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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Questions frequently asked by - and of - ambassadors

Q-1.  What are some common objections that prospective parents raise -- and what is the best way to respond to them?

 A-1(a.).  For younger parents who are considering camp for their oldest child (these, by the way, are the ideal targets since they have no prior history with another camp), there will be generalized concerns about separation, safety, and socialization. We suggest that you first reassure them that their issues are both understandable and universal. However, every camp parent goes through this process -- and the camp director and staff are quite skilled and experienced in helping children (and parents) make this important transition. (You might use this moment to inject that URJ Camps have been operating successfully since 1951 -- and more than 300,000 kids have passed through the Union's summer camp and Israel programs.)  Gaining a sense of independence and self-sufficiency provides children with important confidence and is a cornerstone for acquiring other useful skills. Parents need to be reminded that they will be able to write to their children as often as they wish and will get to come up on Visiting Day. The camps post updates and photos on their websites -- and some even use Twitter! For younger kids, suggest starting with a trial camping experience, such as "taste of camp." Encourage the family to meet the camp director and, where possible, to visit the camp facility, so that it will become more familiar.  (The following article, "First time at camp? Talking with your child" (2005) by Bob Ditter, LCSW, has some practical suggestions and helpful language for parents of first-time campers. [First time article.pdf] 

A-1(b.).  When the parental choice is between URJ Camping and a "generic" summer camp experience, the objections usually fall into one (or more) of five categories:

  • "Too Jewish" -- Parents are worried that "too much time is spent praying."  Yes, there are services, prayers before and after meals, and Jewish text study, but the differences with Jewish observances in the camp setting are that (a) everyone does it  (i.e., so it's not a big issue); (b) it's a natural, integrated, organic part of camp life (so there's really no such thing as "too Jewish," because it's all baked into the 24/7 daily patterns. For example, instead of eating in the "dining hall," meals are served in the "hadar ochel" and by day two, no one ever notices.); and, (c) it's presented in age-appropriate, dynamically exciting, creative, and beautiful ways (e.g, campers plan and lead Shabbat services for their peers). Thus, URJ Camps, as total immersion environments, where there is no separation between the child's "secular" and "Jewish" lives, simply cannot be compared to any typical temple or religious school experience.  
  • "Diversity" -- Parents express their feeling that their children should be exposed to all kinds of kids, not just Jewish kids. Research has revealed that although they may make this claim publicly, in the privacy of one-on-one interviews, the very same parents were adamant that the wanted their kids to socialize with other Jewish children, to make lifelong friendships with them, and to be predisposed to in-marry. Besides which, the camp population is exceptionally diverse -- just within the context of Jewish campers and counselors. 
  • "Fun" -- It's hard to know exactly what a parent means when he or she says, "My child should just have fun over the summer."  (Perhaps, they are under some misguided impression that URJ Camping represents the ultimate in drudgery.) Camp, almost by definition, is all about fun -- and the fun is a function of many things: making friends, learning new skills, feeling independent, being part of a community, etc. -- as well as the usual sports, games, and spontaneous hi jinks. 
  • "Facilities" -- Some parents may complain that there "are not enough quality sports and outdoor activities."  Everything is relative. All URJ Camps have a full complement of sports and outdoor activities on their daily schedules. The kids enjoy plenty of daily sunshine and physical activities on land and in the water. But URJ Camps are not dedicated sports camps that typically cater to elite athletes. Rather, sports and outdoor activities are part of an overall balanced approach to daily programming -- and fun! 
  • "Economics" -- Of all the potential objections, this one is the most serious and difficult one to overcome. When a parent tell you that "it costs too much," you have to first try to gauge whether (a) the parent doesn't see or appreciate the value of a URJ Camping experience, or (b) whether the parent is sincerely interested, but worried that meeting the tuition bill will pose a hardship. If it's the former, then you have to revert back to the basic discussion about how URJ Camping is "a gift that will last for a lifetime" and accrue such dividends as enduring friendships and positive Jewish identification. In short, it's an "investment" in helping your child develop into a mentsch. If money is the driving factor, you have to creatively help the family put together a package of scholarship funding from various federation, temple, camp, and private sources. In most cases, ways can be found to assist families -- especially with first-time campers. (Note: Many subsidies for first-time campers are not need-based, so they are available -- and may even be a decision-tipping factor -- for any prospective new parents.)

Q-2. When promoting URJ Camping, should the Judaic content of the program be highlighted, minimized, or not mentioned at all? 

A-2.  We strongly recommend that you be honest, up front -- and proud -- of the Judaic content. URJ Camps provide fun, safe, and well-rounded programs that include all the various music, drama, arts-and-crafts, and sports activities that one would expect in a traditional camp setting. What sets the URJ Camping apart, however, is its mission to enrich and transform lives by strengthening Jewish identity, teaching Jewish knowledge, instilling Jewish values, and cultivating lifelong friendships within a vibrant and fun community of living Reform Judaism. URJ Camps invest the time and effort to train counselors to see themselves as engaging informal Jewish educators and role models, who are capable of seamlessly integrating Jewish content [see A-1b above] by capitalizing on Jewish "teachable moments" on the ball fields, in the arts studio, and inside the cabins.   

Q-3. What "evidence" is there to back up the claims about the "life-changing," Jewish identity-boosting power of camp?  

A-3.  Evidence will be very important to making the case for the value of URJ Camping -- not only for prospective parents, but also for temple leaders who do not come from a camping background. Various studies have shown that a Jewish camping experience can increase rates of in-marriage, increase Jewish practice, enhance Jewish identity, and encourage synagogue affiliation.      

Fast factoids:

  • By sending our children to summer camp, we exponentially increase the likelihood that our young people will make strong Jewish choices in the years ahead.  Research confirms that camping is one of the most effective options in the Reform Jewish Movement for influencing the next generation of Reform Jews.  (Source: URJ)
  • Jewish camps engender very positive feelings about Judaism and the Jewish community. Former campers remember their experiences with great fondness, linking pleasurable childhood memories with Jewish educational growth. (Source: Brandeis University study)
  •  Camping has a significant impact on the feeling that being Jewish is very important to an individual and on ritual observance, and ... results in an increase in synagogue membership compared to those who did not attend a Jewish camp. (Source: The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity: Schooling, Israel Travel, Camping and Youth Groups by Steven Cohen and Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz)
  • The magic of camp has unlimited potential to produce joyous and memorable learning ... The estimated impact of camping on Jewish identity is estimated to be greater than the impact of six years in religious school. (Sources: AVI CHAI Foundation study; United Jewish Communities Report Series on the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001).
  •  Teenagers whose parents place high priority on Jewish education are more than twice as likely to enroll in Jewish summer programs.  (Source: Brandeis University study)
Key studies & sources: Most of these materials can be found on the web or may be ordered from the providing organization. They can and should be used in the communications efforts:   AVI CHAI Foundation Studies
  • "Limud by the Lake: Fulfilling the Educational Potential of Jewish Summer Camps " (2003)  by Amy L. Sales & Leonard Saxe
Brandeis University’s Cohen Center Studies
  •   "How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences" (2002) by Amy L. Sales & Leonard Saxe.
  •  “Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to Make It” (200) by Charles Kadushin, Shaul Kelner & Leonard Saxe

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001

  • “Strength, Challenge and Diversity in the American Jewish Population”
  •  “The Jewish Education of Jewish Children: Formal Schooling, Early Childhood Programs and Informal Experiences”
  • “Jewish Educational Background: Trends and Variations Among Today’s Jewish Adults” 

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