Musicians lead the camp community in Shabbat worship at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., in July 2016. Photo courtesy of URJ

Survey: Summer camp may be key to fostering Reform Jewish values

(RNS) — Want your kids to grow up Jewish?

Send them to Jewish summer camp.

That’s been the message of numerous Jewish surveys through the years. A new survey undertaken by the Reform movement, the largest and most liberal of Judaism's three main U.S. branches, adds to those conclusions by showing that camps may help shape adult Jewish values and social justice commitments.

The survey found that those who participated in overnight summer camps or immersive weekend-long getaways through the Reform youth movement were far more likely to be engaged in Jewish life in college and beyond and more committed to "doing good."

On Simchat Torah, which this year ends on Tuesday evening (Oct. 2) and marks the completion of the liturgical cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of a new one, the question of Jewish continuity is as acute as ever. Growing assimilation and a decline in the number of Jews who affiliate with any of the major Jewish movements threaten to unmoor many Jews from their religious roots.

But the Reform movement, representing about 35 percent of American Jews, or about 1.5 million followers in the U.S. and Canada, wanted to evaluate the impact of youth programs on Jewish adults beyond attendance or membership in synagogues.

A lake reflects URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y. Photo courtesy of URJ

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The success of Jewish overnight camps is well-documented. A 2011 study of Jewish camp alumni found that summer camps strengthen Jewish identity. Studies from the 1990s suggested the same. The new Reform survey attempts to measure whether the experiences of camp and youth movements shape participants’ worldviews and behaviors.

The survey, conducted by Rosov Consulting in 2017, gave Reform leaders a sense that immersive youth programming could transmit Jewish values of making the world a better place.

It found, for example, that 87 percent of alumni of camps and youth movements agreed that doing volunteer work is important. More tangibly, 67 percent said they volunteer with Jewish service or social justice organizations at least sometimes.

“It really attempts to show that to be a successful Jew as an adult is not only about belonging to a congregation or lighting Shabbat candles," said Miriam Chilton, vice president of youth for the Union for Reform Judaism. "It’s about acting Jewishly in the world and the importance of taking those beliefs and applying them in ways that align with Jewish values.”

The Reform movement has 17 overnight camps and enrolls some 10,000 campers and counselors each year. It also has a youth program for teens in grades six through 12 that meets in temples and at national conventions several times a year.

Nearly 2,200 survey respondents, alumni of its summer camps and youth movement, said participation in the programs was meaningful:

  • 81 percent of alumni said “being Jewish is very important in my life.” That’s about twice the percentage of Reform Jews who answered the question the same way in the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans.
  • 77 percent said they “often reflect on what being Jewish means to me.”

Jewish camps were created at the turn of the 20th century to give children of European immigrants a reprieve from the crowded urban settlement houses and teeming slums. In the 1930s and 1940s, the camps served an important health mission: to protect urban children from polio epidemics. It was only later that their focus changed to helping build Jewish identity through sports, crafts and outdoor fun alongside a regular practice of Jewish rituals and liturgy.

Along the way, they helped children bond with one another and provided the glue for future Jewish commitments.

“So much of religion in general is community, right?” said Mattan Berner-Kadish, 22, a senior at the University of Maryland who started going to Jewish camp at age 10. “That’s what it provided in a lot of ways. It was a place of interacting with people, becoming friends and having experiences with people who shared it with me.”

Berner-Kadish, who did not participate in the survey but spent time both as a camper and counselor at Reform camps in Kunkletown, Pa., as well as in Israel, said he volunteers at his Maryland synagogue and his college roommate is a former camp buddy.

The opportunity to do things away from synagogue and the probing eyes of parents may be a big part of what makes the camp experience unique.

A young woman carries the Torah during a service at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., in the summer of 2016. Photo copyright Foundation for Jewish Camp

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“For the first time in my life, it provided me the opportunity to make Judaism my own,” said Aaron Klaus, 30, regional director for NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform youth movement who is based in Michigan.

For many alumni, camp was a place where they socialized with other Jews. Ali Terkel, who started going to Reform camps at age 7, said there were no other Jews outside her Tulsa, Okla., school growing up.

“Camp really opened up my Jewish world,” said Terkel, 30, who now works in Chicago for the American Jewish Committee's program for young professionals. “It was the first time I was in a fully immersive Jewish community. It was really nice to feel I belonged and that other kids cared about the same things I did.”


  1. Would it be fair to conclude that these Reform Judaism camps are positive and successful mostly because the more conservative branches of Judaism are not there to have a theology fit and scare all the kids?

  2. Even Conservative Judaism isn’t all that conservative politically or fundamentalist bent.

    The differences being a function of adherence to practice, ritual and how services are conducted. As opposed to differences in theology.

  3. Okay, bad terminology on my part. Have a fit about practice and ritual? In other words, bug the kids in the photo above about how they are mixing, what they are wearing, what music they are playing, what they are saying or learning at camp?

  4. Nah. The lines between the sects are pretty fluid except for the Haredi. Its acknowledged that the differences amount to personal preferences.

    The Haredi are insular to a fault and only one subgroup even looks to converts. Otherwise they just treat the rest of the faith as hostile outsiders, who incidentally they depend on.

  5. I am an alumnus of the Conservative movement’s camping program, Ramah. I can tell you that the experience in terms of what you asked is not all that different from what the kids in the photographs are doing. There may be some slight differences in terms of prayer and ritual, but except at the most Orthodox camps (the kind that put curtains around the pool), the experiences are much the same.
    In any event, as the article notes, previous surveys have found that, at least for the non-Orthodox, going to Jewish summer camp correlates with more intense Jewish identity and participation. This would apply both for denominational camps, like those described in the article, and non-denominational camps that may be focused on Zionism, left-wing activism, healthy living, or are just generally pluralistic.

  6. One of the Reform movement’s successes has been integrating its summer camp programs and its mainly school-year youth programs. The Conservative movement has not done so, even though its programs (Ramah and United Synagogue Youth, respectively) are looking to pull from the same demographic. This survey may help push them in that direction. A single “Conservative youth brand” seems like it would be stronger in the 21st century than only having “Ramah people” and “USY people.”

  7. Good. But the degrees of conservatism and liberalism are separated at different camps, no?

  8. Not sure what you’re asking really. Certainly some camps are more conservative or liberal than others in some areas. These camps are places to experience Judaism, usually not for deep theology.

  9. I started in the thread by just throwing out an offhand question. I am not against camps. Neither am I against gentle thoughtful Judaism. I just wondered if the “happiest campers” (a broad metaphor) would be those who, for a short period of time, are relieved from being critiqued by others in their own belief systems who would “correct” them about the details. I would wonder the same thing about a Baptist camp maybe being a happy place because the Pentecostals or the Catholics didn’t register and attend.

  10. I think the happiest part about camp is being relieved of all kinds of expectations. It’s probably the first extended time you’re living away from your parents. You get a measure of independence: independent actions and independent thinking. It doesn’t mean your beliefs won’t be challenged. Mine certainly were.

  11. I went to a Methodist Church camp twice and a Boy Scout camp once. My beliefs there were mostly challenged by what kids were doing on the side, not so much by what the camp operators were trying to put across. My wife and I also sent a son once to an evangelical camp quite different from either of those and his reactions to us in post-trip review were not particularly striking in any respect at all. Net, net, please don’t think I am trying to argue with either Judaism or with you.

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