I have a confession, and now is the perfect time to share it. I am a sleepaway camper drop-out. Growing up, I was afraid to do sleepovers at other people’s homes because I got homesick. So my only sleepaway experience was a one-week session at Camp Swig when I was an entering 4th grader. It wasn’t until I was in 8th or 9th grade that I started doing retreats and realized how much I missed out on. In fact, to this day, I consider this one of the biggest regrets I have in my life.
Even though I am a Jewish professional and knew early on that I wanted to be one; I missed out on many incredible experiences that could have strengthened my Jewish identity even more. I believe this is one of the main reasons I am such a big supporter and believer in the power of Jewish summer camps. Plus, I have seen its impact firsthand over the ten years I was a camp director.
Although I have written about this “power” in previous columns, I feel it is crucial to write about it once again because the research continues to show how experiences like this can have a transformative effect on not only strengthening Jewish identity but helping to mold and shape a child’s development.
In 2011, the Foundation for Jewish Camp published “Camp Works: The Long-term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp.” Even though this study is over ten years old, it is still considered the most comprehensive analysis of the impact of Jewish camp experiences. It offers the strongest evidence that a summer of bug juice, fresh air, and color war leads to significantly stronger adult Jewish engagement.
The influence of summer camp on how adult Jews choose to engage with the community and the degree to which they associate with other Jews can be felt long after the last sunset of the summer. The impact is striking, especially when compared to their peers who did not spend their summer months at a Jewish camp. Camp attendance increases the likelihood of adult participation and identification in every one of these areas. As adults, campers are:
· 30% more likely to donate to a Jewish charity;
· 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles;
· 45% more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more; and
· 55% more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel.
While this study and similar ones focused entirely on Jewish sleepaway camps, sending kids to Jewish day camps is also formative. It provides opportunities to experience Judaism in new and different ways. If you think about it, for many of our communities youth, because of where we live, there are few opportunities to interact with a critical mass of other Jews. It is in these environments that many get to feel the power of community and have a chance to develop deep and meaningful friendships with other Jews.
I am excited that so many of our community’s youth are experiencing Jewish camp this summer, many for the first time. Even though summer is already halfway over, it is never too early to start thinking about what your kids (or grandkids, nieces/nephews, or family friends) will do next summer. Commit to them doing something Jewish next summer. The data shows that experiences like these today will positively impact the rest of their lives!