The Campfire

Gather round for news, perspectives, and tales of Jewish summer camp.

Posts Tagged ‘Research’

Camp & The Pew Study

by Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp

Last week, I had the distinct privilege of attending the presentation of the top-line results of the new Pew Research Center study of Jewish Americans.  Among the small group were several of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s key funders, philanthropists and trustees.  Overall, the people in the room had two immediate reactions to the news that so many Jews living in the US today are non-practicing or don’t identify with Judaism:  why is this happening and what can we do about it?

As a Jewish communal professional involved in identity building and continuity, the findings were not surprising to me.  These are the challenges the field of Jewish camp faces every day, the challenges that push Foundation for Jewish Camp and our colleagues in the field to work harder, to get more kids to camp and to make every minute that they are at camp count.  According to the Pew findings, 44% of practicing Jews reported attending Jewish overnight camp as opposed to only 18% of those who are non-practicing.  We read those results to mean that those who experienced Judaism through the lens of Jewish camp were influenced to make it part of their lives long after they attended their last campfire.  We believe that many of those children may have had no other Jewish experiences growing up besides camp.

To read the rest of Jeremy’s post, please visit The Canteen.

On the Influence of Camp

The following was originally featured on eJewish Philanthropy

“That felt a lot like camp!” said the woman next to me at the conclusion of the Friday evening service during the recent Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Judging from her tone, she approved.

Indeed, it had felt “a lot like camp,” I thought, though on first reflection, it was not quite clear why. Tefillah (worship) at camp is generally a relatively casual affair: with worshippers dressed in shorts or jeans, prayers offered by leaders – probably campers and counselors – who are lacking in formal skills, leading a congregation of up to a few hundred participants, mostly children. The music of the service is guided by songleaders who make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in training and polish. Often, the tefillah takes place in an outdoor setting of singular natural beauty, like a hillside overlooking a lake, with participants sitting in a circle or other informal arrangement.

At the URJ Biennial, by contrast, the congregation consisted of nearly 6,000 adults in relatively dressy attire sitting in formal rows in a cavernous hotel ballroom, lacking any hint of natural beauty. The tefillah was led by Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel in Memphis TN and Cantor Jennifer Frost of B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim Congregation in Deerfield IL, two supremely gifted shlichei tzibur (prayer leaders). Musical accompaniment was provided by a six-piece “tefillah band” (electric guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion and strings), led by Josh Nelson, among the finest musicians of the generation. At first glance, there was hardly any similarity to camp. Yet, indeed, it had “felt a lot like camp.”

More than 30 years ago, Jeffrey K. Salkin wrote: “A new style of music is changing the way Reform Jews pray. The melodies of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and the UAHC [now called URJ] camp movement have been incorporated into the worship services of a number of synagogues, with songleaders directing the liturgical responses and the guitar supplementing the organ.” (“The New Trend in Synagogue Music,” Reform Judaism, November 1980.) Salkin continued: “In recent years, NFTY music has found its way into the synagogue. Adults visiting [URJ] camps often find the enthusiasm in services contagious and want to duplicate that spirit in their synagogues.”

30 years ago and more, tefillah in Reform congregations was indeed a staid affair. Formality was the rule, and “decorum” was enforced. The ideal was to create an atmosphere of transcendence, of elevation. Everything from the rabbi’s tone of voice to the cantor’s choice of lofty melodies to the use of organ as the accompaniment of choice, to the architecture of the physical space reinforced the majesty of the ceremony. Worshippers felt distant from the proceedings, and other than joining an occasional responsive reading, were passive participants.

At camp, worship was very different. The goal was intimacy, a sense of community, rather than majesty (or, in theological terms, a sense of immanence, rather than transcendence). Tefillah at camp was not majestic, but rather spirited and spiritual. Where the synagogue was formal, camp was casual. Where synagogue music was lofty, accessible only to those (such as the cantor) with deep, intensive training, camp music was inviting, simple to learn and to join, accessible to all. Musical selections were accompanied by guitar. Participation by worshippers was welcome, and ultimately, it was expected.

As Salkin noted more than three decades ago, the forms and norms of camp started to find their way into synagogue life. Little by little, congregants were exposed to worship that was engaging, participatory, intimate (as opposed to majestic), and they liked what they saw. Today, when more than 70% of younger Jewish leaders are products of Jewish camp (Wertheimer, Generation of Change), the norms of Jewish summer camps have penetrated deeply into the mainstream of synagogue life.

And so, for my neighbor at the URJ Biennial’s Shabbat evening tefillah, it did, indeed, feel “a lot like camp.” The goal  – as in camp – was a sense of participatory intimacy. It was a stirring tefillah, an uplifting tefillah, a tefillah that left most of us participants with a sense of awe and connectedness. It was a tefillah that felt like camp, or perhaps, like camp on steroids. It felt great to participate.

There is little doubt that the kind of influence that camp has had on synagogue worship in the Reform movement is paralleled by similar influence elsewhere in the Jewish community. While it’s outside the scope of this article to examine closely, I’ve often heard it said that much of the so-called Independent Minyanim movement, which is quickly transforming tefillah in the Conservative and Modern Orthodox worlds, is inspired by the norms of the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps, and powered largely by their alumni.

Jewish camp has been shown to have many important, powerful impacts on Jewish life. Its alumni are in general more Jewishly involved, more Jewishly committed, more Jewishly active, more Jewishly generous, more Jewishly affiliated than Jews who did not attend (see To these many benefits of Jewish camp, we can now add this: Jewish camp has had a transformative impact on the nature of tefillah throughout much of the Jewish community.

- Ramie Arian is a consultant who specializes in summer camps and other forms of experiential education in the Jewish community. He was the founding Executive Director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. 

Swimming, Ceramics, Philanthropy?

By Naomi Skop

When summer 2011 ends, over 250 campers from ten summer camps will return home asking their parents some hard questions:

“Where do you give your tzedakah? How did you pick that organization?  At camp we learned…”

At the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN), we believe that collaborative teen philanthropy programs and overnight Jewish camp are a perfect pairing. Philanthropy is not only experiential Jewish learning by its very nature—it also contributes to the real magic of camp: instilling values that campers take with them and live by throughout the year.

Research shows that those who attend Jewish summer camp are among those most engaged in Jewish life. As educators, staff, and parents, we need to think about the values that we teach each summer, and how they prepare our campers for adulthood.

From 2008 – 2010, the National Ramah Commission piloted collaborative teen philanthropy programs in six Ramah camps with the support of JTFN, all of which are in full force this summer. This year, building on the success of the Ramah Philanthropic Initiative, four more residential camps from across the field of Jewish camping are piloting their own teen philanthropy programs with JTFN’s help.

These programs work because the core lessons of teen philanthropy can be molded to complement any environment. Each of the participating camps has found the program flexible and ready to integrate with their core educational goals:

- For Habonim Dror Camp Galil, making decisions about social responsibility is integral to their summer program, and the philanthropy program introduces a new opportunity to explore the skills and values associated with these choices.

- JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood uses the teen philanthropy program to focus on leadership skills, a core element of their educational mission.

- At URJ Camp George, where the CIT program focuses on Jewish identity development, they will highlight Jewish values of local and global responsibility that shape Jewish identity.

- Educators at URJ Greene Family Camp integrated a philanthropy component into their volunteer program so that campers could begin to see themselves as individuals with multiple ways of impacting the world.

Mitch Morgan, director of JCC Maccabi Kingswood, says the planning process “has really helped us think about not only creating Jewish leaders, but Jewish leaders who are active and give back to the community.”

Just like last summer, campers and staff will think that their weeks of independence at overnight camp brought them home knowing a little more than their parents.  This time—at least when it comes to philanthropic giving—they just might be right.

Naomi Skop is the program associate at the Jewish Teen Funders Network. The mission of the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) is to provide Jewish teens with hands-on opportunities to engage in collective philanthropic giving with their peers, guided by Jewish values. Learn more at

How Far We’ve Come

A lot can happen in 10 years.

In 2000, Leonard Saxe, PhD and Amy Sales, PhD visited Jewish overnight camps in 2000 for the first-ever study on the field, commissioned by the AVI CHAI Foundation.  The result was a report called Limud by the Lake: Fulfilling the Potential of Jewish Summer Camps.  Shortly after, they also wrote the book “How Goodly are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences.  Based on their observations, Saxe and Sales made several recommendations, which have served as FJC’s guidelines to improving the field:

- Expand the reach of Jewish camping;
- Make camp a model of Jewish education;
- Provide the training and support counselors need to advance on their personal Jewish journeys and flourish in their work as Jewish role models; and
- Conduct research to inform the field of Jewish camping and ground its future development in reliable information.

Since this study, the field of Jewish camping has gained wide recognition for its successful track record in building Jewish identity.  It has grown exponentially and made incredible strides.  Communities, foundations, and other organizations have made camping a priority, fundraising to support it with never-before-seen gusto and momentum.

Now, almost a decade later, AVI CHAI commissioned Amy Sales to revisit the same camps for “an updated snapshot of the field.” She revealed the findings at a dinner hosted by AVI CHAI and FJC at the Jewish Funders Network International Conference last week in Philadelphia.  Limud by the Lake Revisited: Growth and Change at Jewish Summer Camp confirmed how far the field has come as a result of the camps’ and FJC’s efforts and the support of a number of funders including the Marcus Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and AVI CHAI, who have recognized and understood the value of camp and invested in its development.  In conjunction with CAMP WORKS, this research further qualifies the power of Jewish camp and proves why camping is on top of everyone’s agenda.

We are grateful to these dedicated philanthropists, and all who support Jewish camp.  Every day, our work evolves, and reminds us just how far the field has come.

Reform Jewish Camping: The Essential Question

The following post is from the Union for Reform Judaism blog, written by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the President of the URJ.

We echo Rabbi Yoffie’s sentiments about Jewish camp and have heard many similar stories over the years.

If a URJ camp is not for you, please visit our Find a Camp search engine browse the 143 others and find the right one for your family.

Reform Jewish Camping: The Essential Question

I have a 27-year-old son who will be graduating from law school this June. He and I have our disagreements about matters of theology and religious practice, but he is, by any definition, a committed Reform Jew. He cares about tikkun olam, he is an activist for Israel, and he wants to have a Jewish home and a Jewish future. My wife and I would like to believe that his Jewish commitments flow from the example that we set, and in some measure this is true. But we also know that the single most powerful Jewish experience of his life was the years that he spent at Camp Harlam, as both a camper and a counselor. He remembers and treasures his experiences at Harlam, he remains in regular contact with his Harlam friends, and although he has made no commitment, I suspect that if he has children, he will send them to Harlam or to another Reform camp. Nothing that we ever did in our home could compare to his summers at camp and the influence they have had on his life. I am confident that Judaism is an essential part of his being, and I know in my heart that his camp years are a very big reason for that.

Why, I wonder, don’t all Reform Jewish parents who care about the Reform Jewish identity of their children send them to a URJ Camp?

Editor’s note: We were thrilled to see the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Camp Works study, which gives quantitative proof to what we know to be true: Jewish summer camps have a profound effect on Jewish identity. We see this every summer with the 10,000 children who attend URJ camps. We have seen thousands of URJ campers grow up to become involved in Jewish life in a variety of ways and we have seen countless URJ camp romances turn into marriages and future generations of URJ campers.

Camp Works – We Have Proof!

FJC is excited to unveil the findings of CAMP WORKS, a landmark study revealing the long term effect of Jewish camp on its alumni. Jewish summer camp has long been associated with the North American Jewish community, but the lasting effect of these priceless and memorable summers have been purely anecdotal…until now. CAMP WORKS reveals that the influence of nonprofit Jewish camp can be seen in the ways adults choose to engage with the community and to the degree to which they associate with other Jews, long after the last sunset of the summer.

Throughout the past decade, FJC has worked tirelessly to promote the value and importance of the nonprofit Jewish overnight camp experience to North American Jews. As a result, Jewish camp has steadily become accepted as an essential part of building strong Jewish identity in children and creating a robust and enduring Jewish community. CAMP WORKS takes the next step and proves the long-term impact of overnight Jewish camp on Jewish attitudes and engagement.

Professor Steven M. Cohen led an esteemed research team responsible for these new findings utilizing data collected by some of the premier Jewish social scientists of our time. The study compares the Jewish behaviors of adults who had attended Jewish camp as children with those of adults who did not, and controls for factors involving Jewish education and upbringing. Ultimately, the report reveals that the childhood camp experience significantly impacts adult Jewish practices and commitments, and instills a sense of belonging to a larger Jewish community.

As adults, Jewish camp alumni are:

- 45% more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more, raising their voice in song and prayer as a community;
- 30% more likely to contribute to their local Jewish federation, demonstrating their care and solidarity for their fellow Jew as well as their feeling of being a part of a larger Jewish community;
- 55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, continuing a centuries-old relationship to the Jewish Homeland and a contemporary kinship with Jews world-wide;
- 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles, bringing Jewish tradition and ritual in their home and sharing it with friends and family.
(as compared to adults who did not attend camp)

Click here to read the report.