Foundation’s New Director Extols Benefits of Jewish Camping

Original Article Published on The Connecticut Jewish Ledger

After 25 years of selling and marketing such products as Stride Rite, Keds and Levi Strauss, Jerry Silverman brings his business sense and passion to a product that lasts many years longer than your average pair of shoes or jeans.

Silverman, the former president of the Stride Rite Children’s Group and the Keds Corporation, was recently named executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping (

Silverman is passionate about his latest “product” and is happy to discuss the lifelong benefits of Jewish camping.

Research into the impact of Jewish camping has been conducted during the past five years, and benefits of Jewish camping include:

•Research associates Jewish camp experience with increased Jewish practice, identity, leadership, affiliation and generosity, as well as with decreased intermarriage.

•Jewish camp alumni are 50% more likely to join a synagogue and 90% more likely to join a JCC than Jewish adults who never went to Jewish camp.

•65% of professionals in the Jewish community are alumni of non-profit Jewish overnight camps.

Silverman is also quick to point out some astounding numbers about camps and campers currently in Jewish summer camps.

“Non-profit Jewish overnight

camps are full to capacity,” notes Silverman, “We serve more than 120 Jewish camps and 120,000 counselors. But there is only room for 55,000 children each summer, barely 7% of our camp-age population.”

Public foundation

This is where Silverman, the Bildners, and the Foundation for Jewish Camping come in. When philanthropists Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner completed the Wexner Program, they were eager to put their new knowledge and skills to use serving the Jewish community. They were inspired, did careful research and felt the opportunity for the greatest impact was in the field of Jewish camping. In 1998, they set up a public foundation to (in the words of Silverman) “drive the message of Jewish camping and to serve as the central address and advocacy voice for information about non-profit Jewish camping.” The

Foundation for Jewish Camping also provides leadership, financial and programming resources to camps, campers and their families across North America.

According to Silverman, “Our number one mission is to significantly increase the number of Jewish kids participating in Jewish non-profit camps.”

Silverman then outlines for current goals of the foundation.

“Our first goal is professionalizing the field of Jewish camping,” notes Silverman. There are currently several grants aimed at keeping people in the field of Jewish camping. Billy Mencow, who worked closely with the Foundation during his five year tenure as director of Camp Ramah

in New England, praises the work of the Foundation. Mencow reports, “They have recognized the critical importance of staff retention, particularly in the college years. The FJC has hit the nail right on the head with its Cornerstone Program. Cornerstone supplied financial incentives for college sophomores to return on staff for a third year. This cohort goes on to become our Roshei Edah and Roshei Anaf – Unit and Department Heads. This is a program whose impact will be long lasting.”

Other grants include the Jewish Environmental and Nature Fellowship, geared to professionals interested in teaching nature and environmental issues in Jewish camps. The Spielberg Theatre Fellowship helps camps develop their theater arts programs. And Silverman notes with great excitement, “In 2006, we will launch a top level development curriculum for top notch, top-of-the line in the field.”

The second goal of the Foundation is what Silverman calls “advocating for the field.” This includes getting the message out about the importance and

impact of Jewish camping- through the media, Federations, etc. Silverman

spends a great deal of his time traveling across the country sharing data and stories with Jewish Federation and other community leaders about the

importance of Jewish camping.

The Foundation’s third goal, “looking at our sense of capacity,” has led to the development of new programs and new camps.

“We need capacity and new customer-centric and customer friendly programs. We need special needs programs, we need specialty camps,” Silverman notes.

Silverman reported on a high-level Jewish arts camp, BIMA, the Berkshires Institute for Music and Arts, which was started this past summer on the campus of Williams College in western

Massachusetts. Started by Rabbi Danny Lehman, the founder of the New Jewish High School in Boston, the camp offered tracks in art, music (instrumental and vocal) and creative writing to 42 students, including six from Israel.

“We will be offering six or seven specialty programs this summer alone,” boasts Silverman. “And we are working to open new camps

with various movements. The Reconstructionist Movement bought and will open its first camp, and we are offering seed grants to get programs off the ground. And we are challenging existing camps to increase their capacity.”

The fourth goal of the Foundation is programmatic excellence.

Existing camps are eligible to receive Program Excellence Grants, where the highest quality programs are rewarded. These programs are then shared through a program bank offered by the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

Ruth Ann Ornstein, executive director of Camp Laurelwood, the only Jewish overnight camp in Connecticut, reports, “We use the Foundation for Jewish Camping as a resource network. We call with questions, and we use them for help in finding staff.” Further, Ornstein is pleased that Camp Laurelwood received a Spielberg Grant four years ago.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, based in Springfield, Mass., shares many of the Foundation for Jewish Camping’s goals and has collaborated on several projects, including the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy.

According to Joanna S. Ballantine, executive director of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the two organizations are working to help Jewish overnight camps with board development and fundraising. The Grinspoon Foundation has organized a leadership training institute for camp executive directors, and they continue to offer the Campership Incentive Program.

This program funds Jewish children from Western Massachusetts who attend Jewish overnight camps; this program is neither need-based nor affiliation-based. “We believe Jewish camping is one of the important places to make an impact on Jewish families,” reports Ballantine.

Silverman assures readers that he “will be a strong advocate to ensure that the Jewish sleep-away camp remains a viable and growing industry for parents seeking to give their children a lifetime of memories as well as a life-long community one summer at a time.”

And he concludes, “It is my hope to double the numbers of Jewish children attending non-profit camps in the coming years.”

For more information about the Foundation for Jewish Camping log onto or contact the Foundation at

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