Amid this summer’s conflict and uncertainty, I have been fortunate to witness a more optimistic future while visiting Jewish summer camps across North America. More than 75,000 campers and 11,000 college-aged counselors are now returning to their communities and campuses with pride in their heritage, a sense of independence, and strengthened communication and leadership skills they will use their entire lives.  And with the innovative developments we’ve been witnessing in the Jewish camp field, I am confident that the number of individuals experiencing these transformative summers and the avenues that they have to engage with their Judaism will continue to grow.

In an effort to attract campers not currently being served by the existing field, a number of camps have developed specialty programs within their camps. I was extremely impressed with my visits to them, including New Jersey Y Total Specialty Camps program featuring facilities like the Dr. Lynne B. Harrison Science Center, Camp Ramah in the Poconos which runs the Ramah Basketball Academy, and JCC Ranch Camp outside of Denver which offers an equestrian specialty program.

We are especially excited by the progress of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Specialty Camps Incubator. Currently in the second cohort of the program, the Incubator has helped us see what the future of camping can truly look like. Jointly funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVI CHAI Foundation, visionary social entrepreneurs have spent the last year and a half creating four distinctive new camps that blend a specific skill or area of interest with Jewish culture and values. These camps have just completed their first season and I was so privileged to visit each over the last few weeks:campinc3

Camp Inc. is an amazing entrepreneurship camp located in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado for teens.  Campers learn business skills, create hands-on projects, and work in teams while developing community, confidence, leadership, and Jewish identity in the Colorado wilderness.

Camp Zeke is the first Jewish camp where 7 to 17 year-olds celebrate healthy, active living.  Campers can cook gourmet dishes with a professional chef, choose from action-packed fitness electives, and participate in traditional camp activities and all-camp evening programs.  The special “neshama” of the camp really comes through.

JCC Maccabi Sports Camp is the only Jewish overnight sports camp on the west coast.  Located outside of San Francisco on the campus of Menlo College, the camp welcomes campers from around the world, providing a high quality, impressive environment that focuses on honing athletic skills while improving as teammates.

URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy encourages campers ask big questions, and discover real answers. Located just outside of Boston’s science and technology corridor on the campus of the beautiful Governor’s Academy (America’s first boarding school,), campers develop hypotheses, perform experiments, and test out new technologies in a supportive, vibrant Jewish community.

I take pride in seeing how far we’ve come in just a few short years. These innovative camps have proven themselves to be models of excellence in the Jewish camping field, reaching new demographics and interest groups and embarking on new approaches to Jewish experiential education. Not yet bound by the rituals and history that often dictate customs at traditional camps, these new camps are creating traditions from the ground up that are based in key values unique to their camp’s mission, and have already made an indelible impact on hundreds of campers, as evidenced by this letter from a URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy parent:

As a Jewish communal professional, I am well aware of the research that exists on the power of Jewish camps for Jewish kids. When we heard what [about] Sci-Tech, we were thrilled. He loved the way Judaism was incorporated into the days at camp, and he loved the Sci-Tech Torah that brings in science. What a fabulous and positive reinforcement for a Jewish kid who loves being Jewish but has lots of questions. We are so thankful that we found a Jewish camp for Aaron (and that you created one for kids like him).

After visiting these four Incubator camps during the course of this, their inaugural summer, one can’t help but admire the entrepreneurial spirit of these pioneering camp directors. As a result of some big dreams and hard work, these groundbreaking camps brought their unique Jewish experience to an additional 520 lucky new campers this summer, achieving 130% of their aggregate enrollment goals. Since the opening of the first cohort of Incubator camps in 2010, almost 4,000 children have attended Jewish camp through the Incubator program!

As reported in an evaluation commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation, “New Jewish Specialty Camps: From Idea to Reality,” the Specialty Camps Incubator has surpassed our expectations and has changed the way the rest of the field understands their potential for growth and evolution, inspiring new specialty programs within existing camps, encouraging the inclusion of different demographic groups, and motivating us all to dream a little bigger.