Ruben Arquilevich is a Jewish summer camp guy. He says his life was shaped by Jewish summer camp. Over the past three decades, he’s been a camper, a counselor, a professional staffer and the director of a Jewish summer camp. He met his wife at Jewish summer camp. He sent his kids to Jewish summer camp. Now he’s a vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in charge of North America’s largest network of Jewish summer camps.
And for the past few days, he had been keeping a heartbreaking secret, one that he and the rest of the URJ finally shared with the world in a mass email on Thursday: This year, there will be no Jewish summer camp.
Arquilevich talked to the Forward a few minutes after the URJ announced that all 15 of its camps — serving 10,000 campers — would be closed this summer because they did not think they could operate safely given the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he knew how sad this would be for thousands of Jewish children who’ve been cooped up at home, dreaming of seeing their camp friends – because his family was going through the same grieving process.
“There was something so powerful my daughter said,” Arquilevich recounted. “She knows that we can’t have camp together in person this summer, and that we should not have camp. And at the same time, she said, ‘Dad, I would be okay with spending a year sheltering in place in order to have my one month at camp.’”
“It’s hard for me to look at my kids without choking up,” he added. “I can feel it from them. And I can feel it from all the young people out there for whom I know camp is the most precious experience in their young lives.”
Arquilevich said that he was drawing on one of his favorite moments from his time as director of Camp Newman in California as solace. On the final Shabbat of every session, all the campers and staff would gather at sunset. He’d ask them to look around at their friends and imagine the years and decades ahead, as they gathered to celebrate their friends’ weddings and family funerals, moments of joy and moments of loss. “This is one of those moments of loss,” he said.
Heartbreak for children and parents
In addition to the campers, some 3,000 young adults hired to work as summer staffers and nearly 1,000 adult educators, clergy and artists- and scholars-in-residence will also be affected by the URJ closures.
Summer camp is one of the most influential parts of American Jewish life – studies have shown that children who attend summer camp are much likelier to be involved in organized Jewish life as adults, even when controlling for their parents’ varying levels of observance. For many Jewish children, the camp experience – combining fun secular activities like swimming, sports and arts & crafts with Jewish prayer and educational projects – is the highlight of their year.
“For me, the real heartbreak of all this is these kids,” Arquilevich said. “Especially knowing that they’ve been sheltering in place, physically isolated from their peers for so many weeks, being together this summer would have been an ultimate gift.”
He added that he knew that making the call would be tough for parents too – both because parents can see the positive attributes that camps help children develop, and because having the kids out of the house for a few weeks or months would have been a very welcome respite. “I’ve been encouraging parents to hug their kids at this moment, and to listen, and to let them grieve, and to grieve with them,” he said.
Feeling for all the devastated kids (and parents and staff) who will miss going to Jewish camp this summer. It's hard to miss it (Queer Talmud camp was canceled too), but pikuach nefesh demands we do this. We'll get through it together!— Corvin Greene (they/them) (@CorvinGreene) April 30, 2020
Conversations had been happening for weeks between camp directors, board members, volunteer doctors and nurses, local health departments – who ultimately would have had final say whether camps could legally open at all – and national experts from the American Camping Association and the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Ultimately, Arquilevich said, they decided a few days ago that they couldn’t in good conscience operate knowing that the novel coronavirus would still be prevalent. After making the decision, camp leaders have spent the last few days arranging the logistics of cancellation and preparing to help the children and families affected by their decision.
At the same time, he said, if new testing or other developments allow camps to open safely, they’ll “absolutely” pivot to opening back up.
Still, such possibilities are unlikely. The closures, he said would likely lead to “significant financial challenges” for the camps.
Financial consequences for camps
Summer camp tuition is often paid in installments throughout the year. At many camps, families have already paid most, if not all, of tuition already. Most Jewish summer camps have said that they will return the tuition to anyone who asks for it – but they’re urging families to consider letting them keep it as a donation, or at least allow them to roll over the payments to cover next year’s tuition.
Having to return too many tuition payments would likely be financially disastrous for many camps, experts have said. Arquilevich said that the URJ as an institution had received some support from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loan scheme, but that the amount they received “does not bringing us anywhere close to our financial need.”
Ramah Darom, a Conservative Jewish camp in Georgia, is canceling its 2020 summer. First Conservative camp to do so.
This comes after all Reform Jewish overnight camps cancelled their 2020 summers.
This is an earthquake for the American Jewish community.— Ben Sales (@BenjaminSales) April 30, 2020
Some not-for-profits and philanthropic organizations have stepped up, including the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which set up a $10 million donation matching program for summer camps. Local camp directors have appealed to local Jewish Federations, philanthropists, and alumni for donations to help keep their camps solvent.
But despite the heartbreak and the likely financial losses, he added, “I’m really proud of our leadership and our organization for completely leading from a place of highest values and principles.”
The URJ system is not the only camp system to have announced closures. Two units of the Ramah system of Conservative Jewish summer camps announced Thursday that they would delay opening until at least June 30.
To keep campers and families connected during quarantine, many camps have dramatically increased their online outreach, including Zoom Havdalahs and Facebook Live classes in everything from Israeli dancing to lanyard tying. Arquilevich said that sometime next month, the URJ will announce plans to provide “virtual programming” to families who have already paid for camp this summer.
There is no snark tonight. Our love pours out to every camper who counted down the days, to every parent who would do anything to make it different, to every camp professional who hurts and worries. We are so sad.— My Shul Called Life (@RogueShul) May 1, 2020
But even the most optimistic camp enthusiasts would admit that that temporary solution provides only a fraction of the real camp experience. Arquilevich said that if there’s any silver lining to the situation, it’s that the summer of 2021 will be even more magical.
“All the connections we’re creating right now will lead to the sweetest embraces on the planet when we can come together in person,” he said. “That level of appreciation and gratitude will be incredible.”
URJ Jewish summer camps cancelled because of COVID-19