by Susan Stopper
Each summer, kids get more than fellowship around the campfire at faith-based camps across the country. They gain an understanding of God, faith and religious practices.
Faith-based camps draw millions of children each year. Member camps of the Christian Camp and Conference Association (CCCA) served about 2.7 million people during the summer of 2006. The Foundation for Jewish Camping estimates that more than 70,000 children attend Jewish camps each summer.
While most summer camps strive to help children develop socially, intellectually, physically and emotionally, faith-based camps put a larger emphasis on spiritual development. In an American Camp Association (ACA) study, staff from camps with a religious affiliation ranked spiritual development as the highest priority for their campers, while secular staff selected social development as their highest priority.
Boating and Blessings
At faith-based camps, you’ll find traditional camp activities such as canoeing, swimming and arts and crafts, as well as newer offerings like wakeboarding, rock climbing and ropes courses. The way faith and religion play into the camp programs varies. Peter Surgenor, president of ACA, says, “Some camps say a blessing at every meal and do a worship service once a week. Others have a very active education program and a worship service every day, along with smaller group devotionals and Bible studies.”
Says Baily Kahan, a director at Camp Gan Israel in Cherry Hill, NJ, “We try to give children a really great camping experience with a Jewish twist. Jewish history is entwined in our crafts and activities.”
Richelle Darrell, summer camp director at Camp Pecometh, a Christian camp in Centreville, MD, says, “One week of camp is worth a year of Sunday School. The kids are learning about religion and having a great time doing it.”
Faith-based camps not only teach beliefs and values, they apply them in the daily camp activities. Says Rabbi Todd Zeff, director of Camp Ramah, a Jewish camp that operates a day camp in Elkins Park, PA and a residential camp in the Poconos, “Camp provides an experiential setting as opposed to a formal setting. At camp kids live the values that they are taught about in a formal setting. Not only do we teach the Jewish values of how to treat one another through texts, we apply them on the basketball court.”
“Camp is not just about learning how to sail a boat, it’s about creating a religious community,” says Rabbi Zeff. The religious community that camp fosters is largely responsible for campers’ spiritual development.
“Our staff connects with the campers,” says Darrell. Counselors really get to know their campers and help them develop their own faith. Like most Christian camps, Camp Pecometh welcomes all children regardless of their religion. “Nothing is pushed down their throat,” Darrell says. “We try to keep it informational and fun.”
Staff members also help campers broaden their perspectives. For instance, about 40 of the 200 staff members at Camp Ramah each year are from Israel. Rabbi Zeff says,
“The campers learn about and interact with real Israelis. They gain insight into the political and social climate of Israel. They learn that it’s not just two views Israeli and Palestinian, but Israelis have all kinds of opinions.”
While campers learn from their counselors, they also form strong bonds with them and their fellow campers. Many faith-based camps see their campers come back year after year and then return as counselors.
On Thursday evening at Camp Pecometh, campers and staff gather on the banks of the Chester River, where this Christian camp is located. In the warm glow of candles floating on the river, the camp holds its Galilean service, which is a culmination of the week’s Bible studies and is filled with prayer.
Darrell says, “A lot of kids realize at this time that they want to accept Christ into their life. It’s a life-changing experience.”
Faith-based camps can also change children’s attitudes about their faith. Says Martyne Greenblatt, a mother from Voorhees, NJ who sends her two sons, Mason, 12 and Hillel, 5, to Camp Gan Israel each summer, “The camp gives them the most amazing Jewish identity without pushing it. They walk away wanting to be Jewish and feeling proud to be Jewish.”
According to Surgenor, faith-based camp is often just one component of a smorgasbord of activities for a child each summer. Many people would say it’s a very important component. Says Surgenor, “Camp gives children the building blocks of faith, teaches them to work better in groups and sends them home with a better understanding of the world around them that God has given them.”
Susan Stopper is a local freelance writer.