Jewish Exponent: First Reform Day Camp Planned for Philly

The Reform movement is planning to open its first day camp in the country next year, situating it in the Philadelphia suburbs.


The location of Harlam Day Camp, which will be run under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism’s popular Harlam overnight camp, has not yet been finalized, according to movement officials.


URJ officials said that for now, they will be renting space rather than buying property. They also said they are trying to be sensitive to the locations of existing community day camps. The two largest Jewish day camps in the Philadelphia suburbs are Ramah Day Camp in Elkins Park and Kaiserman JCC’s Camp Kef in Wynnewood.


There are currently about 1,300 kids enrolled in eight Jewish day camps locally, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Reform officials and other local camp directors said there are many more potential campers in the community and they don’t expect the addition of Harlam Day Camp to greatly increase the competition for families.


The news comes as Jewish camps are increasingly being seen as playing a significant role in helping to form a young person’s Jewish identity. It’s been accepted wisdom for some time that an overnight Jewish camp experience can be formative, and a slew of studies have been offered as proof.


More recently, researchers and others in the Jewish world have turned to the relatively unmined potential of Jewish day camps.


Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said his movement’s decision to open a day camp “signals a strategic clarity for us. If we think about young families, this is the moment when they are asking, ‘What is the Jewish tradition that we want to live? What are the commitments that we want to make?’ ”


Though Reform leaders wouldn’t put a price tag on the project, they said it requires a “significant” investment on the part of Harlam and the movement. 


The URJ had several reasons for choosing Philadelphia as the site of its pilot program, Jacobs and others sources said. Partly, it was because of Harlam’s strong reputation. The camp, one of 13 URJ currently operates, was named for philanthropists Joseph and Betty Harlam and has been around since 1958. It currently serves 1,100 campers during the course of the summer. 


Another reason, officials said, is because Philadelphia, once known as a Conservative town because of the strenth of its Conservative synagogues, now has a plurality of Jews that identify with the Reform movement. 

According to the 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” 41 percent of the region’s Jews identitfy as Reform, up from 28 percent in the previous study, conducted in 1997.


In contrast, the percentage of those identifying with the Conservative movement fell from 38 percent in 1997 to 30 percent in 2009.


The area is home to 13 URJ-affiliated congregations. Reform congregations Rodeph Shalom in Center City and Beth Or in Maple Glen are among the region’s largest and most robust.


Lisa David, URJ’s associate director of camping, said the day camp initiative fits in with the organization’s strategic youth engagement plan. URJ’s own research has found that about 50 percent of teens drop out of Jewish life after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. 


“There are so many people that we are losing,” said David.


Day camp, said David, is a way to foster positive Jewish experiences in children as young as 4 or 5 years old. And since parents tend to live relatively close to their child’s day camp — as opposed to a few hours drive from an overnight camp — day camp offers the potential to engage parents in a way that sleepaway camp does not, she said.


Aaron Selkow, since 2011 the director of Camp Harlam, located in Kunkletown, Pa., in the foothills of the Pocono mountains, has been a driving force behind the movement’s entry into the day camp world. For years, he ran Camp Pinemere in Stroudsburg, Pa., another overnight camp, and he didn’t think seriously about the potential of day camps.


But after looking at the studies, including a 2011 one, “The Jewish Learning Presence in JCC Day Camps,” conducted by sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Eitan Melchior, and visiting day camps firsthand, he has become a believer. 


“There are two opportunities with day camping,” explained Selkow, who will oversee the day camp’s director. “There are kids for whom a Jewish day camp experience can be a gateway into an overnight camping experience.”


The other rationale , he said, is “there are lots of kids that are never going to do overnight camp, for many reasons.”


The reasons parents eschew overnight camp, he said, include financial constraints, wanting to spend more time with their kids in the summer and competition from specialized camps. He also noted that some children just don’t want to go  or aren’t a good fit for overnight camp.


Selkow has hired Eytan Graubart, who runs youth and family engagement at a JCC in Virginia and has also run day camps, to be the first director at Harlam Day Camp,which is slated to open in time for the 2014 camping season. 


Harlam’s new camp, which will offer a full range of outdoor activities, sports, aquatics, arts and Jewish programming, is expected to serve children ages preschool through early teens, said Selkow.


He said it is too early to know what the various price points will be for the day camp. He added that the camp will be offering need-based financial aid. In addition, campers will be eligible for scholarships from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which currently awards $100,000 annually in day camp scholarships, according to Brian Mono, head of the Federation’s Jewish Life and Learning Center.


The news about Harlam isn’t coming as a shock to Rabbi Joel Seltzer, who directs Camp Ramah of the Poconos, which is part of the Conservative movement. Seltzer said he and Selkow have spoken many times about the endeavor.


Seltzer said that many strongly committed Conservative families wouldn’t consider sending their children to a Reform camp, and vice versa. But he noted that there are many families who don’t make such decisions based on ideology, but rather on factors like cost, convenience, location and the specifics of a program.


And he stressed that Ramah and Harlam have similar missions.


“The more the merrier is the easiest way to say our reaction,” said Seltzer, who is entering his first summer as camp director. “We are all united in the same purpose: instilling Jewish values.”l