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July 6, 2020 4:05 am

The Overnight Camp Summer That Wasn’t

avatar by Faygie Holt /

Children at summer camp. Photo: Foundation for Jewish Camp.

JNS.orgDahlia Jones was looking forward to this summer. For six years, she’s been attending Eisner Camp, and this year would have been her last as a camper. She was looking forward to all the special events: the big multi-day trip; buddying with a young camper; putting her handprints in ceramic that would be permanently placed on the campgrounds.

Then came the announcement that her camp — like all other camps from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — was canceled due to the coronavirus.

“I was so disappointed,” said Jones, 14, from Livingston, New Jersey. “I have a lot of friends from Connecticut and Massachusetts that I only see during the summer at camp. I’ve been together with them for six years.”

Across the country, many overnight camp directors made the difficult decision to keep their cabins shuttered this summer.

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“We made the decision to close in the middle of May,” said Jonathan Cohen, president of the Eli and Bessie Cohen Camps, an 86-year-old group of Jewish camps in New Hampshire. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to we could run camp. It got to a point where it was about our values. It was not could we open camp, but should we open camp. We didn’t want to point anyone in harm’s way.”

Similar thinking was behind the decision not to open Camp Ramah facilities this summer. Initially, only Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia, which opens much earlier than other Ramah camps in early June, had been slated to close.

“In the end, our medical advisors were clear that no Ramah camp could open this summer,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, which oversees 10 overnight camps and an Israel program. “There was some early planning of possible small family camp programs with social distancing. But we do not believe that it is responsible to bring hundreds of people together this summer.”

Among the questions that camps had to contend with were how they could maintain social distancing in a bunk house; how they would handle any ill campers or staffers; could they screen everyone for the virus’ antibodies and COVID-19 itself; would kids wear masks all day, every day?

Many leaders, including Ramah’s Cohen, were also concerned that if they did open, it would be an “exclusive” summer experience as children and teens with special needs, medical concerns, obesity, asthma, and any number of other conditions would not be able to attend due to the inherent high risks involved.

In its statement announcing the closure of its 15 camps, the URJ said that the risks posed by the coronavirus “compromise our ability to provide the excellence in programming and participant care that are hallmarks of URJ camps. The changes that would be required to beloved activities — reducing the number of campers in a cabin, no contact sports or Shabbat strolls, and more — would render the heart of the camp experience unrecognizable and would not permit us to live by our values of health, safety, and community.”

According to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, it isn’t just the campers who are saddened by the decision to close.

“Camp professionals are also human,” he said. “Many conversations revolve around their own safeness and disappointment in potentially being unable to offer a traditional summer-camp experience this year. They know what camp means to their communities, and they truly invest their hearts and souls year-round into delivering a high-quality camp season each summer.”

While most communities have accepted that camps will be closed this summer, Hasidic and Haredi communities are hoping to find a way to open, despite the fact that overnight camps are not being permitted in New York state, where many of them are located.

Agudath Israel of America issued a statement on June 12 decrying New York’s decision to shutter camps, calling it a “blow to the physical, socio-emotional and psychological well-being of children who have already endured forced quarantine for nearly three months, as well as their religious development. Especially troubling about this development is the fact that it comes at a time when cases of COVID-19 in New York have plummeted for six consecutive weeks.”

More recently, the Agudath-led Association of Jewish Camp Operators and several parents filed a lawsuit against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, stating in a court filing that the closure of camps violates their “constitutional rights of the free exercise of religion and the fundamental rights of parents to control the religious education and upbringing of their children.”

The suit seeks a restraining order against the closures, as well as a judgment that the “regulation is unconstitutional and void because it deprives plaintiffs of their constitutional rights without constitutionally sufficient justification.”

While camps in general are often a place where children can find a way to shine, make new friends, and unwind, they have an added role: instilling a love of Judaism that often frames their Jewish identity in the future.

“I was really excited to have the camp experience as a transition from high school to college,” said 18-year-old Aviva Miller from Los Angeles, who had hoped to work at Camp Ramah in California where she spent many summers as a camper. “I wanted to be able to reconnect to my Judaism and my childhood friends before I go into an environment where I will have to be balancing my Jewish life with the other aspects of my life, which I have never had to do in my years of private Jewish day school.”

Studies on the impact of Jewish camp have found that people who have attended a Jewish camp are more likely to attend synagogue services, light Shabbat candles, foster an attachment to Israel, and be connected to the organized Jewish community.

“Time spent at a Jewish camp is a predictor of a Jewish life and leads to Jewish continuity,” said Sarah Eisinger, director of JCamp180, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that provides management and consulting services to Jewish camps.

In March, the foundation announced a $10 million challenge grant for Jewish non-profit sleepaway camps. More than 100 camps were expected to receive funding as part of the initiative, provided they mobilize their donors and raise matching funds. For every $2 raised, the foundation will award the camp $1.

“Camps are facing a significant financial challenge,” said Eisinger. “Right away, they lost revenue from the cancellation of retreats and other spring gatherings that use their facilities. Fundraising galas were canceled, and registration and tuition payments ground to a halt. We wanted to address the acute financial crisis and make a real, significant commitment to camps.”

The Cohen Camps establishment was able to secure a Grinspoon challenge grant thanks to its parent body. “I think the Grinspoon match encouraged more people to turn their camp tuition into gifts” rather than ask for refunds, said Jonathan Cohen, noting that some camp alumni have also stepped up and created their own challenge grants.

Still, he acknowledged that quite a number of families did ask for refunds, primarily due to personal financial hardships and the economic downtown spurred by the coronavirus.

“Many camps have spent a portion of tuition on the off-season on year-round staff salaries, maintaining properties, rent/mortgage payments, utilities, and year-round engagement,” explained Fingerman. “Camp professionals and lay leaders must consider the significant financial impact a summer closure will have on their institutions. The gap will be covered by a combination of reducing costs, borrowing funds, and raising contributions.”

Camps may also be helped by the Jewish Federations of North America’s Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, which is providing $91 million in interest-free loans and grants to maintain the infrastructure of Jewish life during the pandemic. And while there are many communal needs, “we must ensure Jewish camps remain a philanthropic priority during these challenging times,” said Fingerman.

The situation is somewhat different when it comes to day camps, as some states are allowing them to operate, albeit with significant guidelines. Among them: masks? Required for most age groups. Social distancing? Required. Contact sports? Not at this time.

Among camps that are remaining closed — be it a day or overnight program — some are reconstituting themselves in the virtual sphere. It’s something they have already laid the groundwork for, as many of the camps have provided online programming such as Saturday-night Havdalah sessions, arts-and-crafts events, workshops, and more since the pandemic outbreak began.

It’s not clear, however, if parents and kids will get behind virtual camp. After all, camp is meant to be enjoyed outdoors, and most children have had enough time sitting in front of the computer all day these past few months when school went remote.

For her part, Miller plans to participate in Ramah’s virtual camp.

“I was supposed to be working with the drama department this summer, and I would love to work with the kids who I would have been with,” she lamented. “Having a theater and camp community is even more important during these hard times. While it’s sad to not be at camp in person, having some way of connecting with the camp community would be much appreciated.”

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