Gates of Prayer campers at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, July 2022. Courtesy Gates of Prayer/Facebook
Gates of Prayer in Metairie announced a $1 million initiative to defray the cost of Jewish summer camp for its members.
The Gates of Camp Initiative, called GO-Camp, will reduce the cost of sleepaway camp by 50 percent for all qualifying students in the 460-family congregation’s J-FLEx program. The program begins with the summer of 2023.
J-FLEx is the congregation’s “camp style” experiential education program for pre-Kindergarten through Confirmation.
The tuition award is available to all congregational members in good standing who achieve participation milestones during the calendar year. All sleepaway camps affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism are eligible, other camps will be decided on a case by case basis. Campers from the New Orleans area generally attend the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica.
Rabbi David Gerber said the program came from the idea of treating summer camp like the Birthright Israel trips, so that “regardless of need, every kid who walks through our doors has the opportunity to go to Jewish summer camp.”
Gerber said that the expense is a barrier for some people, even with numerous scholarship opportunities in the community.
Studies have shown that Jewish summer camp is a key indicator of future involvement in the Jewish community. Gerber said they have “higher rates of engagement, understanding of their traditions and support for Israel.”
The initiative is also structured in a way to encourage regular participation in congregational life by the entire family. “For a lot of our families, they are going to spend a lot of time with us, and that’s great.”
The award is earned by acquiring 100 GO-Camp Phil Shekels during the year, through an activities list developed by a parents committee. Gerber said the requirement “is not meant to be a barrier,” and students who are engaged in Jewish life will earn the Phil Shekels — many of them could have the year’s allotment earned by November or December.
Half of the shekels must be earned through attendance at J-FLEx on Sundays or the Shabbat programs and retreats. A Sunday class is four shekels, so with 27 class sessions, the award can be earned entirely through attendance, and as an example, 13 Sundays covers the minimum requirement.
However, knowing that schedules can be tricky for some families, there is a long list of ways to earn shekels. Being a member of Gates of Prayer Temple Youth or attending conventions earn shekels. Attending a Shabbat service is two shekels — even attending services at a different congregation earns a shekel, two if it is a life cycle event.
Having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah adds 18 shekels, and shekels can be earned by visiting the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience or the National World War II Museum. High Holiday services are three shekels.
Parents can also earn shekels through attendance or participation at services, participation in adult education, serving on a committee or membership in the Brotherhood or Sisterhood, but the program does not require parents to earn shekels.
As an example, a family with three children showed up for a Shabbat service in July, so each child received points for attendance, and each child also received points because both parents were in attendance.
The shekels are tracked by software normally used for customer loyalty, with a bar code students have either on a card or on their phones in Google Pay or Apple Wallet. Families can already start earning shekels toward next summer.
The funds came from an anonymous donor, and will underwrite the program in perpetuity. The goal is that the fund will grow, especially in years where there are fewer campers, and also attract additional gifts. “I hope that one day we are paying 100 percent and it is truly a birthright,” Gerber said.
Like Birthright, GO-Camp is not need-based. Families will still need to apply for other scholarships that they are eligible for, such as the scholarship that covers half the cost of Olim at Jacobs Camp for those in New Orleans. The GO-Camp funds would then cover half of the remaining cost. There is also a Campership award from the Sisterhood and Brotherhood that one would still be able to use.
Gerber said it is entirely possible that a family would turn down the award and continue to pay for camp themselves. In that case, the award would remain in the fund and help it grow for future years, or can be designated to another fund in the congregation.
The congregation will have a GO-Camp introduction party in the parking lot on Aug. 27 at 6 p.m., to explain the program. There will be games and inflatables, food and crafts, and the entire community is welcome.
Gerber said the goal is to “get as many kids to camp as we can.” And between having the students engaged at the synagogue during the year and experiencing summer camp, “we have a good chance of having highly engaged families and next generations of good Jews to come.”