|Children enjoy the experience at Jewish sleepaway camps.|
When discussion among Jewish professionals turns to Jewish continuity, gloom often sets in. Pew study this, dropping enrollments that, grim statistics, glum outlook, gray skies looming.
The one break in those skies, the rare glint of golden sunlight, is Jewish summer camping. Sleepaway camp is intensive, immersive, and experiential; it makes Jewish living alive and joyful in a way that school, by definition, cannot.
But just as the dark cloud has a silver lining, so does this silver lining have its own dark cloud.
Camp is not cheap, and many parents fear that they cannot afford it.
Many families pay for synagogue membership and day school tuitions, often for two or three or more children. Kosher food is not cheap either. Although camp provides something that more formal settings cannot, sometimes parents fear that the camp tuition would just be too much for them, so they don’t consider it.
Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. His organization is piloting a new program, BunkConnect, which just came online last week. It is, he says, “a new affordability initiative.
“It reaches out to first-time camper families who think they can’t afford Jewish camp. We hope to drive reconsideration of that.
“You didn’t think you could afford summer camp. You think it’s out of reach. Now you can think again.”
The initiative not only offers a discount price to first-time campers who qualify, it also helps match those campers with the camps to which they are best suited.
The matchmaking, like many of today’s shiduchim, is done online.
“It’s a pretty simple process,” Mr. Fingerman said. “You” – in this case, you is the parent -“go on BunkConnect.org, answer six basic questions: where do you live, how many kids do you have, does your child consider him or herself Jewish, is the child a first-time camper, what is your most recently reported adjusted gross income, and do you have children in Jewish day school.”
BunkConnect defines first-time campers as children who have spent fewer than 19 days in a sleepaway camp, so kids who have gone to camp for two-week sessions, or who have spent many full summers at day camps, are eligible.
“The system takes the information, and then it calculates whether you are eligible for the program,” Mr. Fingerman continued.
“If you are, it says congratulations and walks you through the process. If you are not, it will give you suggestions for other programs, and it will suggest other ways to search for camps yourself.”
Once families have been cleared for eligibility, they enter more information – you are looking for a four-week camp session for a fourth-grade boy, perhaps, and you want to confine your search to New England – the program will sort through options and present you with its findings.
“You might get six choices, six camps that meet the criteria,” Mr. Fingerman said. “They have a bed for a fourth-grade boy that they are willing to sell to you at half the list price, let’s say. So that would put a bed that normally would cost, say, $4,000 for four weeks, available to you – an income-eligible family – for $2,000.
Because this is a pilot program, so far it is offered only to families who live in the northeastern United States, and the discounts are only from camps in the same region. So far, more than 35 camps from Maine through Virginia have signed up, Mr. Fingerman said.
The foundation represents a wide range of camps; all must be Jewish, non-profit, celebrate Shabbat in some way or other, and be Zionist. It includes networks like the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps and the camps run by the Reform movement and Young Judea, and it also includes smaller, one-off places. A representative subset of those camps is listed in BunkConnect.
“The BunkConnect system has been developed by a consortium of philanthropists who like the business entrepreneurial approach,” Mr. Fingerman said. “We are modeling it after hotel.com.”
But of course “you are not buying a hotel room, but a whole experience,” he said, so once you have found a list of camps that might be right for your child, the process goes off-line.
So when you have been presented with a list of possibilities, “you look at the camps’ profile, and you compare and contrast, and you say that of the six, three sound good for my kid. You click on those camps, sending a message to the camps that you are interested, and then someone from the camp will call you, the director or the registrar. The camp will find out more about your fourth-grade boy,” there will be some conversation, and if the match seems right, it will offer you a place for the summer.
“Not all camps are right for all kids,” Mr. Fingerman said. The matching program does not mean that all kids whose profiles match with camps will be offered admission. But if the family and the camp agree that the fit seems good, “the bed is put on hold for you.
“And then you have to go through one final step. Income verification. Until now, you’ve put in your information, but it has not been verified.” Once that step, which costs $30, is complete, “the bed is definitely confirmed, and it’s for you.”
The philanthropists who have funded the program used their money to “establish the database, the website, the marketing and branding, and the evaluation,” Mr. Fingerman said. “We hope that by year 2 or 3 it could be a self-sustaining program that does not involve philanthropic dollars.
“When there is a successful placement, the camp pays a small fee to BunkConnect. It’s not borne by the family but by the camp, which sees it as a small investment to get a new family into the system.
“We think that we can get 3,000 placements across North American by year 3.”
The cost of the discounted bed is borne by the camp, he added. At times, it can be done simply by adding another bed to a bunk that has the space and the resources for it.
“We feel a communal obligation to make camp accessible and affordable,” Mr. Fingerman said. “We hope this will help someone who wants to send a child to camp but can’t see going through the scholarship process. We think that this is an easier way. You still have to submit the top two pages of your tax return, but it is not as invasive as the scholarship form.”
Because the process begins online and many of its donors come from the business world, “we are measuring everything we can about this program,” Mr. Fingerman said. “The clicks, the responses, the interactions, the time it takes for placements. We will be doing interviews with families who come in through the program, precamp and postcamp, and with families who chose not to do it.
“It is a pilot and we are continuing to refine it before we expand it. We want to make sure it works, and to apply what we learn.
“We think it is marrying the best practices of the business world, and using new technologies that are out there,” Mr. Fingerman said. “We feel it is a fresh approach to affordability, not just for Jewish camp but maybe for Jewish life. We hope that this is a good success for us, and that it could be a good success for the broader Jewish community.”