Developing the pipeline to Jewish camp

Dr. Daniel Held is the Executive Director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, which builds the capacity Toronto’s system of Jewish education. He has a wide range of experience in strategic philanthropy, conducting research and evaluation to maximize funders’ impact in Jewish education. Daniel holds a doctorate in education from JTS’s Davidson School of Education and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. He can be reached at


When I was seven years old, my parents signed me up for a month-long session at Camp Shalom. I had never been to camp before.  Come July, they took me to the bus, gave me a kiss, and said goodbye.  I’m pretty sure they came for Visitors’ Day. 

Thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to register for a camp sight unseen. Today it’s not.  The trend in camping is to register for shorter sessions, for parents and children to visit camp first, and for the kids to try a short session of a few days or a week before longer sessions in later summers. These stepping stones help both children and parents acclimate to Jewish camping, building trust and excitement. 


With this trend in mind, the Silber Family Centre for Jewish Camping developed our community’s strategy to build a pipeline of camping experiences with four waypoints: from PJ Goes to Camp, to the Weekender, to One Happy Camper, to lifelong campership.


Jewish summer camp changes Jewish lives. The 2011 ‘Camp Works’ report found that individuals who have experienced Jewish summer camp are more likely to be active participants in Jewish life. For example, they were more likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel (30% of campers vs. 19% of non-campers), be members of a synagogue (56% of campers vs. 44% of non-campers) and donate to a Jewish federation (28% of campers vs. 20% of non campers).


Seven years ago, through a leadership gift from Alan and Hinda Silber and their family, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto established the Silber Family Centre for Jewish Camping, a department dedicated to strengthening our community’s future by increasing participation in Jewish summer camp.  Together with sixteen affiliated camps, our goal is to help every Jewish child in our community experience Jewish camp.  In shorthand, we want to put more heads in beds.  


Our first major strategy in this work was developing the pipeline of campers.  


Building on families’ love of and trust in PJ Library, PJ Goes to Camp is a one-day experience of both Jewish overnight and day camp for kindergarten(ish)-aged children and their parents. A portion of the families visit overnight camps on Sundays throughout the summer. We organize a bus (and many drive themselves) and the camp organizes a full day of activities for children and their parents – some joint and some separate.  Day camps offer PJ Goes to Camp mid-week for both parents and children, providing a tour of the camp, a meeting with the director, and a sense of the camp’s programs, all of which empower parents to send their children back the following summer. 


During last two summers we have sent 342 children on PJ Goes to Camp Programs, with participation growing each summer. Over 130 children are already enrolled in PJ Goes to Camp programs for the summer 2019. 


My own daughter participated in a PJ Goes to Camp program when she was four.  Every day for the next six months, she wore her camp backpack and hat and told me she was going to camp.  Sure enough, she spent the next summer at camp. 


You can view a video we developed promoting PJ Goes to Camp here.  


It’s a leap to go from one day at camp with one’s parents to a 12-day session, which is the length of session eligible for a One Happy Camper grant.  So, in 2017 we introduced The Weekender.  


The goal of The Weekender is to offer every child in our community the opportunity to experience a weekend at camp, free of charge, whetting their appetite to return summer after summer. The Weekender acts as a stepping stone between PJ Goes to Camp and a full camp session, over 25% of The Weekender’s summer 2019 participants were comprised of children who attended PJ Goes to Camp in the summer of 2018. 


In 2017, we held Weekender sessions at three camps and had 181 campers register. One camp, which had run a Weekender session before, expanded from 40 campers in summer 2016 to over 120 in summer 2018: While their program had previously engaged siblings of existing campers and children of alumni, they were able to triple their number of campers by leveraging the broader community. Critically, the retention of campers from The Weekender in 2017 to return to camp in 2018 was 58%.


In summer 2018, we expanded to five camps and had 226 participants (with another 33 on a waiting list) The Weekender enabled our camps to reach a broader audience- kids who otherwise wouldn’t have attended camp – and entice them to return summer after summer.  You can see a video telling the story of a Weekender session here.


The third waypoint along our pipeline is One Happy Camper in partnership with Foundation for Jewish Camp, the incentive grant for first time full-session campers.  While many One Happy Camper participants have been to camp before – for personal visits, PJ Goes to Camp, The Weekender or ‘Taste of’ sessions, One Happy Camper grants help families transition from short experiences to full camp sessions and provides them with a financial incentive to choose Jewish overnight camp.


Jewish summer camp is a key ingredient in developing a strong Jewish identity.  As we seek to strengthen the future of our Jewish community, we know that increasing the number of children who benefit from the magic of Jewish summer camp will have a significant impact.  The pipeline of campers, from PJ Goes to Camp to The Weekender to One Happy Camper is our first strategy to catalyze this change.