I grew up going to Hebrew school on Tuesdays, religious school on Sundays and, eventually, also to Jewish day school. But it wasn’t until my first summer at Camp Tawonga in 1998, that I realized I could choose to be Jewish. For the first time in my life, I was able to connect with my Jewishness in a way that was comfortable to me — through singing and dancing after Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, through funny skits explaining the week’s Torah portion during Saturday morning services, and through nurturing my self-esteem in a community-based environment.
Going to Jewish camp changed the course of my life. Much of the confidence I have as a 28-year-old is tied to the experiences I had at camp, starting at age 13.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend camp for four summers and then join the staff as soon as I turned 18. Nine of my last 10 summers were spent working at Camp Tawonga — moving from counselor, to unit head, to program director, and occasionally working in Tawonga’s San Francisco office.
Since that first summer at camp, I have been an active participant in the Jewish community, dedicating my professional life to Jewish causes — including three years in admissions at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay and now at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation (not to mention nearly causing my mother to faint upon announcing that I would be pursuing a minor in religious studies in college).
Sadly, there are many barriers to participating in Jewish life in today’s economic climate. The Bay Area is an expensive place to live, even more so for families. When one factors in the cost of Jewish preschool, synagogue membership, religious school and summer camp, too many families simply cannot afford the extra expense to stay connected to Jewish life each year.
Fortunately, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation is at the forefront of breaking down economic barriers to Jewish life. Through the Affordability Project, the federation is providing more than $1 million in need-based scholarships to children and teens for meaningful Jewish experiences — including Jewish preschool, day school, religious school and day and overnight camps. And now, the federation’s newest program — One Happy Camper — in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, provides grants of up to $1,000 for any child attending Jewish overnight camp for the first time.
My own story is a testament to the results: Those who attend Jewish summer camp are far more likely to marry Jewish partners (still looking!), maintain a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood and strengthen their emotional attachment to Israel’s well-being.
Whether “Jazzercising” in the dining hall, doing arts and crafts, or making s’mores and telling stories around a campfire, campers get to experience their Jewishness in an immersive environment. For me, this was incredibly unique, and an experience I had not been able to find elsewhere.
Nora Smith is the social media coordinator at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
To learn more about camperships, visit www.JewishFed.org/grants.