Friday, February 18, 2011

Day School or Camp

There has been lots of press and discussion about the recent letters from Ma’ayanot and the Torah Academy of Bergen County informing parents that they will be jeopardizing financial aid if they send their 10th-12th graders to summer programs, including Israel trips. This will be the case even if the summer program is paid for by grandparents, though presumably not if the camps provide a full scholarship.

As leader of an organization supporting both the day school and summer camping fields, I have mixed feelings about this policy and ultimately would suggest a change. From a Jewish education and socialization perspective, Jewish summer camps are not the equivalent of vacations for kids. Rather, they are critical sources of Jewish experiential education that complement the formal education offered in day schools. Camps are the equivalent of educational magic or sleight of hand: kids focus on fun and friends, while they almost unknowingly soak in the Jewish values, rituals, ideals and joy that permeate camp through song, activities and bunk conversation. In most Orthodox camps and many others, there is also formal text study daily. The spirits and souls of Ma’ayanot and TABC students need summer camp.

At the same time, without a day school education, camp would have little to complement. Core Jewish knowledge, skills and curiosity come from the daily rhythm and classes of a day school. And day schools survive on tuition. Scholarships are necessary to ensure that Jewish children are not shut out of day schools for financial reasons. But scholarship dollars are not monopoly money; they have to be fundraised by the schools’ lay and professional leaders, mostly from other parents in the school. (As I have previously noted, it was not always this way: schools always were and should again become a community responsibility.) Scholarship families who send their children to summer camp are essentially compelling others to pay for their children’s summer camp experience.

How to balance the competing needs? I would distinguish the basic summer camp experience from an Israel trip. Every Jewish child should be entitled to one session of overnight camp every summer, even if that increases the need for day school scholarship. (Camps should also provide scholarships as needed.) We should recognize that families on financial aid still contribute toward school tuition, at great personal sacrifice. At some point, at the end of 10th grade or 11th grade, campers become staff, and the issue of paying for summer camp becomes moot. Israel trips are a different story. They, too, are incredibly valuable educational experiences. But they are far more expensive than one session of camp, and most Orthodox students will be spending a gap year in Israel just a couple of years later. Summer Israel experiences should be paid for by parents who can afford it, not by others in the community through financial aid dollars.
What does this mean for Ma’ayanot and TABC? I urge them to modify their policy, so that 10th graders – who are still likely to be campers – have the opportunity for one month of local overnight summer camp.

More important than the specific policy adopted is the understanding of the two principles clashing here: 1) the extraordinary educational value of Jewish summer camp and 2) the reality that day school scholarships are not currently an abstract “community expense” but an increased fundraising challenge for school leaders. If both principles are borne in mind, reasonable people will be able to disagree about the appropriate policy with mutual respect.

I’ll be interested to see how the conversation continues in the blogosphere and welcome your thoughts


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