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Life-Changing Experience

Zane and Melissa Brown met at Camp Solomon Schecter in 1978.

As Camp Solomon Schechter’s assistant director, Josh Niehaus has seen kids come and go over the years. The experience of Jewish overnight summer camp, however, will stay with them for a lifetime.

“Camp is the most fundamental building block of the American Jewish experience, in my mind,” he says. “Camp is about fun, so when you package Judaism in a candy-coating of fun, all of that meaningful stuff comes through in a way that’s a lot more powerful to young people.”

Josh should know. He first attended Schechter in 1994, when he was 12 years old. Except for a five-year gap, Josh, who is now 33, has never really left camp, which he attributes to its indelible impact. “It’s been a major part of my life for most of my life,” he says. “My Jewish identity has been almost entirely shaped by going through this camp.”

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Cream of the Crop

Top: Josh Niehaus, counselor Maddie Peha, and camper Toviel Sapon-Borson in a game of "Double Dare." Right: Josh Niehaus as a camper circa 1998, age 16.

Since camp can be critical to shaping children’s Jewish lives, making it possible for more children to attend Jewish overnight summer camp is a core focus of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s vision to create Jewish Connections for Life. The Federation offers both need-based scholarships and One Happy Camper incentive grants for first-time campers. Eligible families can apply for both. For the 2015 camp season, the Federation awarded 250 need-based scholarships and 102 One Happy Camper grants, a joint program of the Federation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

For many families considering sending their children to Jewish camp for the first time, the One Happy Camper grant is the clincher that opens the door to the life-transforming experience camp offers. “That grant made all the difference,” says Deb Shapiro, who sent her son, Baxter Houghton, to URJ Camp Kalsman. “It was pretty impactful in numerous ways. We hope that other kids and parents know about it, so they can have that opportunity, too.”

One Happy Camper is a great way to ease you into camp in the long run because once you start going, you’ll never stop going,” says Randi Hirsch, who received a Federation One Happy Camper grant to send her daughter, Maya, to Camp Kalsman for two weeks last summer. “It’s a great initial push to get you into camp.”

After sending both of her daughters — Maya, 8, and Jordyn, 11 — Randi says their experiences were so rich, she and her husband became fully convinced of camp’s value. Both girls now lead prayers and sing Hebrew songs. They also take pride in going to their public schools wearing their matching Camp Kalsman t-shirts that read “Take Me Home.” “I feel like camp is my second home,” Maya says. “I learned a lot there, and it’s really special and really fun.”

Camps offer activities and lessons wrapped up in Jewish themes, such as tikkun olam, history, culture, and Israel. Shabbat also stands out as being the most meaningful and special for many campers. “Everyone dresses up [for Shabbat], then you have a special dinner,” Maya says. “It’s all really fun.”

“Shabbat was a highlight of camp,” says Melissa Brown, who attended Schechter as a child. “The experience of a ruach-filled Shabbat at camp has had a lasting impact on me. Because it was so immersive, it was different from what we experienced in our own families and helped us appreciate the beauty and importance of Shabbat and living Jewishly.” Melissa, 50, met her husband, Zane Brown Jr., 49, while attending Schechter as teens in 1978. They believe Jewish overnight camp is an ideal way to create Jewish connections.

“My family first moved to Seattle from Salt Lake City in 1977, and I didn’t have much formal Jewish education,” Zane says. “Going to Schechter and having this immersive Jewish experience really jump-started my education and appreciation for what it means to be a Jew and to live as a Jew. It was an incredibly foundational role in my life.”

Melissa echoes the importance of immersion. “A day can feel like a week in the best way possible, she says. The quality of friendships is so much stronger and deeper because you have these seminal experiences together.”

There is empirical evidence for the value of camp in building children’s sense of community and belonging. In 2011, the Foundation for Jewish Camp reviewed 26 U.S. Jewish population studies and concluded “camp attendance was found to be associated with an increased likelihood of adult participation and identification [for camp alumni]. The camp experience increases the likelihood of [Jewish engagement] by as much as one-fourth and shows camp’s importance in Jewish identity formation.”

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Campers for life

Left: Maya and Jordyn Hirsch wear their Camp Kalsman t-shirts all year long. Right: Baxter Houghton jumps for joy at Camp Kalsman. 

The Federation is focused on giving more camp opportunities as part of Jewish Connections for Life partially because the community bonds kids form at camp last long after they have grown up. Melissa and Zane are still friends with many of their fellow campmates. “We still see those people all of the time. We go to their kids’ bar mitzvahs and weddings,” Zane says. “It’s a community that you build that lasts a lifetime, and that’s no exaggeration.”

“Through camp, a lot of kids discover who they are and what their interests are and potentially what they want to devote their lives to,” Josh Niehaus says. That’s true for Baxter. “He had a sense of independence. It was an introduction to spirituality and a sense of history and community in being Jewish,” Deb says. “He developed really deep bonds with his bunkmates and counselors. He saw rabbis in a non-traditional setting where they were sitting around talking about being Jewish.”

For kids who may not have had much experience connecting with other Jews, camp creates a sense of belonging. “I made tons and tons and tons of friends! I felt like we could all understand each other,” Baxter says. “If I made a menorah at school, people would be like, ‘Uh, what is that?’ Now I answer their questions and say, ‘I’m proud to be Jewish.’”

“That makes me cry,” Deb says.

“It was really positive,” Baxter said. “It was great being at camp.”

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