Hundreds of thousands of Jewish camp alumni — and their parents — have long known that those halcyon weeks spent at Jewish summer camp don’t just cement lifelong friendships, they strengthen Jewish identity.
Now they have it in writing.
A new study on the long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp concludes that those who have attended camp are more Jewishly engaged as adults, according to 13 key variables, than those who did not go to camp.
“We finally have a tool that proves Jewish camp works, that it helps create a more vibrant Jewish future,” said Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which advocates for more than 155 Jewish nonprofit camps in North America and sponsored the study.
“Camp Works: The long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp” used data from 25 local studies of adult Jewish engagement and the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey to produce the first statistical look at the effect of Jewish camping on individual as well as communal Jewish identity.
The local studies included those conducted “reasonably recently” with enough common variables and large enough Jewish populations to make the studies useful, according to lead researcher Dr. Steven Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.
Three of the studies came from New Jersey counties, including Middlesex, Bergen, and Atlantic. The studies were originally conducted by Dr. Ron Miller and Dr. Ira Sheskin, leaders in the field of Jewish demography, and coauthors (with Cohen and Dr. Berna Torr) of Camp Works.
The results were announced March 1 on a conference call that included Fingerman, Cohen, and Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair, cofounder and cochair, with her husband, Robert Bildner, of FJC.
“What is so striking about what ‘Camp Works’ discusses is what I’m going to call the causality relationship between going to Jewish camp, spending summers at Jewish camp, and what happens to people who go to Jewish camps as adults in terms of their commitment to the Jewish community and their engagement in Jewish practice,” said Spungen Bildner.
While previous studies talked about “the relationship between going to Jewish camp and the adults that come out, years later, from that camp experience,” she said, “this study takes it so much farther and so much more definitely. I personally…feel completely comfortable saying ‘Jewish camp works’ — period, exclamation point.”
The report shows the most pronounced increase in Jewish engagement in four areas not typically associated with non-Orthodox Jewish behavior, three concerning Jewish communal identity: Camp alumni are 55 percent more likely than Jewish adults who did not attend camp to say they are “very emotionally attached to Israel,” they are 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month, and 30 percent more of them donate to Jewish federations.
This is significant, said Cohen, because those three behaviors indicate a certain level of Jewish communal commitment, and it is precisely that communal identification that many Jewish experts fear is most at risk.
“Where camp has had its strongest effect has to do with its creation of an intense, temporary Jewish community,” said Cohen.
That communal experience imprints on the individual, he surmised, leading to a greater propensity to view one’s self within a larger Jewish social network in adulthood.
The other 10 areas of investigation also revealed increased Jewish engagement among camp alumni, from a 37 percent increase in those who “always/usually” light Shabbat candles to a 5 percent increase in the number of those who “always/usually” light Hanukka candles. These 10 areas are related to an individual sense of Jewish identity.
Camp’s impact is more pronounced among non-Orthodox Jews under 49 than their elders, the report notes. That’s probably not because more young Jews have gone to camp, Cohen speculated, but because more options are open to Jews today than in previous generations, and fewer of today’s American Jews live in a primarily Jewish environment.
“If you’re a younger person, you need the intentionality of Jewish camp — or day schools or youth groups — to compensate for the loss of the organic Jewish socialization experience that characterized our parents and grandparents,” he said. “It’s as if to be Jewish today, you have to be Jewishly educated.”
Jewish day schools and youth groups also have a strong impact on Jewish identity, Cohen noted. But similar data studies have not been performed for these two institutions, so the evidence is mainly anecdotal, as it was for camping until now.
“The answer to the question of how do we keep our kids Jewish is not so mysterious,” he concluded. “Strong Jewish homes are supplemented by intensive Jewish educational and socializing experiences.”
Not surprisingly, Fingerman said he hopes the report will encourage foundations and philanthropists to open their wallets and increase their financial support for Jewish overnight camps.
“It should also be compelling to local federations looking for the best use of their dollars,” said Fingerman, who spent eight summers at Wisconsin’s Camp Ramah in the 1970s and now sends his own children to Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire.
“Camps are proven programs in building community, not just Jewish identity.”
More than 70,000 children and teens attended Jewish overnight camp in 2010.
NJJN staff writer Johanna Ginsberg contributed to this article.