The Many Benefits of Jewish Summer Camps
Today, summer camps for Jewish youth are a mainstay of American Jewish culture, with dozens of different camps throughout the country catering to all types of interests, needs, and level of religious observance. While camps are undeniably popular, many parents are unaware of the incredible benefits of sending their children to Jewish summer camps. From fostering a sense of community and belonging, to promoting life skills and independence, attending camp can be an invaluable experience for children of all ages.
History of Jewish Summer Camps
Similar to the advent of Hebrew schools in the US, the first Jewish camps emerged between the first and second World Wars as more Jewish people emigrated out of Europe. As nationalistic and oftentimes antisemitic sentiments rose among the general population, the need for a safe space specifically for Jewish youth grew significantly. Over the last century, Jewish camps of all natures were established around the country. According to Nancy Mykoff for the Jewish Women’s Archive, there were more than 82,000 children enrolled at nearly 200 camps by the year 2000, solidifying camps’ space in the world of American Jewish education and culture.
Psst…14 Women’s History Month Books for All Ages
What are the benefits of summer camp?
The American Camp Association (ACA), the official accreditation agency of summer camps in the US, has conducted research over the last decade on the effect of camps in promoting social, emotional, and personal growth among campers. Preliminary findings from a five-year study on the impact of camps find that people who attended summer camps as children report higher levels of emotional intelligence and regulation, tolerance and appreciation for others’ differences, sense of responsibility, and sense of identity when compared to their non-camper peers. A separate, ongoing study from the ACA is finding that these impacts can be seen in staff members and older teenagers, too. Teens who participated in some CIT (counselor in training) programs at camps report that the trainings are crucial in developing certain life skills, most notably their interpersonal skills and capacity for being compassionate and caring.
Building upon these known benefits of camps in general, Jewish summer camps foster children’s relationships to not only themselves, but to their community, too. By providing an immersive environment centered on Jewish values, camps can help bridge the gap in a child’s Jewish education. In many cases, attending camp is the only time some children get to be around other Jewish kids. Additionally, as noted by Nancy Mykoff, Jewish camps are often at the forefront of progressive movements in Judaism such as the promotion of egalitarian leadership in the community.
Which camp is right for my family?
There is a seemingly endless selection of Jewish camps to attend throughout the country, each catering to different needs and interests of children and families.
First, you should decide whether a day camp, where campers travel home at the end of the day, or a sleepaway camp, where campers live on campus for a period ranging from 1 to 8 weeks, is right for your child. A child who has never spent time away from home may find an overnight camp overwhelming, and day programs can be a great way to introduce the idea of camp without the full commitment of a sleepaway program. Also consider that by nature of the live-in experience of sleepaway camps, they are usually more expensive than day camps, although many sleepaway camps do offer scholarships.
Aside from day camp versus overnight, religious denomination and level of religious observance is an important variable that will impact your decision. Nearly every type of Jewish community has its own camp programs that vary in terms of demographics and type of observance. There are also independent, nonaffiliated Jewish camps that focus more on bringing Jewish youth together than being educational or religious institutions. No matter how you practice your Judaism, there is a camp for everyone.
Finally, consider the idea of specialized camps, such as ones focused on sports, the arts, wilderness adventures, and more. There are also camps and programs that are specifically designed for children with a range of disabilities and special needs, ensuring that every Jewish child can have a fun and fulfilling summer experience.
If you’re interested in sending your child to Jewish summer camp but don’t quite know where to start, check your local synagogues or JCC as many of them have in-house programs or relationships to other local camps. Word of mouth from other parents in your community is a great place to start, too.
Summer camps of all kinds can have lasting impacts on children’s development and social wellbeing, and Jewish camps come with the added benefit of fostering and nurturing campers’ Jewish and communal identities. No matter denomination, interests, income, or ability, a summer at Jewish camp can be a life changing experience.