“Hey, where are you going to camp this summer?”
This question is already being thrown around by kids in our schools. These words may cause parents to wonder how they will swing camp expenses, especially if they took a financial hit due to Covid. Many parents ask themselves: what are the alternatives to a fun-filled (yet pricey) camp experience? Even highly creative parents admit they can provide lots of love and fun for their children, but they cannot offer the group experience, the feeling of camaraderie that comes with the camp experience, or the camp beit midrash experience for their boys.
And even if the parents have the time and energy to create a non-camp summer experience for their kids, in the end it might even be more expensive to provide entertainment for their kids on a daily basis. And, of course, all parents recognize the peer pressure our kids feel. If everyone in the class is going to the same camp, your kid will want to go there too! – even if a less expensive camp might even be better. Kids want to be with their friends. And, most parents will remember their own fond camp memories, and recognize that summer camp not only makes for great memories, but also helps kids to blossom in a non-school setting.
No one needs to survey community parents about their thoughts about the costs of sending their kids to camp. The talk on the street is that camp is a bit expensive. Instead, Community Magazine spoke to the organizers of three different camps our kids attend. We interviewed Rabbi Eliyahu Levy (Director, YDE’s Camp Darcheinu), Rabbi Leon Cohen (Director, Camp Maxx), and Rabbi Norman Cohen (Director, Camp M & N (Max & Norman)) to understand what is driving the higher prices, and what their challenges are in providing safe, kosher fun, and learning experiences for our community children.
Rising Prices All Over
The reality is that there are surprising reasons why this upcoming season will be even more expensive. For example, when Camp Maxx Director Rabbi Leon Cohen called to reserve one of his campers’ favorite outings, he was disappointed to learn that the entrance fee had increased over thirty percent. And that increase was tame compared to some others. Camp directors have their sights set on high adventure and exciting activities, such a white-water rafting, jet skiing, American Dream, and rollerblading, just to name a few. Our kids work hard in school. We want them to have these wonderful experiences. We shudder to think of them lounging at home plugged into electronic devices all summer. We want them to get out and interact with others and to share exhilarating experiences, great learning, and fun sports. However, these things are costly, and are becoming more so. Since Covid, prices have increased across the board for basics such as buses, swimming facilities, and staff. Some estimate prices have increased to as much as forty percent.
Subsequently, camp directors feel they have no choice but to increase their camp fees accordingly, albeit reluctantly. Trying to juggle higher prices and cutting costs wherever possible is a challenge for anyone trying to run a camp for this coming summer. How can they possibly provide the best programs, which children and parents demand, while keeping fees manageable?
Community camps like YDE’s Camp Darcheinu have always had a somewhat easier time meeting financial challenges. With a stable camp population, director Rabbi Eliyahu Levy always kept prices down. He offers parents the choice of declining bus pick-up and drop-off. Moreover, he keeps prices for overnight trips separate, enabling parents to pass on those more expensive outings, which necessarily cost extra, given the costs of overnight accommodations and transportation. It helps that most campers live close to the yeshiva, where the camp is located, and that YDE does not charge rent for their facilities.
Still, Camp Darcheinu’s parents are no longer immune from soaring costs. Rabbi Levy, Head Counselor Rabbi Isaac Shamula, and BN8 Division Head Rabbi Avi Aghai, all rebbes at YDE, are bending over backwards to keep costs as reasonable as possible. The same applies to its girls’ and preschool divisions, run under the direction of Mrs. Mazi Haddad Sultan and Mrs. Esther Faham.
Reasonable fees and the strong sense of community catapulted Camp Darcheinu into the success it has become. It went from seventy boys their first year in 2015 to about 500 campers today, which includes girls and preschoolers.
However, not only Covid is to blame for higher camp fees. Finding good, reliable staff members has become more difficult. “The number of people willing to work has gone down significantly,” Rabbi Levy says. “Not long ago, teenage boys were happy to make a few hundred dollars working for us; now they can make more working in a warehouse. Whereas before, they saw the summer as a time when they could have fun; now, they look at these months as an opportunity to make money.”
So, what to do?
“We learned that less is more,” Rabbi Aghai explains. “We used to hire eight to ten counselors per fifty campers, but with so many counselors around, few wanted to take responsibility; they expected others to do their job.”
Today, at Camp Darcheinu they hire two counselors per 18–20 kids, and three Division Heads to oversee the counselors. The Division heads are married men in their twenties and early thirties, responsible for maintaining the dynamics of the camp. Because the Division Heads and the rebbeim are primarily from YDE and know the boys and the mentality well, they keep the vibes just right.
Subsequently, they have no problem finding enough boys to do the job. And, despite earning less than they would in a pizza shop or warehouse, most would not trade jobs. “They have a fun time. We take them out to dinner and integrate them well into the entire camp environment,” Rabbi Shamula says.
More importantly, the counselors learn responsibility and develop maturity within a fun-filled Torah environment, lessons not readily acquired elsewhere. It’s a win-win situation. “We get the most out of them, and they get the most out of us,” he says.
Jersey Shore Camps
Camps serving the Jersey Shore are equally affected by the steep hikes in prices due to Covid and changes in attitudes of potential staff. Camp Maxx is one such example. Ten years old, it has about one hundred campers from grades one through nine.
Located in the Jewish Community Center in Deal, most activities are on-campus. The center boasts basketball courts, professional hockey rinks, baseball fields, and indoor and outdoor pools. They have even created their own outdoor 40-foot “slippery slide.” They do not need to bus campers to neighborhood parks and pools, as do other camps. However, they do have to pay for keeping buses on call to pick up and return children to their homes and for their weekly off-campus trips. Since Covid, the cost of the facilities has also increased substantially, as has the cost of the nutritious lunch they serve daily.
However, staff salaries, especially for rebbeim, constitute the bulk of their expenses. Camp Director Rabbi Leon Cohen believes that is as it should be. “To attract experienced and professional rebbeim, it has to be worth their while to give up their summers,” he says.
After all, hiring the right rebbeim was the initial raison d’etre for the camp itself.
Camp Maxx – Fun, Learning, and Great Staff to the Max
“I wanted my son to maintain the same quality of learning during the summer,” recalls Rabbi Leon Cohen, a rebbe at Hillel Yeshiva and certified educational administrator. “So, I decided to learn with him in the mornings and take him around in the afternoon.” Other like-minded parents asked Rabbi Cohen to include their children, as well.
“We had five boys that summer: My brother and I taught them ourselves. The program was very successful. We maximized the learning and the fun. It was a small group – warm and inviting. That’s how we came up with the name “Camp Maxx.”
How do you maximize the learning and the fun? “We incentivize the children to want to learn better, and we motivate the counselors, who then inspire the campers. When the counselors tune out, the activities fizzle. If the counselors are into the activities, the activities feel different.”
However, hiring the right counselors is, of course, equally critical; they must embody the warmth and spirit of the camp. Today, most of them are Camp Maxx alumni. Still, there are challenges in accommodating their yeshiva schedules: As Torah learners, some only arrive in Deal or return to their yeshivot – whether in Israel or Lakewood – after the camp starts or before it finishes. Therefore, flexibility remains the name of the game.
“My Head Counselor, R’ Shabtai Heller and I, accommodate their schedules because these are some of our best counselors. We also hire more counselors than we need so that we aren’t left short and because these young men (ages 18-20 and up) incorporate the enthusiasm that we need.”
To keep campers safe, a counselor and junior counselor oversee every fifteen children.
Camp M&N – Quality Rebbeim and Counselors Make All the Difference
Rabbi Norman Cohen, Director of Camp M&N (Max and Norman), also believes in hiring outstanding rebbeim and counselors and paying them well. Located in Yeshiva Keter Torah, in Eatontown, N.J., Camp M&N is three years old. However, Rabbi Cohen has over twenty years of experience with summer camps, having founded and directed the popular Camp Dan. Rabbi Cohen says that joining up with Max Sutton, known as “Coach Max,” the grandfather of sports in the area, has elevated the camping experience considerably. Max Sutton works at YDE, while Rabbi Cohen teaches at Hillel Yeshiva and is the Assistant Rabbi at Shaare Tefilah of Eatontown. Max’s wife, Rachel Sutton, heads the preschool division.
The camp attracts over 300 campers from preschool (boys and girls) through ninth grade. Boys from grades one onward attend yeshivot throughout Brooklyn and Jersey. They share a love for serious Torah learning and a yeshiva mindset, and they love to have fun, too!
“Everyone attending Camp M&N believes learning is a value,” Rabbi Norman Cohen says. Subsequently, Camp M&N hires only experienced kollel yungerleit or rebbeim (two per grade) with the scholarship and personality to inspire young boys to learn well, which can be especially challenging in the hot days of summer when baseball beckons.
And if that’s not enough, the Learning Director, Rabbi Raymond Falack, a highly popular rebbe in his own right, oversees the learning, ensuring that it is of a high standard and that the children learn to their potential. And if changes in curriculum are needed in order to serve campers’ needs, so be it. “If that particular Gemara is not working for that class, we’ll teach another Gemara or even another sefer,” Rabbi Cohen says. “We’re flexible.”
They must be doing something right because many campers show up at 8:30am to learn mishnayot without any extra incentives!
Camp M&N also has two Head Counselors running the older and younger divisions. They are responsible for scheduling, hiring, ensuring that all the campers are where they should be, and that everything runs smoothly. They look for reliable people who are fun, approachable, and easy-going.
“Good people are not easy to find,” Rabbi Cohen acknowledges, “But, fortunately, most of our Head Counselors and rebbeim have been with me a long time.”
Two counselors and an assistant oversee each group of about fifteen to twenty children. Their counselors are grown men and rebbes – in their 20s and early 30s, whereas assistants are aged sixteen to eighteen. Even though they start work at 11:30am, many counselors show up earlier, setting an example for all the boys. The early birds either learn independently or learn privately with campers who find learning in groups challenging.
Camps Offer Something for Everyone
Camps M&N, Maxx, and Darcheinu in addition to including learning and a wide range of activities are essentially sports camps. Besides swimming, they offer basketball, baseball, and softball. The competition is tough, especially when it comes to the playoffs. Leagues predominate.
But boys who are not into sports are not left out. The camps also offer arts and crafts, woodworking, scavenger hunts, creative fun activities, and field trips. Rabbi Norman Cohen believes in providing his campers with two trips weekly.
“It’s a nice break from leagues, which can be too competitive. It also breaks the week up,” he says.
Campers are challenged to find what appeals to them. Even the most disinterested camper might unearth hidden talents and abilities with the right inspiration and training. Camp M&N boasts the skills of Coach Max Sutton, who has an exuberant way of getting kids involved in sports. “[Even if a kid doesn’t love sports] if he is willing to dip his feet into the water, Max will help him to swim, so to speak,” Rabbi Cohen says.
At Camp Darcheinu, the Division Heads’ responsibility is to encourage and train sports-adverse boys. But Rabbis Levy and Shamula also get their feet wet – literally. They fondly recall a football game they played in the pouring rain, when Rabbi Levy, in his white shirt, got tackled to the ground. This game became a classic – alumni talk about it to this day.
Ask these directors what stands out about their camp. They will point out the camaraderie, achdut, and welcoming spirit. There is also a strong sense of belonging. Rabbi Leon Cohen has seen campers transform over the summer.
“Good camps increase campers’ confidence,” he says. “I’ve seen boys who were not good learners or good at sports suddenly blossom because the counselors and campers warmly welcomed them into the camp. For once, they felt as good as anyone else.”
It is these kinds of benefits and lasting memories that are ultimately priceless.
At the end of the day, we can see that many factors influence the higher costs, and the commitment to provide excellent programming and supervision plus lots of fun (and isn’t that what we all want for our kids?) comes with a price tag. Our conclusion is that although prices seem high, parents are actually getting a lot for their money. Their kids benefit not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well. These are things that we value as a community.