Maximizing the long vacation (HaHofesh Hagadol) through Summer Camps Israel 

We became more mature. We learned lots of things school doesn’t teach you about life. Like for instance time management, being responsible for yourself and your behavior.” camper in Israel, summer ‘21

“ It was fun to detach…If I had my phone with me, I wouldn’t have made so many friends and it would have ruined the experience.” camper in Israel, summer ‘21

While overnight summer camp is a proven value for the development of children in North America and to some extent in Europe and the FSU, it is an underdeveloped model for informal education in Israel. American based research has proven the capacity of summer camps in developing autonomy, leadership, a sense of civic responsibility and teaching of a vast array of skills. An overnight camp is a place children can return to for multiple summers, building a unique friendship circle as they mature. Camp is also a place where teens can set aside their “screens” for an extended period and focus on people rather than things and artificial situations. 

In 2019/20 the groundwork for Summer Camps Israel was established through the support of the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation. The foundation decided to make a bold financial and operational investment in overnight camp, seeing it as a gap in opportunity in the Israeli summer landscape. Shawna Goodman as a recent olah chadasha (new immigrant) realized, through her children’s experience, that there was an obvious opportunity for new programming during the endless summer. Through her early efforts, a team bringing together Israel and North American experiences was created. The Summer Camps Israel team is  a true “Mifgash” [encounter] of ideas and experiences, drawing on varying strengths to build a unique model rooted in Israeli culture and values. 

The intention was to build on the existing field and provide Israeli kids 11-16, who had outgrown day camp, with a place to thrive as they spend a minimum of 10 days away from home at a purpose-built program. The first steps were to study the field, create a theory of change, make a long-term commitment to the initiative and establish the Forum for Summer Camps Israel (the Forum) as an organization to bring together existing and aspiring camp operators. This creation of the Forum was novel, as many of the existing camps had seen themselves more as competitors rather than colleagues who could come together and benefit from shared learning. Appreciation for the collective was amplified during this summer when information during COVID was often confusing, and supply of resources was meager. The comfort of the network provided ignition to power through the uncertainty.

The Forum now serves as the membership entity for the camp networks and supports the development of new camps as well as working alongside more veteran operators who are committed to a value based experiential overnight experience. Our vision and theory of changed focused on scaling up the field with camps that would integrate children from diverse backgrounds, have a policy of limited use of cell phones and all screens, provide experiences that would focus on personal growth and empathy (encourage volunteerism), experience the potential of a Shabbat experience and provide a multi- year program that would enable campers to return and develop and grow from year to year.

To measure the impact and potential of camp we realized we needed based line research. We had benefited from reviewing the study that UJA-Federation of New York did four years ago with the Szold Institute generally exploring the potential of summer camps. As we were ready to fully launch the camp platform in 2021 (after the COVID delay of 2020) we engaged Do-Et Research Institute to undertake the first extensive research on the overnight summer camp field. We are pleased to present the research for review.  The report (click below) is a translation from Hebrew.

A study of Summer Camps for Israel

Do-Et Institute based their findings on a survey of 605 respondents from 5 camps (both new and existing) and in-depth interviews with campers, staff and parents. The report includes a literature review as well as quantitative and qualitative findings. Using research from both North America and Israel the report defines a “made in Israel” approach which will be used to measure progress in successive years.  

The main insight of this novel Israeli research from Do-Et is that camps have a positive influence in the areas explored; life skills, a sense of competence, development of specialty skills, tolerance and inclusion, a sense of identity and the ability to detach from electronic devices.  Overall, the rating of the camp experience was very high with 96% of respondents providing a high ranking and 91% saying they would recommend the experience to friends. 82% of respondents had never attended camp before and 77%  said they were interested in returning next year. 

Camp is a journey which has the potential to build powerful experiences that can have a life changing impact where participants feel they left as one person and returned as another. While the model is not widely known yet the potential is significant. The risk of negative behaviors amongst adolescents and teens during the long hot summer is well known, conversely families are familiar with the value of experiential education through other entities such as youth movements and after school activities. Additionally, the global contribution of the emissaries of The Jewish Agency for Israel who have been working at  camps abroad for decades has created a parent and grandparent population familiar with the potential of the model. The Forum is engaged with an ongoing PR effort using all social media platforms to “normalize the concept of overnight camp.”

It is important to acknowledge that overnight summer camps existed before the Forum for Summer Camps Israel was created but the numbers of kids going to camps was less than 10,000 and most were from children of English-speaking immigrants and other Israelis with financial capacity to pay the full cost of camp. Due to the high level of interest, the availability of financial support for families with economic need and exceptional partnerships, we saw that number grow by 20% in summer 2021 and aim to grow that number to 25,000 within 5 years.   

We are appreciative of the special support received this summer by the Schusterman Family Philanthropies and other North American and Israel supporters which allowed camps to offer the experience at an affordable price alongside the investment of our Foundation. We look forward to growing strategically with the research tools we now have and continuing to build a “ made in Israel  model” that will be life changing for generations of children. 

Shawna Goodman Sone is chair of the board of directors, Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation.

Maxyne Finkelstein is president, Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation.

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