After the Union of Reform Judaism, which operates North America’s largest network of Jewish summer camps, sent an email last week to thousands of families announcing that all its camps were cancelled, an independent camp in Pennsylvania issued an email announcement of its own. “Camp Zeke is not a URJ camp” it declared, in bold type.
Camp Zeke was not, therefore, canceling camp because of the coronavirus pandemic — at least not yet. It planned no proclamation before June, the email told parents, making it one of dozens of Jewish summer camps holding out hope to salvage at least some of summer 2020.
The URJ, whose 15 overnight camps enroll more than 10,000 campers each summer, and the Ramah network, which has so far announced one cancellation and two delayed starts between its 10 sleepaway camps, are the big brand names in Jewish camping. But overall, there are more than 160 Jewish overnight camps involving as many as 80,000 kids, and many of the smaller ones, whose financial situations are even more precarious, have either only cancelled part of the summer or not yet announced any closures at all.
Being unable to operate in full this summer is likely to be financially disastrous for many Jewish summer camps. Both because of this, and because the health situation is both highly fluid and highly regional, some camps have only made announcements about first session, or have said they’re withholding judgment until the end of the month.
And it’s not just financial. Camp directors love camp as much as campers do. In interviews this week, several said they are doing everything in their power to safely open in some capacity — and are working nonstop to figure out what, exactly, that might look like.
“If the board of health says you can only have four campers in a bunk, is that truly a camp experience?” asked Marc Rauch, the director of Camp Kinder Ring, which serves around 450 campers in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Rauch announced on Monday that Kinder Ring would delay its opening by two weeks, until the beginning of July. Making the decision to delay opening, but not yet to cancel camp entirely, comes with a whole new set of challenges: Now he is busy sending new contracts to hundreds of summer employees, filing new visa requests for international staffers, shifting work orders for food and equipment vendors, figuring out how and when to conduct extra sanitization work, rearranging schedules in case they have to institute multiple meal periods instead of everyone eating in the dining hall together.
They’ve even created an “urgent care center” separate from the main infirmary so that kids who skin their knees won’t be exposed to kids with viruses.
“We have planned since the end of August 2019 to open in June 2020,” Rauch said. “All of those plans, as of Monday, are pretty much out the window.”
Bradley Solmsen, the executive director of New York’s Surprise Lake Camp, has had virtual meetings at least once a week with seven different groups: Senior staff, members of the board, UJA-Federation, the JCC Association, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the American Camping Association and the local department of health. Surprise Lake announced on Friday that it would not hold the first session of camp — but might still open for the second.
“We literally started with 20 different scenarios,” Solmsen said, and as the first day draws closer, “we’ve been narrowing those down.”
Ruben Arquilevich, the URJ official in charge of its summer camps, said in an interview last week that he made the call to cancel all the camps across the country regardless of their local coronavirus situation because “we believe that the risks associated with COVID-19 is more than we’re willing to accept. Knowing that COVID will still be prevalent through the summer, that was the tipping point for us.”
Making the decision early and definitively also was likely helpful financially for the URJ — at least it can stop spending money and staff time scrambling to prepare for something that may yet prove unsafe or unfeasible. That’s one of the things flummoxing camps like Kinder Ring that are still hoping to make the second session happen.
“That’s probably the hardest thing for all camps right now, because the financial component – we’re all trying to be very careful financially,” said Rauch, the Kinder Ring director. “In order to do so, you can’t order things in now, but you can’t wait too long either.”
The vast majority of Jewish camps that have postponed or cancelled sessions have said that they will refund tuition if asked, but directors are urging families to roll over the payments to next year, or consider turning all or part of it into a donation. Industry experts have said that some summer camps will almost surely close because of a lack of liquidity.
Solmsen, of Surprise Lake, said other camp directors from across North America whom he’s met at various conferences have been supportive, “whether it’s a shoulder to lean on, help with writing the letter that we’re sending to parents, counsel on fundraising, or just a supportive ear….There’s not a sense of competition, there’s a sense of support and collaboration.”
Solmsen and Rauch both said that their families have been sympathetic about their difficulties — though Rauch said that headlines in Jewish news outlets about the URJ announcement, which made blanket statements like “Jewish summer camp is cancelled,” didn’t help matters when it came to managing parents’ expectations.
“Our families have been understanding that safety has to go first,” Solmsen said. But the experience has still been “painful,” he added.
Rauch agreed. “I have the weight of over 600 people on my shoulders every single summer at camp,” he said. “Before this, I’ve never felt that weight; it’s never been an issue for me. The past week and a half, that weight is holding me down.”
At 118 years old, Surprise Lake Camp is tied with Michigan’s Camp Tamarack for the oldest Jewish summer camp in the United States. “Since 1902, Surprise Lake Camp has weathered many storms,” Solmsen said. “What we’re saying to our families is that we’re going to weather this one. If suspending operations is what we’re going to have to do, we’re taking the long view, because camper and staff health have to come first.”
Even though they have announced partial closures, Solmsen and Rauch said they were doing everything they could to open camp for the second session. “We’re not ready to throw the towel in,” Solmsen said. “Camp is too important to too many people. We’re going to do everything we can, but health and safety is going to be the bottom line.”
Rauch said that once camp reopens, whether this summer or next, he’s most looking forward to seeing everyone gathered in white on Friday night to sing and dance for Shabbat. “My address in camp on that first Friday night will be a most emotional moment for me,” he said. “At Kinder Ring, our alma mater song has the lyrics ‘‘til we return again,’ and that’s what we’ve been telling our campers.”
How some Jewish summer camps are trying to stay open