Jewish summer camps reopening this summer after COVID hiatus

This year, with a blend of vaccinations, testing and government standards, almost every Jewish camp in the country is planning to open again, restoring a quintessential part of summer.

Kids play softball at Camp Ramah in California. The camp will face a significant shortfall if it needs to refund all of its tuition this year. (photo credit: RAMAH IN CALIFORNIA)
Kids play softball at Camp Ramah in California. The camp will face a significant shortfall if it needs to refund all of its tuition this year.
(photo credit: RAMAH IN CALIFORNIA)
Alle Hall recalled her 14-year-old son’s heartbreak this time last year when Camp Kalsman, a Union for Reform Judaism camp in Washington State, announced it would not open due to the pandemic.
“Last summer was really sad for him. Camp is the only time he really gets to hang out with his closest friends,” Hall told The Jerusalem Post.
Tens of thousands of children across the United States felt the same despair when COVID forced all but a handful of sleep away camps to shut down for the summer of 2020. About 15% of all Jewish children in the United States attend Jewish sleep away camp during a normal summer.
The weeks or months spent away from their parents provide a fun way of being Jewish – packed into campfires, hikes and color wars.
This year, with a blend of vaccinations, testing and government standards, almost every Jewish camp in the country is planning to open again, giving back a quintessential part of summer for generations of American Jews.
“Even if I was anxious about allowing him to go this year, if I made the decision not to send him, there would be hell to pay,” Hall said with a laugh. “Camp really is the jewel of the year.”
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national director of Ramah camps, a network of Jewish summer camps affiliated with the Conservative movement, said this summer will look different. Each Ramah must adhere to its respective state’s guidelines.
“Some instructors will always be masked. We’re not going to have large camp-wide events. The davening [praying] experience will look different; singing can be one of the most risky activities in terms of virus spread, which is a whole lot of camp,” he told the Post.
Cohen noted that enrollment this summer is higher than usual, with almost all families returning and a number of new families. “We’re just hoping that states don’t come down with regulations limiting our capacity,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to give kids a shot of the Ramah experience, no pun intended.”
Even with the extra planning needed this summer, which includes vaccinating staff and older campers, aggressive testing before camp, figuring out how to fit campers into existing space while allowing for social distancing and keeping campers in pods of one or two cabins for most of their activities and outdoors as much as possible, Cohen said he is grateful to be in a time where opening is even an option.
“There was some pessimism in January and February, when we were starting to look at terrible transmission numbers and there was no sense yet of how quickly the vaccine would roll out,” he recalled.
That pessimism has melted away. “We’re opening and we’re very excited to be back together in a joyous camp community. We’re hoping to create a bubble in our overnight camps with very little contact with the outside world,” Cohen said.
HELPING TO cover some of the extra costs for camps to buy tents, upgrade buildings and increase capacity is $3.8 million in funding from the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Its grants are set to add the capacity for 4,000 campers and will help the camps recoup some of the money that was lost last year.
At Capital Camps, a nondenominational Jewish camp on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, interim CEO Havi Goldscher is eager to welcome back campers this June after closing last year.
“We closed last summer, along with 95% of other camps, because there were just too many unknowns and our inexperience with COVID at the time. Connected with the Jewish values of keeping people healthy and caring for the community, it was simply not safe,” she said.
“Our conversations now are about when do we test, how frequently do we test, how do we keep groups as small as possible, and breaking down camp in a way that it can be safe,” Goldscher told the Post.
She emphasized that it would be unrealistic to expect a COVID-free summer.
“I think all camps are going on the assumption that COVID will enter camp. It’s about how to mitigate the spread once it’s there,” Goldscher said.
In addition to increasing the number of doctors and nurses on campus, Capital Camps hired extra social workers to support campers and counselors. “After a year of living through an intense situation, they are coming into a different intense situation and we are providing mental health experts to really support the whole body,” she added.
The camp is taking cues from the small handful of summer camps that successfully opened last summer. “The whole camping community has come together to help one another. We’re all saying ‘camp is critical and how can we do this safely,’” Goldscher said.
One of the camps pointed to as a model is Camp Modin, a Jewish camp in Maine that opened to 300 children last summer with no cases of the virus, after spending $250,000 to prevent its spread.
“It was actually the healthiest summer we’ve ever had. I don’t think I heard a cough all summer,” recalled Howard Salzberg, executive director of Camp Modin. “I tell camp directors, ‘You just got to be flexible and adapt.’
“I kept telling the kids, ‘I’m sorry we can’t do everything as normal,’” Salzberg recalled. “And they would say, ‘We’re here and that’s all that matters.’”
He said protocols last summer included requiring families to quarantine before camp, three rounds of staff testing, outdoor tents, extra medical staff, and masks during almost all activities. “There was a lot riding on our success because we were one of the first to experiment with reopening. We opened before even most schools had. People thought we were crazy and that we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
The playbook is similar this summer, but Salzberg expressed concern that families may not be as vigilant leading up to COVID summer round two. “Last year, people were terrified of COVID. We were all locked down and we were the first people that said we want you to open your doors and let your children out,” he continued.
“What concerns me now is I’m not sure how much people care about COVID. They still need to. We need our families to take this seriously leading up to camp. We expect everyone to quarantine for 10 days before coming to us, even though the world is opening,” Salzberg stated.
He said his message to Jewish families is that if you want your camps to succeed, “you really need to follow the instructions.”
“We did not relish being the only camp open last summer,” Salzberg continued. “Children need summer camp. They need to get back to normal and the safest place for kids to be is summer camp. It’s always been that way.”
Goldscher was likewise insistent that so long as it is safe, the reopening of camps is a necessity. “Our Capital Camps families have felt the loss,” she said. “Last year was this eye-opening experience of how impactful camp really is once the loss was on the table.”