When local Jewish overnight camps kicked off the summer season, welcoming their first campers this week, their staff members were feeling a bit more nervous than usual.
That’s because last week’s staff training and last-minute preparations were clouded by the death of a 16-year-old at Camp Ramah Darom, a Conservative movement camp in northern Georgia.
Andrew Silvershein, a returning camper from Davie, Fla., drowned June 19 — the first week of that camp — on a whitewater rafting trip, after the raft overturned and he became wedged under a rock.
No one is blaming Ramah Darom, one of 11 “Ramah” camps in North America, which together enroll 6,500 children each summer.
Everything was done correctly in this case, camp professionals say, with a trained guide in every raft and every child wearing a life jacket and helmet. And even Silvershein’s family is standing by the camp, with plans to establish a scholarship fund in his memory and to have his younger sister, also a camper, return to camp after the shiva period.
Nonetheless, the tragedy has served as a reminder that, even with the most stringent of safety precautions in place, accidents can happen — and, with young people entrusted to them 24/7, these seemingly carefree places face enormous responsibilities.
“For all of us in the business, this is the No. 1 thing on our mind,” said Len Robinson, executive director of the New Jersey Y Camps. “At the end of the summer, when the last child is delivered home to their parents, you feel the weight of the world lifted from your shoulders. Unfortunately, things happen.”
As “sister” Ramah members, staff at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, which is in Wingdale, N.Y., were particularly moved by the tragedy, jointly drafting a letter to their colleagues at Darom.
In an e-mail interview, Rabbi Paul Resnick, Ramah Berkshires’ longtime director, told The Jewish Week he has not yet received calls from parents concerned about trip safety as a result of the incident. “Most of the comments we have received from our community have been messages of consolation and support to our sister Ramah camp and to the leadership of the camp,” he said. While noting that safety protocols were followed at Darom, Rabbi Resnick said, “Nevertheless, any time something so terrible like this happens, we go back and re-check our safety standards. My staff has been doing this for the last few days, to ensure that we are following all of the regulations of the American Camping Association as well as the NY Board of Health.”
“I believe that we, as all Ramah camps, have earned a record of trust among our camper parents, and notwithstanding this tragic event, we enjoy the support and confidence of our community to keep their children safe,” he added.
Jordan Dale, the director of Surprise Lake Camp, a Jewish overnight camp in Cold Spring, N.Y., that is a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation of New York, said, “Our hearts go out the families and camping professionals who have to live through this.”
While no Surprise Lake parents have called yet in response to the Darom tragedy, Dale said the incident was very much “on our radar” during staff training.
However, he emphasized that “Jewish summer camps — including Ramah, which is a great, great place — have, generally speaking, excellent safety records.”
“I’ve been a camp director for 25 years in the Jewish camping world, and I know a lot of Jewish camp directors,” he added. “I can tell you that safety at Jewish camps and really all camps is an extraordinarily high priority.”
While any fatality “is obviously one too many,” Dale said, “children are safer at camp statistically than they are at home.”
“I would encourage parents not to overreact to what is certainly a terrible tragedy but is not, by any stretch of the imagination, typical of the camp experience. It’s kind of like when a plane crashes — and something like this happens less often than a plane crash — and people get scared about flying, even though we all know that statistically plane crashes are less common than car crashes.”
Paul Reichenbach, the director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, made a similar point: that camps are highly safety-conscious, yet nothing is completely free of risk.
“It’s the reality we live in,” he said. “We have active programs. It doesn’t mean you stop swimming. After a tragedy you redouble your protocols and ask yourself the tough questions: Are we doing everything we can?”
The Reform movement has made nearly $750,000 worth of security upgrades to its camps over the past decade, Reichenbach said. Its camps (Crane Lake and Eisner in the Berkshires and Harlam in the Poconos serve children from the New York area) have new fences and 24-hour guards, and have installed gates and security lights. An Israeli security firm runs training sessions for its camp directors and staff every summer to teach them how to evacuate buildings and look for a missing child, as well as other emergency tactics.
Although many families of Ramah Darom campers were in touch right after the accident, some asking about particular safety protocols, Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, said that none withdrew their children or canceled their registration.
Asked whether parents at other Ramah camps (most of which open this week) had been calling with concerns about safety as a result of the tragedy, Cohen said, “It would be a natural reaction, but I haven’t heard of any. But we haven’t sent out any movement-wide press releases about it.”
While acknowledging that could change as word of the tragedy spreads, Cohen said that, if anything, parental anxiety about safety seems to have decreased in recent years.
“From my many years of being a camp director, I find parents are more interested in camps providing more and more activities, including some of these adventure activities,” he said. “I think that has to do with Ramah and Jewish camps in general having an outstanding record of safety, so if their children are going to do these things, the parents would rather it be in the context of camp, with trained staff, than on their own.”
All Ramah camps are accredited through the American Camping Association, which “provides very detailed safety protocol for all activities,” Rabbi Cohen said, noting that the camps also comply with all local and state regulations, which include specifications about staff training and safety protocols for waterfront and outdoor adventure activities.
“We have committees on our board who oversee safety, and our staff go through a lot of safety training in addition to all the other training they go through,” he said.
Immediately after the Silvershein tragedy, Ramah Darom staff alerted the families of the other campers by e-mail and phone. Grief counselors were called in to supplement the camp’s rabbis and social workers as part of an ongoing healing process.
Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp said he was “tremendously impressed” with how Ramah Darom has been handling the tragedy, and with how the rest of the camping world has reached out to the camp.
More than 800 mourners attended the funeral, he noted, and many of them hugged the camp director and board chair to show support, even as they were trying to support the grieving family.
“The family stated how important camp was in his life,” Fingerman said. “They said he’d never want this tragedy to destroy the joy other kids could have at camp.”
(Sue Fishkoff of JTA contributed to this report.)