In the 1990s, a teenager named Josh Henkel was sent by his parents to the Mid-Island Y JCC day camp because, as he tells it, they were worried he was heading in a “bad direction.” Camp changed the trajectory of Josh’s life. Josh ended up spending years there as a camper, then as a counselor, and eventually became the Mid-Island Y’s director of agency operations and camps. To fill out the story, Josh met his wife at camp, and today she works beside him helping run the camp. And you’ll not be surprised to learn that Josh’s two children are now campers there as well.

While Josh may be a poster child for the transformative power of Jewish day camping, he’s by no means alone. We know that Jewish camping — the Friday onegs with grape juice and challah, the Jewish learning, the singing of Shabbat and Israeli songs, coupled with the fun and social/emotional growth of being with other children outdoors — creates a lasting positive Jewish identity and entry into Jewish community. We also know that camps are incubators of Jewish leadership. All of which makes Jewish camping ever more important in the context of today’s rising antisemitism.

Josh’s life-changing experience took place at UJA’s Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds (HKC) on Long Island. Back in the 1950s, visionary UJA leaders had the foresight to purchase HKC’s 500+ acres on Long Island, Pearl River, and Staten Island — what is today the largest Jewish day camping enterprise in the world. Around 7,000 kids and 1,500 counselors from 15 JCC camps and other organizations spend each summer on these grounds.

In the decades since the HKC land was bought, the world has changed dramatically, but the camps largely stayed frozen in time. That’s why in honor of UJA’s centennial in 2017, we embarked on a major capital campaign to radically rebuild, renovate, and modernize our campgrounds. To date, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of a group of donors, we’ve raised $28.3 million toward this effort.

This past Wednesday, I had the privilege of attending the dedication of a new “home base” on the Long Island campus, a multipurpose pavilion that allows for a much wider range of activities and for campers to stay safely on-site even on rainy days. In addition to hearing from Josh, we also heard from three campers, including the adorable Brooke, age 6 ¾ (by her own calculation), who said how much she enjoyed day camp, particularly making new friends and the Jewish cultural activities. And this was just the first of multiple dedications on the Long Island campgrounds this summer.

If you’ve seen what HKC Long Island was pre-renovation with its muddy fields and many dilapidated shelters, you wouldn’t recognize it today. All told, there are eight new home bases. We’ve also built a new health center so that children with medical challenges can access treatment and medications comfortably. And there’s a brand-new aquatic complex, which includes a pool with an accessible ramp and an amazing water slide, as well as new basketball and tennis courts.

We’ve also begun construction on the Pearl River site and hope to do the same soon on Staten Island.

Beyond these capital upgrades, we are also significantly investing in high-quality Jewish programming, including specialists to train counselors in Jewish culture and education, bringing young shlichim (emissaries) from Israel to infuse a taste of Israel at camp, and ensuring that Jewish teens who work at camp have a unique and meaningful Jewish experience of their own.

Our expectation is that because of our investments in facilities and programming, in the coming years enrollment will dramatically rise, providing much-needed revenue for JCCs that rely on these dollars to operate programming of all kinds.

Even more aspirational, we believe that today’s campers (like Brooke, 6 ¾) may become tomorrow’s Jewish leaders (like Josh). In the pool, on the courts, at onegs singing Jewish songs, they’re forming memories and experiences that will shape them, giving them a taste of the community they’ll want to be part of for the rest of their lives.

And it all starts at camp.

Shabbat shalom