Like many Jewish children, my kids live for camp! They count down every day of the year until it’s time for camp to begin. It’s the highlight of their year. They come by this camp obsession naturally, because I was the same exact way. Camp was and is still a profound experience in my Jewish life. For many of us, the moment we arrived at camp we were forever changed.
My husband and I share four kids, and with a price tag of about $4,000 per child, that means it will cost us roughly $16,000 to send our kids to summer camp. Yes, you read that right: sixteen thousand dollars.
I know the three-and-a-half-weeks my kids spend at camp are priceless. I also know that with $16,000, I could pay a full year’s tuition at a state college.
For almost 20 years, I have worked in the field of Jewish education. I am not destitute, but I do not have $16,000-a-summer kind of money. Camp isn’t the only expensive Jewish experience for our children – there’s religious school tuition, youth group events, retreats, and let’s not even talk about Israel trips.
Especially in the South, and small communities anywhere – we can’t afford to make these opportunities anything other than amazing and accessible for our Jewish children and families. The question is – are we? Specifically, do Jewish organizations provide Jewish financial assistance in a way that honors and displays the values of Judaism?
Judaism teaches us time and time again the importance of tzedakah and how it is our obligation, not choice, to help others. (That’s why it’s great to see lots of new camp scholarship opportunities, like BunkConnect—though it’s for first-time campers only.) We need to give assistance, and just importantly, we must give it the right way.
We don’t make this process very easy. As an educator, I have helped countless families find aid because they had no idea where to look. If you don’t know the system, you can get overwhelmed fast. Then, once you find an opportunity, you start on the paperwork. Oh, the paperwork! I have had to provide less financial paperwork to buy a car than to receive a $500 camp scholarship. This paperwork is to be filled out each and every year, despite the fact that most people’s financial situations do not change drastically from one year to the next.
Because of my public role in the Jewish community, I am very open about the fact that I get scholarship money to send my kids to camp. If people know that I do, perhaps they will feel more comfortable asking me about it and doing the same. I actually try to model that asking for Jewish dollars to send Jewish kids to Jewish camps is a good thing.
However, going public with that information is my personal choice. Many people who need assistance do not want everyone to know their circumstances. Yet last year, my synagogue listed all of the children by name that received financial assistance for camp in our monthly congregational bulletin. When I called to ask why they felt the need to do this, I was told that it “could encourage others to ask for money.” I thought just the opposite. If people knew that they would publicly be categorized as needing help, many would be less likely than ever to ask for it. Nowhere did it say on the forms that if your family received aid, your child’s name would be publicly listed. My complaints resulted in yet a new question on the application; now you check a box if you DON’T want your child’s name listed. I would wager that 100% of families check the NO box. Yet the question remains.
I know that funding agencies do need to know some information to determine who needs aid and who doesn’t, but this could be a far less invasive process. This year I saw a new question on the paperwork. I was asked to calculate my family’s food expenses for the year. I was stunned. Why would anyone need to know this? This question brings up so much that is wrong in our society and I was saddened that the Jewish community was so insensitive and uninformed. It is a fact that healthy, fresh food such as produce and proteins cost more than processed and packaged food.
Why would the scholarship committee want to know what I spend on food? Will I be penalized for feeding my family healthy, more expensive food? What if I spent a lot of money on food because I fed others, as an act of tzedakah—or what if I invited people to my home when they needed somewhere to celebrate the Jewish holidays? What if someone in my family had a food allergy that necessitated us to follow a specific and more expensive diet? Why am I second-guessing what I feed my family as I am asking for help sending my Jewish children to Jewish summer camp? I remain stunned.
This has been on my mind for some time. I have spoken with some of the heads of these funding agencies as well as those who serve on the committees. These are people who are committed to helping others and who are engaged in doing good work for the Jewish community. I am certain of this and yet we have a lot to fix in this process. I am charging all of us to do better and to be guided by the principles of Judaism that somehow always lead us in the right direction.
It starts with each of us. My husband and I talk about how we will spend our money when our kids are grown and when we have a little more to give, and our top choice is always to give back to the places that helped us send our kids to camp. We want to support those important scholarships— and we want the funding to require little to no paperwork, bring absolutely no stigma, and instead just make access to life-changing camp experiences more affordable for all families.
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This past Thursday, my wife and I got up early, packed our car with trunks, suitcases, plastic drawers, and sleeping bags, and drove our two daughters to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Actually, at first we stopped outside the gates to wait in line with a hundred or so other cars. The “gate opening” tradition is a long one at Jacobs. People get there up to three hours early and wait in 95 degree heat. The kids walk up and down the rural road reconnecting with old friends from summers past. Many of the parents who are Jacobs alumni do the same.
Finally, at 11 am, the gates are opened, we receive our cabin assignments, and we help move our kids into their bunks and cubbies. As soon as we help them unpack, we are encouraged to hit the road, so the “magic” of camp can start.
I suspect this experience is quite common for parents who send their kids to summer camp. But there is something about Jacobs Camp that makes it rather unique. For many of the kids “walking the line” on this hot summer morning, the friends they reunite with make up most if not all of their Jewish social life. My two daughters are the only Jewish kids in their classes at school, and most all of their friends at home are non-Jewish. In places like Jackson, Mississippi, where we live, and other places like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, where many Jacobs campers come from, this is not uncommon. Each summer, my daughters look forward to experiencing the immersive Jewish social environment of the camp. For the past 43 years, Jacobs Camp has helped make sure that Jewish kids in the Deep South become Jewish adults, not something we can take for granted down here.
This function is no accident. In fact, it was the central reason the camp was created in the 1960s. Jewish parents from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and western Tennessee decided that such a camp would help provide a desperately needed Jewish peer group for their kids, many of whom lived in small, isolated communities. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to which most congregations in the region belonged, did not support the plan, fearing that the region’s Jewish population was too small to support a camp. But the small Jewish population was precisely the point for the camp! Once the congregations in the region raised the money and broke ground, the Union agreed to take ownership of Jacobs as part of its national network of camps.
No other camp has to attract anywhere near the same percentage of Jewish kids in residing in its region to fill its beds (nearly 30%!). The Henry S. Jacobs Camp, named for the former executive director of Temple Sinai in New Orleans who died while the camp was being developed, was truly a grassroots effort of the region’s Jewish families. Because of this, there is a pride of ownership and a strong sense of connection to it.
Our forebears built the camp with the dream of providing a Jewish environment for the next generations of Jews in the Deep South. My children are now part of that generation. While much has changed in the Jewish South over the past 43 years, the challenge of raising Jewish children in an overwhelmingly Christian environment with little in the way of a Jewish peer group remains. And so each summer we continue the ritual of labeling shirts and shorts, pulling trunks out of the attic, packing the car, and walking up and down the line, eagerly waiting for the gates to open.
Do you have memories of going to summer camp growing up?