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I support Jewish summer camps— this is how I helped ensure they would open this summer

As camp staff move onsite, children burst with excitement and parents fret over packing lists, we can reflect back on the past year and how we have gotten to this remarkable moment.

Last May, as one by one Jewish overnight camps across North America publicly shared the news that they would close for summer 2020, I cried more tears than I anticipated. As a newfound “camp person,” I felt the pain of the professionals, campers and families acutely with each announcement. The loss was not only for four weeks of fun at camp, but for four weeks of Jewish experiential education in an immersive environment. Camp has the power to be a transformative experience for campers and we know from both research and anecdotal evidence that this lasts for a lifetime.

In the weeks beforehand, as the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s camp initiative, I was in frequent conversations with the Southeast regional camp directors and federation colleagues with whom I work closely, one question resounded — what will be the future of Jewish overnight summer camping?

And if the number of pieces written by Jewish leadership, medical professionals, parents, and by the Forward’s own staff this time last year is any indication, we weren’t alone in our concern. Jewish camp is a profound opportunity for Jewish experiential education and engagement for youth and the idea that it could be shuttered for a summer (or beyond) was terrifying.

I had many sleepless nights worrying: Would camps survive? What would be the long-term impacts of a lost summer? Would families be ready to send their children back to camp in summer 2021?

In the spring 2020, the Atlanta Federation had recommended nearly $900,000 for approximately 590 individual campers across North America for scholarships and grants. But in the end only 24 campers attended that summer— a mere fraction of the kids we had expected to support.

That summer, we allocated COVID relief funding to our camps, came up with a plan to make advance payments on scholarships for campers who committed to re-enrolling and helped our regional camps get funding from other sources. I hoped that would be enough that our camps would weather last summer’s closures and make it to open this summer.

To my delight, in a year when many children completed school virtually and many families expressed financial hardship due to the pandemic, our community has risen to the occasion.

At the federation we’ve allocated nearly $1.3 million in scholarships and grants for approximately 800 Atlanta area children to go to Jewish overnight camp this summer.

While there are many ways to help Jewish overnight camps thrive, the best way we, at the Jewish Federation, can help is through ensuring that there are campers in bunks. No family should be forced to make the decision to send their kids to camp (or not) due to their financial situation.

We know that spending $5,500 for one child for four weeks is a luxury so many can’t afford, let alone for multiple children and that’s why this work is so critical. Because the impact of Jewish camp isn’t just one summer, it is years of summers and a lifetime of songs and friendships. Ultimately, it’s teaching Jewish tradition while building the Jewish future. And it is my honor to help save it.

Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez is the Jewish Camp Initiative Manager at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

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