Let Me Count the Ways: 5 Ways to Promote Jewish Summer Camp

by Carol Oseran Starin

It’s November. Too soon to be thinking about summer camp? Not at all. Now is the time to register for next summer.

Actually, as educators, we should be thinking about camp all year ‘round.

Next to formal Jewish schooling, Jewish summer camp is at the top of the Jewish communal agenda. Communities and philanthropists have learned (and educators have always known) that living and playing Jewish 24/7 has a powerful effect on Jewish identity and the possibility to transform lives.

There are so many natural and authentic connections between camp and school – so many ways that teachers, principals and rabbis can promote Jewish camping and meaningfully integrate enthusiastic camp returnees into schools and synagogues. Here are more than a dozen ideas to get you started:

1. Create classroom situations that promote student interaction.

Camp is about friends. Kids go to camp because their friends go to camp. Our classrooms are full of kids who don’t know each other because they go to different schools and live in diverse neighborhoods. Let’s create a physical environment where students face each other and work together. Develop learning strategies in which students work in partners, cooperative groups and hevruta.
Kids who go to camp make friends – and those friendships will change the classroom culture.

2. Create “wall to wall” awareness of the importance of camp.

Work with synagogue/school professionals, rabbinic staff and lay leadership to: a) increase the numbers of students who attend Jewish camps; b) create a culture that values, supports and promotes camp as an integral, important, transformational Jewish experience. For example:

• Put a section on Jewish camping into your life cycle curriculum
• Include camp and camp scholarship information in your Teacher Handbooks and your Parent Handbooks
• Be sure your synagogue has a camp scholarship fund and that congregants know how to grow the fund and parents know how to access the funds.
• Check to make sure your synagogue and school websites promote camp and have links to Jewish camps.

3. Take the kids to camp.

If your school is in proximity to your camp, there’s nothing like the real experience. A family retreat for younger students is a great model for everyone to appreciate the wonder of camp.

One school does grade level retreats for 6th and 8th graders. They take the whole grade to their regional camp for a winter weekend of fun and learning.

If the distances are prohibitive, a day/weekend retreat at a local facility (a nature center, scout camp/retreat center) gives you the opportunity to program a camp experience and to covertly convey the idea that Jewish programming is fun.

4. Bring the camp director to school.

Your synagogue probably has an affiliation with a local or regional camp. Invite the camp director to your synagogue. Work with him/her to plan a number of experiences that promote camp, provide opportunities for the camp director to teach and to talk with parents as well as students. Consider a scholar-in-residence weekend where the camp director can talk from the bimah, study with adults, work with kids, and interview potential counselors and specialists. Conclude with a huge camp reunion.

5. Create programming that promotes camp.

For example:

• Designate one school day as “Wear a Jewish t-shirt’ day.” Invite kids to wear their camp t-shirts.
• Ask students to bring their camp pictures to share in the classroom. Imagine a huge school-wide bulletin board with hundreds of photos of kids having fun at camp!
• Get a copy of the camp video to show at appropriate programs and at people’s homes during “coffee and camp” evenings.
• Have a “camp day” with camp-type activities. Play games, serve s’mores, and, most importantly, get someone from camp to talk and make a pitch. This is a great activity for the middle of winter.
• Invite older campers to your classroom to talk about their camp and their camp experiences
• Integrate some camp songs into services, Jr. Congregation and assemblies
• Use campers to do camp-like things in the shul and school, making sure they point out that they learned those skills at camp.
• Hire the camp song leader to teach music in your school.
• Encourage teachers with particular kinds of expertise (science, art, music, photography, aquatics) to apply to work at camp. The cross-fertilization of teachers and camp specialists is such a positive way to promote camp and to build relationships.
• Invite your students who were camp counselors to consider becoming madrikhim and teachers
• Work with your rabbi to create a terrific “send off” service before the kids leave in June
• Teach campers how to be sh’lichim (emissaries) for getting new kids involved

With special thanks to Jerry Kaye, Director of Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute and to Mike Fixler, Sharon Halper, Susan Edelstein, Ira Wise, and Sharon Wasserberg.