Tour de Summer Camps NJ
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Tour de Summer Camps NJ

Two federations come together to help raise money for the great gift to Jewish life that is Jewish summer camp

We’ve written a lot about Jewish summer camp recently. The season has just ended, and it’s been an extraordinary time.

Every year, camp provides Jewish kids with their way into Jewish life; this summer, it provided many of them with a way back to life in general; life outside their pod, outside their family bubble, a life that can be lived, carefully of course, but still lived, with other people.

We have not focused nearly as much on the mechanics of camp. Like, for example, how to pay for it.

Camp is not cheap, and Jewish organizations work hard at helping families bridge the gap between what they can afford and what the camp needs to keep going.

Jewish organizations also work hard at helping convince families to consider Jewish camps, to figure out which particular camp would be best for each particular child, and to help them decide by helping them pay for it that first year though the One Happy Camper program. That also costs money.

A family encouraged riders during an earlier Tour de Summer Camps NJ.

Generous donors contribute a great deal toward the costs of camp that are not covered by scholarships and grants. But that still leaves space for other community members to join them.

That’s what the Tour de Summer Camps NJ does.

The Tour gets its inspiration and its name, if not its athletic aspirations, from the Tour de France; as the name suggests, it is a bike ride, although it is all about collaboration, not competition. It’s a ride around New Jersey — most of it is in Morris County — in support of the Jewish summer camps local kids go to.

This year, for the first time, the ride — set for October 10 — is a collaboration between the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, which brought it to the state, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Tracy Levine is the director of the One Happy Camper program at MetroWest, and Jill Nadison is MetroWest’s Tour de Summer Camps NJ and special projects manager. Together, they explained the program.

Scenes from the ride.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s One Happy Camper program gives families grants to send their children to a Jewish summer camp for the first time. It’s a one-time-per-kid, non-needs-based program. Ms. Levine spends a great deal of time with each family, trying to help them decide which camp might be best for their child. Most of the funding for the program comes from the Foundation, but some of it comes from the federations, which support the foundation.

That’s where the Tour de Summer Camps comes in.

“The Los Angeles federation developed the original tour,” Ms. Levine said. “They are our model. This is their ninth year, and it’s our fourth.” But of course, there’s an asterisk there, as there always is during this time of covid. The first New Jersey ride was in 2018, the next one was the next year, and they both were straightforward. People rode bikes on roads. Last year, people could ride bikes on the road all by themselves and report back or they could cover the miles in other ways, on other devices. This year, it will be both in person and virtual; the virtual Tour started on September 17 and will end on October 10, along with the in-person version.

Although the first two rides started at St. Elizabeth University in Florham Park, this year, “we are starting and ending at the Jewish Federation campus in Whippany,” Ms. Levine said. “We are excited to be able to do that.”

The ride supports camp grants and scholarships from the MetroWest and Northern New Jersey catchment areas; riders sign up with their own federations. The funds raised go to One Happy Camper and other grant programs; any Jewish camps to which local campers go can receive the funds, but “New Jersey Y camps is where the largest number of kids go,” Ms. Levine said. “We have a group of 14 partner camps that support the largest number of campers” — that includes Ramah, URJ, and Young Judaea camps, as well as the newer specialty camps. “We will provide $50,000 of matching grants directly to camps,” Ms. Levine said. “We did that last summer as well. We know it is very challenging after the pandemic.

“The ride will raise more than $400,000,” she said. “That’s the goal. Last summer, we raised more than $500,000. Without this ride, we would not be able to fulfill all the applications we get. That is why the ride exists.”

It has another goal as well. “It is a huge community builder,” she said. “It’s innovative. It’s the first time we’ve had a major fitness event like this. And it’s been particularly fitting because cycling has become the de facto sport of the pandemic.”

There are other ways to participate, however, if you don’t want to ride in person, or even if you just don’t like to ride. “There is a community Peloton ride, and last year we even had a surfing event,” Ms. Levine said. “We are trying to increase the ways for different people to get involved in ways that are most accessible and appealing to them.”

All the in-person rides start at the MetroWest Foundation’s campus at 901 Route 10 in Whippany, and they all end there, but riders can choose between four routes — 5 miles, 18 miles, 36 miles, and what is called a Metric Century; it’s 100 kilometers, which is roughly 62 miles. That last one’s a challenging ride, not only for the distance but for the hilly terrain it travels; the others are less steep. “The five-mile ride is new this year; we want to make it more accessible for people of all abilities,” Ms. Nadison said.

The longer rides go through the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge. “It’s a really beautiful ride,” Ms. Levine said.

The rides are all on paved roads, and all will be well marked; when there is traffic, there will be people to help direct the riders. Each route will include rider marshals, and there will be SAG support — that’s Support and Gear, Ms. Levine said. Anyone who needs help will get that help immediately.

“The longer riders start really early,” she added. “The 62-mile one leaves at 7:30. The longest ride will take a few hours; the five-mile ride should take between 25 and 30 minutes.”

The need to raise money is abstract and the joys of the ride are communal, but the families it helps are specific and real. Ms. Levine and Ms. Nadison told the story of one family; it’s okay to tell the story, they said, in fact it could be helpful, but without any names.

The story is a terrible one. “We had a family this summer, three kids from Westfield whose father left them years ago,” Ms. Levine said. “So it was a family with a single mom. She was diagnosed with cancer in the fall and passed away just a few months later.

“So they reached out to us — Camp Harlam and their synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, and we were able to get those three kids to camp this summer.

“We couldn’t have done it without the fund-raising. These are our kids. And they are so happy to have this anchor, camp, that provides them with continuity.

“We have the biggest demands ever for scholarships now. This is in our own backyard. You don’t realize that even in our neighborhoods, if you lose a job or are diagnosed with an illness, you might be in need. There is a lot of need in our backyard.”

Towns may appear wealthy — in fact, they may be wealthy, in that many people with substantial financial means call them home — but that doesn’t mean that no one who lives there is struggling.

“I live in Montclair, and I was just having this conversation,” Ms. Nadison said. “There are a lot of people in Montclair who need help. That’s true in a lot of what we think of as wealthier areas. People are struggling.” They also have to deal with the additional burden of the humiliation they’re afraid they’d be made to feel if the extent of their problems were made public. “That’s why the camp scholarships and grants are so important,” she said.

Robin Rochlin is the managing director of the Endowment Foundation at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “We’ve been investing in sending kids to Jewish camp for more than a decade, and we’ve distributed more than 1,000 grants to help Jewish families through One Happy Camper,” Ms. Rochlin said. “So now we are teaming up with MetroWest, using their routes as a way to encourage participation and community in Bergen County. MetroWest isn’t far away from us, and we didn’t want to have to create our own bike ride, since there already is one so close to us, for the same cause.”

It’s useful that the ride is partly online, she added. “That virtual component makes it easier, because people don’t have to drive to Whippany if they don’t want to.

“I don’t know that we’ll have hundreds of people showing up, but if we get just a handful and raise awareness, we will have achieved a first step — a first wheel! — in working in partnership to promote awareness about the joys of summer camp.

“And for people who like to ride, it’s great to get to do it in partnership with other people, and this might also encourage them to go to new terrains.

“We also have a donor who is matching contributions in our community,” she added. “We want to pull out the stops to raise awareness about fundraising and to send more kids to Jewish camp.”

“Most of our campers go to the same camps as most MetroWest campers,” Rachel Jacobus, the Northern New Jersey federation’s community outreach associate, who oversees the federation’s One Happy Camper program, said. “Metro-West has a large camp department that gives grants.” The North Jersey federation’s camp program is smaller, but “we are trying to increase our camp culture, so that many more kids go to Jewish camp, and get the important experiences in Jewish life that camps give. We will definitely partner with them again next year.

These photographs show kids at camp — the reason for the ride.

“We only offer One Happy Camper grants to help families choose Jewish camps over non-Jewish camps — we don’t have any needs-based grants yet — but we are hoping that we can offer second-year grants for middle-income families in the summer of 2022 if the federation can raise enough money, and with the help from our other donors.

“We want to give grants for day camps, because we know that if we get into the pipeline earlier, the kids are more likely to go to Jewish summer camps. Even parents who are a little iffy on overnight camps are more easily swayed if their kids have gone to Jewish day camps, because they know that the camps have Jewish values.

“So we are trying to increase camp culture. We know that tons of families use this grant. In 2018, we had 118 grants; this year we gave out 160, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp expects that the market share for summer 2022 will be even bigger. They think that we might make upward of 200 grants.”

Last summer, when the pandemic closed almost all summer camps, was hard on campers, staffers, and the camps themselves. It squeezed the pipeline of campers, Ms. Jacobus said; when you miss getting campers just when they’re ready for a first summer, it can be hard to get them back. Even now, after a successful summer in camp, the pandemic still is having ripple effects. “But we’re reaching out to families, and having one-and-one talks with them, to try to figure out what might be right for them.” The Foundation for Jewish Camp has provided her and other One Happy Camper staffers with information that’s helpful, “particularly for campers with special needs,” she said; some Jewish summer camps are set up to be particularly accessible to special-needs campers.

Ms. Jacobus stresses the need for fundraisers like the Tour de Summer Camps. “We already know the budget in terms of donors, but we are hoping that the Tour not only can raise enough money to increase not only the grants we can give but also can show the generous donors who are very involved in camp how the community also is very invested in it. We are hoping that this will prove that camp is very important to the community, especially now.”

Meanwhile, campers as well as donors and parents are involved in the Tour’s success. Take, for example, bar mitzvah boy Henry Greenberg, who lives with his mother in Berkeley Heights and with his father in South Orange.

Part of his mitzvah project will be helping with the Tour, working at a rest stop in Morristown. “I’m raising money for charity, and the other part of my project is handing out water and snacks to the people who are riding,” Henry said. “I want to do it because I really love camp, and I want other kids to have the chance to have the kind of amazing summer that I had.”

He went to Camp Harlam this summer; his bar mitzvah will be at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.

“I think that the program is particularly important now that people can start to get together a little more, if they’re comfortable, while still giving people who are hesitant about getting together the opportunity to do it on their own,” Henry’s father, Eric Greenberg, said. “And if they don’t bike-ride, they still can do whatever else they can. Henry loved camp so much that I said to him that this might be a good idea for his project.

“Henry did One Happy Camper, because this was his first year at a sleepaway camp,” he continued. “I thought that after being remote and being cooped up for so long, it was good for him to go to sleepaway camp, and the rabbis at TSTI have always spoken so highly about Camp Harlam and the other URJ camps.

“When we visited it, Henry was 1,000 percent sure he wanted to go.”

Will Henry go back to Harlam this summer? “I’m 99.9 percent sure he will,” Henry’s father said. “No,” Henry interjected. “I’m 1,000 percent sure I will go back this summer.” “Yes,” his father laughed. “We’re 1,000 percent sure he’s going back.”

Marcy Needle is the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s planned giving officer. She grew up in Metro-West, so she knows what the route looks like. Despite the Great Swamp’s name, she said, no, riders will not be slogging through mud. “If you were to wander off the road, there is plenty of mud to be found,” she said. “Bugs too!” But it’s a wildlife sanctuary, so you are requested to stay on the road, and the road’s been repaved recently and is a great surface to ride on.

“The Great Swamp is a favorite place for cyclists,” Ms. Needle added. “In addition to being truly beautiful, with the opportunity to see different kinds of flora, fauna, and wildlife, it’s one of the only flat areas to ride for miles around!”

Riders cycle through the Great Swamp for the Tour de Summer Camps NJ.

“Morris County is quite hilly and can be quite daunting for novice riders, or for those who have taken a hiatus from their bikes.”

Luckily, the Tour de Summer Camps NJ has so many routes and so many virtual options that anyone who doesn’t feel up to Morris County’s hills can make another choice, while still being part of the community — the two communities, in fact, that have come together — and still being able to help connect children to the gift of Jewish summer camping.

Learn more about the Tour de Summer Camps NJ, including how to register, at www.tourdesummercampsnj.org.

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