During a normal year, Alan Silverman, director of Camp Moshava in the Poconos, would spend this late spring week at his camp running an orientation session for staff members.
Amy Skopp Cooper, executive director of Ramah Nyack in Rockland County, would also be at her camp, training staff.
And Lisa Rubins, assistant director of Camp Yavneh in rural New Hampshire, would be at home packing for camp.
But the summer of 2020, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc on plans for large gatherings of all kinds — at venues ranging from synagogues to museums to camps — is not a normal summer.
Instead, Silverman is in Israel this week, quarantining himself in preparation for his son’s wedding and fundraising by phone and Zoom to make up for this summer’s lost tuition income. Cooper and Rubins are at home, in Riverdale and White Plains respectively, planning online sessions their camps plan to offer in the coming months in lieu of in-person programs — some for free, some at a reduced charge.
All of their in-person camps are cancelled this year.
In the week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all overnight camps in the state will be closed this summer, and following the earlier decisions of most Jewish camps in this country to cancel this year’s sessions, most camp officials contacted by The Jewish Week are scrambling to create, on short notice, activities that take place on Zoom and other alternatives.
The camp leaders worry not just about the loss of revenue and summer fun, but a Jewish educational ecosphere. Their programming goes beyond kickball and color war — the camps’ potential to build and sustain long-term Jewish identity has attracted tens of millions of dollars in philanthropy.
“Camp leadership is of course concerned about what will be lost by the summer,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “We think about first-time campers who were ready to begin their camp experiences, campers who were counting down the days to reunite with their friends and take on leadership roles during their culminating summer, and the college-age young adults who go to camp to be counselors and are more likely to remain engaged in their Jewish communities.”
With this in mind, the Foundation, the umbrella organization of most Jewish camps in the United States, has partnered with Mosaic United, the flagship initiative of Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, to launch Jewish Camp @ Home, an online program designed to help camps share their new ideas.
“We believe this model of support will help [camp leadership] engage campers, staff and families and support camps endeavors to reach an even broader audiences for future summers at camp,” Fingerman said. “Summer 2020 offers a rare opportunity to learn and experiment with the ways we bring camp home.”
Camp leaders realize campers and staff have spent the last few months in front of a computer screen.
“Kids and parents have this Zoom fatigue,” said Skopp Cooper, who predicted a hiatus of a week or two before parents and their children decide to try out online programming when faced with stretches of free time in the summer.
Jeremy Joszef, director of Camp Morasha, in Lakewood, Pa., cited Zoom fatigue in foregoing online activities.
“Our campers and staff will have been in front of a screen for four months (and kudos to our unbelievable teachers who have served as heroes through this!),” he said in an email. “Come summer time, when children should be able to be outside, I do not believe it’s healthy to offer programming that puts them back inside and in front of a screen.”
Instead, the camp is building a “CampConnect” platform to facilitate connections between staff and families looking to hire tutors and backyard counselors.
According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, some 75,000 kids and teens attended Jewish day camps last summer, and about 80,000 attended Jewish overnight camps. Those figures do not include several thousand campers at camps under charedi auspices, mostly chasidic, which are not part of the FJC network.
Charedim push back
Outside the Orthodox network, Jewish camps appear ready to comply with the state lockdown. However, the Association of Jewish Camp Operators, which represents dozens of camps serving Orthodox children in New York, is challenging Cuomo’s ban, saying it should not apply to Jewish camps because they fulfill a religious need. The Association filed a lawsuit on June 18.
Kalman Yeger, an Orthodox city councilman from Brooklyn, is even urging sleepaway camps to open despite the ban.
“When thousands and thousands of children are in camps, I challenge the governor to drive around and send all the kids back home,” he told JTA. “Let him drive the kids home.”
The New York State Department of Health said sleepaway camps that reopen in spite of the ban could face penalties — including possibly losing their right to operate after the pandemic is over.
Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who represents a large Orthodox community, is encouraging camp directors to find suitable campgrounds in other states in time for the summer session.
At least one new camp already has popped up out of state to serve Orthodox children after other camps were forced to close. Camp Tof Shin Pei will open in Florida this summer with one monthlong session for Chabad girls.
Eichenstein said he presented the governor with a 19-page document with proposed guidance for camps prior to Cuomo’s decision last week to keep them closed.
Without camp, he worries about how the children he represents will spend their summer.
“If you’re saying no to sleepaway camps, what is your solution to thousands of young adults not having structure, not having an educational structure, not being in a controlled environment?” Eichenstein asked, addressing his question to Cuomo.
Rubins of Camp Yavneh said she sees a positive side of this year’s campless summer. “It might make the longing for camp even stronger.”
“The long-term effect [of a lost summer] will be minimal,” Cooper said. It will not irreparably harm campers’ Jewish commitment, said Silverman, whose camp largely serves the Modern Orthodox community. His campers “come from committed homes. We’re not worried that they are going to lose it.”
The goals of Jewish camps “have to shift a little bit” and be a bit more modest than in past years, Rubins said. “Our goals are to keep kids connected with each other, to keep kids connected with Yavneh and to ensure that Yavneh continues for another season.”
Rubins said she is optimistic. “Nobody plans better for a rainy day than summer camps. We do it every day.”