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Essay contest winner Marissa Hurd, center, holds her certification next to the essay’s namesake, Dr. Dedrie Cohen Polakof, left, and Temple Chai’s Rabbi Mari Chernow, right.


Jewish overnight camp offers children countless opportunities to find their roots and connect with other Jewish kids. But even though many in the Jewish community consider summer camp a rite of passage, the tuition costs can be a hurdle for some families. 

That’s what inspired philanthropists Matt Cohen and Dedrie Polakof Cohen to create a new opportunity for Temple Chai religious school students. The annual Dr. Dedrie Polakof Cohen Essay Contest awards a $4,000 prize to be used towards a summer at a Jewish camp of the winner’s choice. 

Marissa Hurd, 14, a student at Explorer Middle School in Desert Ridge, won the first essay contest. She will use the money to go to Camp Stein in Yavapai County, Arizona, in July for 26 days. 

“I’m very honored to have received the Dr. Dedrie Polakof Cohen Prize that ensures I can create many more camp memories and friendships this summer,” Hurd said in a prepared statement. 

Hurd’s essay was one of 30 entries tasked with  answering the following questions: Why do you want to go to camp? How would camp support you in developing Jewish identity and leadership? What impact might this prize have on you, your family and your community?

In her essay, Hurd discussed how camp has been a tradition in her family and how it helped her develop long-lasting friendships and leadership skills. She also wrote that her experience at Camp Stein helped her renew her spirituality and create a stronger connection to God. 

One of her favorite memories from last year’s stay at Camp Stein was competing in the camp Maccabiah games. Although her team did not win, Hurd said the experience offered great lessons in the benefits of teamwork. 

“Most of all, the memories made and ‘family’ bond is what makes Camp my second home,” Hurd wrote in her essay. “From being welcomed off the bus with a tunnel made by arms of smiling counselors, to doing the Pinecone Ceremony with my unit around the campfire, I gained a relationship with everyone that is different from my school friends, and I know will last forever.”

“I’m so proud that Marissa’s passion for Camp Stein and her Jewish identity was reflected in her essay submission, and grateful to Dedrie and Matt Cohen for their generous camp scholarship,” said Marissa’s mother, Beth Hurd. 

Beth, who works as an educator at Temple Chai’s Early Childhood Center, said that the tuition costs for Camp Stein — for a student entering high school — is $5,229 for a four-weeklong camp visit. Without the scholarship from the essay contest, paying for the tuition would have been difficult. 

Matt Cohen said the contest judges felt Marissa’s essay stood out because of its depth and clarity.  

The prize is named after Cohen’s wife,  he said,  because “my wife’s agreement to marry me is the greatest honor of my life. I wanted to recognize that and my wife’s sense of kindness and humility and contributions to the community.”

“Matt and Dedrie Cohen are passionate about the Jewish future. They are aware of the profound impact of Jewish camping on identity,” said Rabbi Mari Chernow of Temple Chai. “With deep generosity, they plan to send kids to Jewish camp, now and long into the future.” JN

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