Four Jewish Camps in Four Weeks

We Are All Different in the Woods

As the program officer for Jewish overnight camps at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, I made it my mission this summer to visit all four Northern California camps to see, first-hand, how they are helping build the next Jewish generation with the Federation’s support.

It was at my final Shabbat at Camp Tawonga, just outside Yosemite, when the power of camp suddenly came clear. As the morning sun filtered through the trees at Makom Shalom (“Place of Peace” in Hebrew, Tawonga’s outdoor sanctuary), Camp Director Becca Meyer shared a Hasidic tale:

A child liked to wander off into the woods every day. The rabbi asked him, “what do you do in the woods every day?” The child answered,“I go into the woods to talk to G-d.” “But,” said the rabbi, “you don't need to go into the woods to talk to G-d. G-d is the same everywhere." The child thought about this for a moment and replied, “yes, G-d may be the same everywhere, but I am different in the woods.”

Shabbat at Camp Tawonga: Shabbat stroll (L) and Torah service (R)

And it is true. We are all “different” in the woods – whether at Camp Tawonga or Camp Newman, or by the sea with our newest partner, Camp Ramah Galim, or on the sports fields at JCC Maccabi. At camp, our children feel most truly “themselves,” accepted and embraced by a joyful Jewish community – the place they go to unplug, to create deep friendships, and to experience awe and wonder.

This year, our four Bay Area Jewish camps welcomed over 3,000 campers, 600 staff, and several thousand family camp participants, Shabbat visitors, and Jewish retreat participants. Camp Ramah Galim kicked off its inaugural summer on the coast south of Santa Cruz with 255 campers, half of them attending Jewish overnight camp for the first time. Camp Ramah combines exuberant Conservative-style Jewish observance with specialty offerings like ocean exploration, performing arts, and adventure sports.

At Camp Ramah, I joined 50 donors and lay leaders in dedicating a new ark for the Torah, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At Camp Newman, I did my best to follow along with several hundred campers (all dancing in step) at a wild Shabbat Israeli dance party under the stars. At JCC Maccabi Camp in Menlo Park, I cheered on athletes who might never have attended Jewish camp in the past, as they experienced Jewish values through sports.

L: Shabbat at URJ Camp Newman
R: Bay Area rabbis dedicating Camp Ramah Galim's Torah and ark


With our Federation scholarship and grant support, as well as leadership from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and national funders like the Jim Joseph Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, Bay Area Jewish overnight camp options are growing to meet the demand. The latest news is impressive:  

  • Two new camps launched in the last three years (JCC Maccabi and Ramah Galim) that have added nearly 600 camper and staff slots per year (and growing) without putting a dent in enrollment at Camp Newman and Camp Tawonga;
  • Beautiful new construction at Camp Newman to accommodate more year-round retreat programming for the whole Bay Area Jewish community; and
  • Camp Tawonga’s vision for “Down the Mountain” activities, with expanded local programming to reach more youth, young adults, and families with Tawonga’s “special Jewish sauce” throughout the year

I am a product of Jewish overnight camp, and my three children live for their summers at Camps Newman and Tawonga (yes, we are a dual-camp household). Each year, they come home more confident and mature, more deeply embedded in their camp communities, with a greater sense of responsibility and connection to the earth, and a joyful relationship with Judaism.

Shabbat at JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, photos by Jeff Bayer

There is compelling evidence that camp is a proven means of building Jewish identity, community, and leadership. Jewish overnight camp is a transformative experience in the life of a child and one of the best investments we can make in our Jewish future. Studies confirm that adults who attended Jewish overnight camp are 37% more likely to light candles regularly for Shabbat, 45% more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month, and 55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel.

That’s good news for anyone concerned about Jewish survival, but for the growing numbers who are instead asking “why be Jewish?,” our overnight camps offer a compelling answer: “Jewish camp makes kids better people.”

Learn more about the variety of camp scholarships the Federation supports.


September 12, 2016