy-eight religious school students to OSRUI, the largest number ever, and provided more than $10,000 of temple funds in camp grants to member families. Education director Anne Stein explains that “we don’t feel we can really give kids their Jewish identities in typically two-and-a-half hours on Sundays, or longer for those who also attend Hebrew classes.”

Rabbi Josh Zweiback, senior educator at Congregation Beth Am in the San Francisco Bay area, which also provides camping grants to member families, says that there’s a discernible difference in the temple kids who attend camp. “Kids that have a Jewish camping experience are more likely to be involved in our youth groups,” he says. “Going to camp sparks a passion for Jewish life.”

“Precisely because our camps have succeeded in giving Jewish life compelling power, “ adds Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, “we need more ambitious goals and a far grander vision. This is one of the few Jewish ships on which our kids love to travel, so let’s be certain that we have enough ships. The time has come for the Reform Movement to say to parents in our congregations: If you want your children to live, know, and understand our Jewish heritage, camps are an absolutely essential part of their experience. And this requires that we make a place available to every child who wants one, and that scholarships are provided for every child who needs one.”

Sheryl Lechner, a freelance writer, is co-author of Voices of Protest: Documents of Courage and Dissent.



  • Increasingly, Jewish philanthropic institutions and individual donors have come to see that Jewish camping has a profound impact on Jewish identity and continuity and are taking action to give more young people this core experience.

  • In 2006 the URJ launched a $15 million endowment campaign to create a scholarship fund for Reform young people to attend Union camps and travel to Israel. Union Board Chairman Peter Weidhorn, along with his wife Joan, made a $1 million gift as seed money.

  • In 2007, because of Mark and Peachy Levy and other generous West Coast donors, the URJ added Camp Kalsman in Washington State, its first-ever camp in the Pacific Northwest.

  • Last spring an anonymous Chicago donor gave $15 million in camper incentive grants to be matched by Jewish federations in local communities, creating a $30 million scholarship pool.

  • The western Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation is providing $265,000 to offset camp expenses for 230 first-time and returning campers from the region, and spurring the raising of more than $20 million.

  • Last July the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation made an $11.2 million four-year grant to the Foundation for Jewish Camping (which was created with the goal of doubling the number of children attending Jewish camps in North America) to establish a post-bar mitzvah Camper Incentive Program for families from Western states.

  • The New York-based AVI CHAI foundation is offering grants to encourage experienced Jewish camp counselors to return; grants to support Israelis that work in summer camps; subsidies for camp administrators to take Jewish courses; and no-interest loans to camps for new construction or infrastructure improvement.

  • In 2006 the Foundation for Jewish Camping launched the Executive Leadership Institute, a multiyear program of executive skill-building for Jewish camp directors.

Sheryl Lechner


Camp: URJ Joseph Eisner Camp, Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Events: A weekend-long celebration (involving upwards of 1,000 people) featuring music, dance, Shabbat, and tikkun olam. Plus regional anniversary celebrations in alumni homes leading up to the weekend.
Date: July 25–27, 2008
Contact: Camp director Louis Bordman or development director Corey Cutler, 201-804-9700 (winter office) or 413-528-1652 (summer office),, or visit their website

Camp: URJ Myron S. Goldman Union Camp-Institute (GUCI), Zionsville, Indiana
Events: An alumni Shabbat gathering (of up to 500 people) featuring a concert/song session led by former camp songleaders (to be recorded and possibly turned into a CD); a book highlighting camp memories; and a possible groundbreaking ceremony for the camp’s new state-of-the-art performing arts center.
Date: Labor Day weekend, August 29–31, 2008
Contact: Camp director Rabbi Ron Klotz, 317-873-3361,, or visit their website

Camp: URJ Camp Harlam, Kunkletown, Pennsylvania
Events: A fundraising gala at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park to help complete renovation on Harlam’s twenty-five camper cabins. A celebratory Alumni Day at camp with Saturday morning services, lunch, and a song session. Plus mini-reunions in synagogues and homes of alums.
Dates: May 3, 2008 for the fund­raising gala; August 2, 2008 for Alumni Day
Contact: Camp director Rabbi Frank DeWoskin, 215-563-8184 (winter office) or 570-629-1390 (summer office),, or visit their website.

For information on all the URJ camps visit the URJ camps website

Sheryl Lechner


Union for Reform Judaism.