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Summer camp: Sunset for an American tradition?

The great American tradition – the sleepaway summer camp – is under siege by the pace of modern childhood, from longer school years to the quest for a 50-point bump on the S.A.T.

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Interest in Jewish camps has been on the wane in recent years, and concern about perpetuating Jewish identity has risen. The 150-camp Foundation for Jewish Camp, armed with an anonymous grant, decided several years back to draw in first-time campers by discounting their camp fees. This year, 7,000 of the foundation members' 70,000 campers will get up to a $1,500 break as long as they stay at least three weeks, says Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy organization. A second program specifically for the western US is under way, again with the aim of fostering the Jewish leadership that donors believe comes out of the Jewish camping experience. But Mr. Fingerman, himself a camp alumnus, says that for all its serious intent, the prevailing culture of camp remains primarily one of fun. Suffice to say that random undergarments will find their way up foundation camp flagpoles this summer.

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[Editor's note: The original version misstated the amount of the grant and how much aid campers get.]

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Like many of the traditional camps, Camp Shohola offers a little niche specialty, in this case a well-respected communications and technology center run by a college professor who has spent more than 50 summers at the camp.

But, says Barger, "nobody comes here just for one thing." He smiles ever so slightly at the notion of the excursions to places like ESPN Zone run by some competitor camps. Though camper interest drives Shohola, its many trips and overnights remain rooted in woods and water – rappelling, rafting, and such. Barger's concession to fads is more on the order of turning a couple of the lesser-used tennis courts into skate parks. That, plus he instituted two two-week June sessions back in 2003.

Whether he had shorter sessions "was the most common question I was ever asked," he says. Now, 20 to 30 percent of his boys stay two weeks, while 20 percent stay the full summer. And his regular season now runs seven weeks, not the traditional eight.

Experts say camp's benefits increase exponentially with time. "In my own interpretation, it's not double the value if you stay seven weeks [rather than four], it's triple the value," says Sudduth. Take conflict resolution, a high priority on every camp director's list of skills to be developed. Need to bunk with someone for a month or two? You learn to work things out. Leaving in a couple of days? Maybe waiting it out is easier, and the lesson is missed. Camp identity, too, is a strong motivator. For Dohner's Oneka girls, for example, nastiness is corrected simply by calling it "not Oneka-ble." But caring what Oneka-ble is takes time.

Loyalty, another biggie, is also not a calendar item to be scheduled in between the service week and the Italy trip. You've got to experience the culture first. And thus, there's your team "color." At Oneka you're a Red or a White. Once a Red, you'll always be a Red, and every other Red is your friend forever. If your mother was a Red, you'll be one, too, and so will your sister. Community is built, Dohner says, when you spend a summer "being cold and wet" – and Red – together.

Even the best communities need marketing, however, Barger explains, standing in the center of his rec hall, anticipating the season ahead. Here, the wall sconces are still trimmed with their 1940s tepee shades. A pile of boats waits to be moved down to the lake. Echoing the early enrollment experience of other camps, he says that things are "a tiny bit up" over last year. Last year, of course, was way off from the year before, though at Shohola, 2008 was so successful it had to add bunks. Parents now shop for camp online, Barger explains, making winter trips to camp fairs less productive for him. So this year, he brought in a private e-marketing consultant to help build his summer community.

Say what? Search engine optimization driving kids away from it all? Pay-per-click connecting them with the stars?

Yes, apparently.

"The phones have been ringing," says the camp director with a smile.