We canceled camp. We’re crying, too.
I let myself cry today.
For weeks during the shelter in place, I’ve been emotionally stuck in turmoil. You see, I’m an overnight Jewish camp director. This was to be my eighth summer on staff at Camp Newman and my 16th overall at Jewish camp. On May 31, we were to begin training staff for our 73rd season.
On June 7, 10 young adults were to arrive at our rental site (our camp burned down in 2017) and receive their staff backpacks, clipboards, and long-awaited staff shirts. There were to be hugs, embraces, elated screeching, hand tunnels and emphatic singing of “Heiveinu shalom aleichem,” our welcome song.
On June 12, 100 teen campers were to join us for a summer most of them have been counting down to for a decade. These campers are (mostly) lifers or have the heart of camp lifers. Some of them, now 17, have been coming to camp since they were seven or eight years old.
They dreamed of becoming CITs, wearing their CIT shirts, writing shtick on Saturday night, learning how to care for children, and finding the joy in letting another person depend and rely on you. They dedicated their summer to learning how to be an excellent camp counselor
And on June 14, we were to officially open our summer for hundreds of kids. Some of them, their first time away, would step up shyly to the check-in table and barely speak while we welcome them, only to be crying in another camper’s arms two weeks later (we call those “two week tears” and they’re the sweetest tears in the world; I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me of their magical healing powers). Some of them would speed off the bus or out of their parents’ arms, waving haphazardly behind them before meeting their counselor and diving headfirst into their time away from home, their time of independence, their time of choice and care-free living.
Our faculty, our synagogue educators, cantors, and rabbis, would be standing there talking with parents, taking pictures with their congregants, wearing shorts and becoming humans to our campers while providing warmth, content, and leadership.
There would be conflict and difficulties (there always are when you have 550 people living together!) but there would be the moments that stick to your heart forever: the moment your Israeli staff member tells you they never enjoyed services before coming to camp because they never felt so at home. The moment a camper comes to you and screams “THANK YOU!” because they just had the best two weeks of their life. The moments you observe budding relationships (friendships and more) that you know have the traction to last a lifetime.
And the moments of precious community: Kabbalat Shabbat by the water, Israeli dancing on the kikar, siyum (bedtime shema) happening all around camp with one group after another singing out sweetly, giggles ringing out from cabin times, campers and staff stretching their abilities and finding new hobbies, everyone learning new things, making new friends, finding new mentors, building identities and independence, building a family that feels so different from your family, creating a home in a second place so different from home, finding your community.
But this is the summer that won’t be.
I’m proud of our URJ movement for making the heart wrenching and difficult decision to not run camps and programs in summer 2020.
Even as I process and mourn this summer that won’t be, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to open our summer amidst COVID-19. The questions were endless: What do we do if there is no widely available testing yet? How do we minimize outside contact? Is there a way for us to ensure our community’s safety throughout the summer? Camp professionals are known to be flexible and adaptable; is there a way to “camp magic” through this?!
For us, the answer is no. We have seen viruses disrupt summers in the past and for a community that places such high importance on Jewish values and integrity, there is currently no path forward that allows us to gather our community in larger numbers for the foreseeable future. We support our fellow camp directors in making these tough decisions and know that there is no right answer or timeline for everyone; we could only do what was best for our programs.
We are strong. We still care for each other and need one another. And as long as we join together to lean on each other for support, we’ll make it through this. My heart breaks for this summer that won’t be. But at some point, it will simply turn into “the summer that wasn’t.”
And when we can join together, embrace one another, throw our arms around one another and sing at the top of our lungs, those will be some of the sweetest moments in our camp story.
Rabbi Allie Fischman serves as the Director of URJ Camp Newman in the San Francisco Bay Area and oversees three NFTY regions on the West Coast.