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Camp with 2020 foresight

Local summer programs plan fun and community amid covid

Last year, pre-covid, campers play tennis at the Neil Klatskin Day Camp at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; behind them, the JCC’s pool is busy. (JCCOTP)
Last year, pre-covid, campers play tennis at the Neil Klatskin Day Camp at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; behind them, the JCC’s pool is busy. (JCCOTP)

The school year ended without schools reopening. Parents and their children have spent more than three months together, with homeschooling, online schooling, much more screen time than anyone had ever imagined looming large in daily schedules. Tempers fray, junk food is guzzled, some bonds strengthen.

And now it’s summer. Now what?

New Jersey and New York both are opening up their economies, as the phrase goes, and the virus, which was so deadly here, now has receded. But it’s not gone. Nothing is back to normal. Camp, which thrives on connection, cannot continue as usual. And both the scientific knowledge and the guidelines, which are based on both science and politics, change constantly.

What are parents to do? What are children to do? What are camps to do?

Sleepaway camps in New York and New Jersey cannot open. Governors Murphy and Cuomo have decided that it would be too dangerous. So that’s that. The questions about what makes a camp a camp, what experiences, what levels of intimacy, don’t have to be asked, because at least right now, the answer doesn’t matter, except in the abstract. The camps in these states won’t be available to act as laboratories.

Last summer, happy campers and counselors stand by the pool at the Rockland JCC. (ROCKLAND JCC)

Day camps are different. They can re-open, given that they meet the guidelines from local, state, and federal agencies. Some of them have re-opened and others are about to.

Jeremy Fingerman of Fort Lee is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“This is such a complex and ever-changing situation,” he said. “Decision-making has to be case by case, camp by camp, state by state. There are a lot of different inputs. And the situation is so volatile, so constantly changing, you can be planning in a certain direction, and then the CDC or the local health department can make another determination.”

“So in the end, for all of us who have been dealing with stay-at-home orders for more than 100 days now, we all have been looking forward to a summer outdoors, a summer of camp, of fun, of joy, of a positive Jewish experience, and so there is a lot of disappointment.”

Last summer, in Israel, girls in the Orthodox Union’s Michlelet program and boys in its Kollel group are busy in typical activities. This year, they’ll be in Bergen County. (OU)

Some sleepaway camps in some places are planning to open, Mr. Fingerman said. “It would be harder for larger camps. Some smaller camps have a better shot at opening because they could be in compliance with guidelines more easily. If you are a camp that serves maybe 100 kids a session, and if a state says that you cannot have a gathering of more than 50 people, you could have two big gatherings. If you have 450 or 500 campers, plus staff, that is more challenging.”

Jewish camps celebrate Shabbat, each in its own way; for most campers that is the most magical time of a magical summer. “If you don’t have access to that, can you really deliver the same quality product? If you have to be masked, if you don’t have the same access to counselors, what are you delivering?

“Camp is the antithesis of social distancing, so I think that some camps made the determination, given the risks and the complexities and the uncertainties of the local and state rulings, that they didn’t feel comfortable opening.”

More Jewish day camps are opening, he said; in fact, “maybe 55 to 60 percent of the ones that we are tracking are open. But their capacity is limited; there already have been stories of camps where someone has tested positive for covid and they have to shut down for a day.” (Those camps are in states where schools end earlier and therefore camps open earlier.) “All the camps have procedures lined up so they can operate in a prudent and healthy environment.”

How will camps survive if they have to be closed for a season?

“For the Jewish nonprofit camps alone, the cost of not operating means that every camp has to cover its fixed costs for the year,” Mr. Fingerman said. “The year starts in the fall. They pay salaries all during the fall and winter as they prepare for the summer. People might pay tuition monthly, but the camp has expenses that are accruing throughout. When we got to March, tuition collection stopped, but the staff was still working.”

Mr. Fingerman said that the found-ation’s recommendation to camps once they decided not to open was to offer parents three options. “We recommended that they conduct a virtual town hall, and explain to the parents that they have incurred all these costs, and ask the families to consider making the tuition they’ve paid into a donation.” Many families have years-long connections to their children’s summer camps, and for a not insignificant number of those families the connection is generations and decades long. Emotions and the sense of community run very deep. “If not, they can roll over their tuition to hold their children’s places for the next year. The third option is a refund.”

The costs are large. “If you take the fixed costs for about 150-plus Jewish overnight camps in North America, it is $150 million,” Mr. Fingerman said. “That’s full-time salaries, benefits, off-season office expenses, maintenance and insurance on the property, debt payments. So how do you mitigate that number?”

There are three ways to do that too, he said. “The first is to reduce costs. Reduce some staff costs, defer maintenance, defer some capital costs.

“The second would be borrowing funds. The federal government offers loans from the Small Business Administration; those SBA loans come in handy. And there’s the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund — it’s a group of major national funders who came together and created a $100 million fund to provide loans, and in some cases grants, to Jewish communal organizations.

“The third bucket is raising funds. There are the tuitions; there are federations and foundations that historically have given money. The federation of Northern New Jersey has been generous. The Grinspoon Foundation has a $10 million matching grant fund, and I think that 90-plus camps are affiliated with that program and received a challenge grant. And on their own, camps are raising money.” With everything put together, about two thirds of the $150 million has been taken care of.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Cornerstone Fellowship brings counselors from across North America together every year; this year, they met over Zoom. (FJC)

The problem, Mr. Fingerman said, is what might happen next year. “We are all in this together,” he said. “Our schools, our synagogues, our JCCs, we all are suffering.

“Jewish camping has been such an important determinant of Jewish engagement and Jewish identity building that it is critical that we are able to maintain it as a viable institution post pandemic. Many things will be different after the pandemic, but I believe that the essential camp experience — going away from home, being independent, growing both individually and Jewishly — still is going to be vitally important.”

And there’s still this year, he added. “Camps have pivoted very quickly to creating virtual experiences. Although people say that camp is face to face, person to person, we are finding a surprising level of participation so far.

“The Foundation for Jewish Camp has launched a platform called Jewish Camp At Home to help camps with Jewish resources and content. When you put creative Jewish experiential educators to the test, they will come up with a way to do it.”

Each May, the foundation offers the Cornerstone Fellowship; a five-day training program for third-year counselors that brings together people representing 60 camps. This year, the program had to be virtual. It was different, but it was powerful, Mr. Fingerman said; it ended “with a bonfire from Israel. It was live; the faculty had gone to the outskirts of Jerusalem, and they were singing. I got chills about how it connected us to Israel and to each other in such a powerful, powerful way.

“It’s been an exhausting, challenging, and emotional experience. I don’t know if anyone cried when school was canceled, but there were real tears shed when camps announced that they wouldn’t open this summer. I think that people are really feeling the loss. That’s what really brought the pandemic home.”

Still, he said, there is something to be learned. Camp’s influence is “yearlong and lifelong.” Now, the challenge is to understand how to make it last through a physically campless year.

•••••

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly is opening its day camp.

It takes a lot of extra care, but it’s important, its director, Aaron Atlas, said. “It gives kids the opportunity to socialize, and to get back some sense of normalcy. Camp is something that has been a constant for these kids for many years. As the world is starting to reopen, we thought it would be a good way for kids to gradually reenter the world.”

Instead of the normal eight-week session, this summer the camp will be open for only six weeks — three two-week sessions — with a slightly shortened day. “We won’t be there during the hottest time of the day, and the kids can still get a bunch of the same experiences they would any summer, in a modified way — swimming, music, sports, the opportunity to be outside, experiencing nature.”

There will be many changes in response to the pandemic and the CDC, state, and local guidelines, and there might be some good to come out of it. “We have always focused on being one big community,” Mr. Atlas said. That remains a good thing, but impossible this year; its opposite also provides many benefits. “We are excited about having the groups basically be like families,” he said. “We will call them mishpachot” — families in Hebrew — “and it will give each little family an opportunity to bond and get to know each other in a more intimate way.”

The camp is for 3-year-olds through rising 10th graders. The youngest children, the 3s and 4s, will be mainly inside; the groups will include 10 children and three counselors. There are also some other camps — for dance, science, and fine arts — that also are based indoors.

“The outdoor groups are allowed to go up to 20, according to the guidelines, but they won’t. We will leave it at 14, with three counselors. Each group will have a dedicated indoor and outdoor space. The older groups will have a dedicated indoor and outdoor space. They will be outdoors most of the time, but if it rains or is really hot, each group will be separate indoors.” The JCC is big, and because it will continue to be closed to all other activities, all that space will be available for the camp’s use.

“We understand that we can’t eliminate all risk, but we are taking a lot of measures to mitigate risk,” Mr. Atlas said. “Physical distancing, and wearing masks while walking through the building or to the carpool or to and from the pool.” The children will be free to take off their masks when they are alone with their mishpachot.

“We know that physical distancing is hard, and that’s why we’re having kids interact only with the other kids in their group. We will do the best we can, but it is up to parents to be comfortable with the idea that their kids will interact with other kids and with counselors.

“If the counselors are within six feet of kids, they will keep their masks up.”

Some things undeniably will be different. Parents won’t be able to walk their kids into camp. “Parents can’t get out of their cars. I am encouraging parents to practice separation, realizing that the kids haven’t been separated from their parents for four months.”

The camp is trying to discourage any kind of touching. For example, “we require families to send spray sunscreen instead of lotion,” Mr. Atlas said.

“Even eating, with the little ones — I don’t know to what extent they will need help eating, but we don’t want the counselors to touch their food. We want the kids to do as much as they can.

“We will provide prepackaged snacks, but parents will pack lunches.” And although the food must be kosher-style, it does not have to be kosher. Counselors cannot police food; as long as it looks okay and nobody touches anybody else’s lunch, much less shares it, camp leaders decided, this summer it does not matter.

The camp will accommodate far fewer children than it does during a regular summer, and will close, revise plans, impose quarantines, or do whatever else might be necessary to keep everyone safe. “We believe that we are taking as many precautions as we can. If we thought that we couldn’t do it in a safe way, we would not reopen,” Mr. Atlas said. “The children will have a lot of similar experiences to what they would have had. They will still have special events, dress-up days, theme days, but within each mishpacha, not with the whole camp. We still will have Shabbat, but not assembly-style. We are looking at group-based Shabbat experiences, so that we can hit all of the elements that make camp so special. We just will do it in a different way.”

The JCC knows that not every parent will be comfortable sending kids to camps, and it is offering a range of online experiences as well. For more information and to register, go to jccotp.org/on-site-camp.

•••••

The JCC Rockland also will open its day camp this summer. It will open on June 29, as planned, and will stay open for eight weeks, its director, Carrie Sakin, said. How is that happening? “Very carefully, with a lot of planning — but we have been planning all winter. Our planning always starts right after Labor Day; in March, when covid got serous, we planned three different scenarios, A, B, and C. This one is a blend of B and C.”

What does that mean? “We will follow all the guidelines set by the CDC, the American Camping Association, and Governor Cuomo,” she said; of course, if there are even more stringent local guidelines, the camp will comply with them too.

The camp, which has four divisions, is for children ranging from 18 months old to about to begin eighth grade. The children will be put in groups and they will stay in them; the youngest groups will have 10 kids and three staff members. They will practice social distancing; “you have to set the way they play very carefully,” Ms. Sakin said. “No sharing art supplies or toys. You have to be on top of them, you have to be on the floor with them and monitor how they play. And you also have to give them a camping experience.

“It’s not easy.”

Lunch at camp used to be buffet style, “now the staff will bring them their lunch,” Ms. Sakin said. “We are kosher and nut-free. We don’t welcome food from the outside. It’s too hard to monitor kashrut.

“For the 5-year-olds and up, they will be outdoors whenever possible. It’s much easier to spread out outside. But the JCC campus is closed to the public, so if it rains we can assign rainy day rooms.” Each group will have its own room. If it is very hot, “we have water play areas, and we can put up tents.

“Each child will have to be dropped off, and will be prescreened before they can exit the car. They’ll be asked questions and their temperature will be taken.

“Masks will be required for the staff, but not for the campers, although if parents feel more comfortable with their kids wearing masks, they can. But they don’t have to.”

Although there can be no large gatherings, there will be special days at camp. “While we still may have a carnival, it will look different,” Ms. Sakin said. “But it won’t feel different. It still will be camp.”

There will be fewer kids at camp this summer than other summers. “We cannot accept as many kids,” Ms. Sakin said. “We might have a wait list. We will have no more than 175 kids on the campus at any one time.

Given all the risks and all the constraints, why is the JCC opening its day camps? “We are a community center,” Ms. Sakin said. “We are here for our community. A lot of people have to go back to work. We have a lot of first responders here, who never stopped working. We are here to serve the community.”

Who can go? “We are open to everyone,” Ms. Sakin said. “Not just to members.

“It will be an exciting summer. The kids need camp, and the staff need camp. We need the fresh air. We need the outdoors. It’s important.

“I love this place, she added. There is no place I’d rather be.”

To learn more about the JCC Rockland’s camps or to register, go to jccrockland.org/camp.

•••••

The Orthodox Union has decided to deal with the fact that teenagers who normally would have gone to camp or to Israel — particularly to OU programs in Israel — will be home this summer.

“With every parent wondering what they are going to do with their kids, we thought about how we could provide a meaningful way for kids to engage as communities slowly reopen, and also to respond to some of the needs of the larger community.”

The result of that thought is Project Community.

It’s based on Kollel and Michlelet, two programs that take American teenagers to Israel for study and prayer. (Kollel is only for boys, Michlelet only for girls.) “Those programs attract significant numbers of kids from Teaneck and Bergenfield, who normally go after 10th and 11th grades,” Aryeh Wielgus, the National Council of Synagogue Youth’s New Jersey director, said. “We are adapting a lot of the highlights of the brand here. We are creating space for teens to come and learn and do some activities every morning, all with the CDC and health department guidelines. We’re following the guidelines by the book. And we’re offering the teens various chesed opportunities, depending on what the community needs, in the afternoon, so they can begin to give back to the community and step up as the community’s future leaders.”

The kids in Kollel and Michlelet will be organized in “what we call chavura mode,” Rabbi Wielgus said. “It’s a group of eight to 10 teens, with one or two madrichim,” advisors, “so they can learn in small groups.” That model long predated the pandemic; in fact, “when we first saw the guidelines from the government, we thought, ‘This is a chavura!’ This is what we are embracing this summer.”

Project Community will meet in Teaneck or Bergenfield — the exact sites still are to be determined, but the boys will meet in schools and be given breakfast, and the girls will meet in shuls, and because they will have to wait until Shacharit is over, they will start later and have lunch together — as well as in other parts of New Jersey. There is no similar program planned in Rockland, but everyone is welcome. The only limit is how far parents are willing to drive.

The morning program, davening and learning, with perhaps some indoor chesed projects, is indoors. It “will have a nominal cost,” Rabbi Wielgus said. “It’s $850, give or take, for a 4 1/2-week program. That’s to cover costs; we’re losing money on it.” The afternoon part — the social action part — is free. Rabbi Wielgus isn’t sure exactly what projects the group will undertake — the program itself was announced on Monday evening, and while the broad strokes are set, some details still are being worked out.

Learn more about Project Community, as well as some of the OU’s other summer programs for teens, at pc20.org

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