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Summer Camp Hanging in the Balance Amid Crisis
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Summer Camp Hanging in the Balance Amid Crisis

Postponements and cancellations likely as directors await government guidelines.

Summer of their discontent? A bunk at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. JTA
Summer of their discontent? A bunk at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. JTA

Like so many other parents, Stephanie Honig, a Syosset, L.I., mother of four, said her family is anxiously waiting to learn whether camps will be permitted to open this summer.

“My kids were disappointed about school closing and the idea of not going to camp would be heartbreaking for them,” she said. “We remain hopeful; that’s all we can do now.”

Many camps have already sent their families letters explaining that because of the coronavirus they are awaiting government permission to open and to learn what restrictions, testing requirements and guidelines will be imposed by the government and the camp’s own medical committees.

Decisions from some overnight camps are expected to be announced this week, according to Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Association of North America, which represents 150 Jewish day camps and 25 overnight camps with 100,000 campers and staff.

Directors of three Jewish overnight camps, from the Conservative Ramah movement, told JTA that camp is likely to at least be postponed, if not canceled outright.

But they also are also assuring parents that they are preparing to open if they can.

Based upon briefings he has received, Krakow said he expects more deferred openings and “potential cancellations.”

“Camps are working closely with their medical advisory committees, and those whose summer seasons start early will be compelled to make decisions and we’ll hear of deferred openings,” he said. “I would not be surprised to hear announcements that affect the entire summer. It’s possible there will be announcements about delays and potential cancellations.”

Hungry for the camp experience: Some parents say their children will be “heartbroken” if summer camp is cancelled. JTA

And if camps are allowed to open, one parent said she fully expects to have to sign a waiver saying she will not sue should her child contract Covid-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected shortly to publish guidelines for summer camps. A draft copy, obtained by Fox News, reportedly calls for camps in states that are in Phase One of the administration’s reopening plan to be restricted to the children of essential workers. Those in phase two would be permitted to serve only children who live in the local area. And states in phase three would be restricted to those from limited transmission areas.

But Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camps, stressed in a statement that those are only draft suggestions that might apply to day camps only.

“Our most pressing challenges are for overnight camps because of the lead time required, and we do not yet have any information on the CDC guidelines for overnight camps,” he said.

In addition, it is not known what phase New York State will be in when camps are slated to open, pointed out Susi Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey.

“These are just guidelines and have nothing to do with the Department of Health licensing of camps,” she said. “We’re talking about something 60 days away; the world has changed in the last 30 days. That’s a long time. We believe that if the infection rate goes down as it has been there is hope we can see summer camps happen. I believe they will be able to open in some capacity.”

Two-thirds of overnight camps in the Northeast were scheduled to open on June 30 or later, according to Fingerman, giving them “another three or four weeks before they have to make a final call. The American Camp Association has been working with the CDC and is expected to follow the CDC’s guidelines for camps.

Once the CDC guidelines are in place and the ACA has announced its plan of operaton, it would be up to the states to review them and “come out with certain mandates by mid-May that would say here is how to do camp this summer,” said Stadlin. “And those mandates might dictate to camps whether to open or not.”

“I would not be surprised to hear announcements that affect the entire summer,” says Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Association of North America. Courtesy of JCC Association of North America

Many camps expect fewer campers this summer because the peak recruitment period was March and April, when states in the Northeast, as well as most states in the country, were locked down. Horwitz said she fears that if they are prevented from opening, “it would be devastating for our campers and our business model. All Jewish camps are nonprofit and we don’t have war chests or enormous endowments. This kind of closure could cause enormous financial hardship.”

UJA-Federation of New York said it is allocating up to $6 million to support sleepaway and day camps, which it says will face “enormous budget shortfalls.”

The Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation has announced a matching grant challenge of up to $10 million to help support Jewish camps, matching $1 for every $2 each camp raises. Over the last two decades, it has donated nearly $19 million in challenges, which camps have leveraged to raise more than $300 million.

A 2018 census by the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that for the 155 day camps reporting financial details, total revenue amounted to $134 million for the summer. The average total revenue per camp is highest in the Northeast at about $1.1 million, the census reported, nearly double the average in the West.

‘Not giving up’

Some camps have already announced they will not operate this summer. Among them is Seeds of Peace Camp, which canceled both sessions. Founded in 1993, it brings youth and educators from areas of conflict to its camp in Maine. It cited such difficulties as getting travel permits and U.S. visas for participants.

Those same difficulties may prevent Jewish camps from hosting Israeli shlichim, or emissaries, who in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel come to the U.S. to foster campers’ Jewish identity and feelings of connection to Israel. Helene Drobenare Horwitz, executive director of Young Judaea Sprout Camps, said the organization’s camps usually host 35 to 40 shlichim.

Nevertheless, she said she is “still optimistic for some sort of [camp this] summer. We’re not giving up. Nobody wants it more than us. We would move heaven and Earth to make this happen because we all understand that for everyone’s mental, emotional and social health we all need it.”

On the whole, stressed Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Camp Ramah’s national director, “summer camps are very healthy places — outdoors and away from technology and filled with people who are at low risk for the virus, assuming we screen out those who are at high risk.”

But there is a debate about whether day camps or overnight camps are safer in this environment. Krakow said he believes day camps are better able to adapt to the new guidelines that will be issued for camps.

Day campers don’t eat and sleep in tight quarters as they do at overnight camps, observed Yoni Stadlin, director of Eden Village Camp, a Jewish farm-to-table sleepaway camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

But their disadvantage, he said, is that the campers “go home each night and [possibly then] go to a movie or a party, catch the coronavirus and bring it home [to their parents and grandparents] and then to the camp the next day.”

Overnight camps can be locked down so that neither campers nor counselors would be permitted off the grounds and there would be no visiting day.

Because of the advantage he sees in overnight camps, Rabbi David Shenker, director of Camp Nageela in upstate Fallsburg, N.Y., said his camp is launching a “campaign to get parents to think about sleepaway camps at this time. The plans of families who were considering a road trip this summer or to go to Israel or elsewhere are now completely up in the air and we are asking them to consider sleepaway camp as an option. Now is the time to do research; they don’t have to commit. I’m pretty confident camps will take applications as late as the middle of June. Even camps that were filled may find that some parents are too scared to send their kids.”

Should overnight camps open, they will not look the same.

“Maybe activities will be just with others in the same bunk” to limit exposure to other campers, Stadlin said. “Maybe meals will be served in different shifts so the dining room will not be so crowded.”

Because he heard new rules will require no more than 20 youngsters on a 60-seat bus, Rick Lewis, CEO of two JCCs on Long Island, said he will be encouraging parents to drive their children, which will reduce the price of day camp.

“We are planning for the unknown,” he said. “We can’t wait for the rules to come out. We are hiring extra medical staff, purchasing masks for the staff and looking at virtual opportunities in case we are not allow to open. We’re looking at all kinds of group activities — anything to keep the kids busy,”

Dr. Deborah Birx, a White House health official coordinating the coronavirus response, said last Sunday that “social distancing will be with us through the summer.”

Stadlin said such a directive “would definitely be a challenge; most camps have campers sleep in bunk beds that are really compact.”

But that may give the Berkshire Hills Eisenberg Camp, an independent JCC in Copake, N.Y., an advantage. It has 80 private rooms that had been used for senior citizens. “If we could use them [for campers], it would make social distancing easier,” said its executive director, Adam Weinstein.

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