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Many happy returns

Jewish summer camps are back — here’s a look at how they’re doing

These excited campers are on their way to Camp Young Judaea Midwest in Waupaca, WI, this summer. (Foundation for Jewish Camp)
These excited campers are on their way to Camp Young Judaea Midwest in Waupaca, WI, this summer. (Foundation for Jewish Camp)

Most years, campers live 10 for two. 

That means that they slog through the benighted season that begins in mid-August and doesn’t end until sometime in late June as they wait for the near paradise of seven (it used to be eight, but whatever) glorious weeks of camp.

This year, though, it was 22 for two.

The pandemic put an end to almost all overnight camping and curtailed most day camps last  summer. So although some lucky day campers — mainly younger kids — were able to escape covid-induced solitude, almost all overnight campers could find the summer spirit they longed for only online. 

But this summer, after mind-numbing amounts of careful planning, which often was upended by quickly changing conditions that led to quickly changing state, provincial, and local mandates and sent camp administrators face-palming back to their drawing boards, many campers and counselors and staffers are back at camp.

Because camping has been central to American Jewish life — or at least to probably millions of American Jewish lives — for well over a century —  this summer’s reopening has affected the Jewish community greatly.

Jeremy Fingerman of Fort Lee is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “I have been contrasting the feeling of disappointment and loss we felt last summer with the positivity and optimism of the reopening of camps in the summer of 2021,” he said. “I think of it as the harbinger of something good for all of us.”

Camp directors report that this summer is going very well, despite the challenges posed by the virus’s still-present dangers, the breaks in the supply chain, and the effects of the last year on campers’ self-confidence and independence.  It’s different this summer, of course, but it will continue to be different in summers to come, Mr. Fingerman said, and that’s not in itself at all a bad thing. 

He cited a report from the Israel Trauma Center. “It talks a lot about coming out of trauma, and about resilience, and it defines resilience not as bouncing back but as bouncing forward,” he said. “We are not returning to exactly what was. We are not exactly the same. We are not going to be exactly the same community. We have learned a lot. What we are coming back to has to be better.”

Camp gives campers an entirely immersive Jewish life; it surrounds them all the time, even when they don’t notice it. It’s the air they breathe. For some kids, it’s an entrée into Jewish life, for  others, it’s a chance to make it not only their family’s choice but also their own. The camps that work with the Foundation for Jewish Camp span a wide range of Jewish ways of living.

Joy and identity come together in Jewish summer camp. Here it’s in URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, PA. (FJC)

“People sometimes ask me how much camp you need, what’s the right dosage to become more connected Jewishly,” Mr. Fingerman said. “I say more is better, both more weeks and more years, but if you could only have one — if, say, you could have only eight weeks, I think it would be better to have two weeks for four years than eight weeks all at once. That’s because camp has a cumulative effect. As you return year after year, as you grow and change, you see everything differently.” The pandemic has forced that change more dramatically as it made everyone skip a year.

But many Jewish camps have  managed to bridge the gap of that year, at least in part. “One of the amazing outcomes of covid is the acceleration of the notion of camp as yearlong and lifelong,” Mr. Fingerman said. “We saw people flocking to online activities, whether it was a Havdalah service or a pre-Shabbat song session, and during the week there were all kinds of different online programming for campers. And it was amazing how much alumni participation there was.

“Particularly in the early days of covid, people wanted a sense of community. So there were some camps — I’m thinking about Camp Tamarack in Michigan, a big community camp — that were getting 1,000 people logging on — campers, their families, and alumni. It also was true of the Ramah camps and the URJ camps. They were doing programming, a different thing every week, and everybody would sign on. And we” — that’s the Foundation for Jewish Camp — “helped camps deliver educational content in a secure online environment for campers and their families.

“You’re never going to replace the camp experience,” he said; the woods and the paths and the sunsets and sunrises and the lake and your friends everywhere and new people to meet and new things to do and no parents (not that you don’t miss them, of course you do, but still) and the magic in the Friday night light that reflects on the white everybody’s wearing.

“You create glue during the summer, but we’re learning to make connective tissue during the year,” Mr. Fingerman said.

Now that the Jewish camping world knows how important the rest of the year is, many facilities will lean more heavily on providing retreats, reunions, and other ways for groups to meet. “We also have been working on a number of initiatives around family camps,” Mr. Fingerman said; families would go to camp for a long weekend before or after camp. “We call it the shoulder season,” he said. Another interesting development is the “growth of programs for grandparents and kids, without the parents. That has been incredibly successful in the camps that have tried it We are looking for ways to use the camps more than just during the summer.

“Summer camping is the core product, but from that core you can branch out to different target groups and at different times of the  year. But you still are offering your version of joyous Judaism. The camps are trusted as they deliver their form of joyous Judaism, and it doesn’t have to be just for the camp community. It could be outreach to families that are less engaged, Jews of color, interfaith families, Russian-speaking families, LGBTQ families, Israeli families living in North America.

“What covid did was focus us on the idea of yearlong and lifelong. People are starting to dream about it, and I think that more and more of it will start to take off as we get past this summer.”

Okay. What about this summer?

The camps that are open now learned from the few  sleepaways that had been open last year, and from the day camps; there was not the absolute lack of knowledge that camp administrators faced last year. 

As the Foundation for Jewish Camp helped its partners look at the summer ahead, everyone realized that the economics of being closed for a year had very serious repercussions. “One of the ways in which we got involved in Summer 21 was that in order to comply with the CDC, state, provincial, and local safety requirements, which differ sometimes even county by county, many Jewish overnight camps thought they could operate only with fewer campers, and that posed tremendous economic challenges, because it reduced the tuition,” Mr. Fingerman said. Fewer campers, less income. “That limitation on the number of campers — camps were telling us that they were prepared to serve about 75 percent of their usual number of campers — could be due to distancing within bunks or not enough covered outdoor spaces and restrictions on staff movement and testing protocols. So on top of the reduced income, there were increased costs. 

Some things are timeless; those things include roasting marshmallows, as these Camp Ramah in the Poconos campers do in 2015. (FJC)

“Rather than accept that overnight camps would have to limit their enrollment, we” — again, the FJC — “developed a concept that allowed camps to increase capacity while meeting covid guidelines. We got proposals from camps and funded temporary housing structures, like tents or yurts, augmented auditoriums and infirmaries and dining facilities. We got a huge range of proposals.”

The FJC raised money. “We wound up raising just short of $4 million and we awarded grants for 52 projects that added an additional 4,000 campers. The multiplier effect is that each camper brought on average a $4,000 tuition, so we raised about $16 million in incremental revenue, which dropped to the camps’ bottom lines and helped decrease the camp’s debt.

“Some camps were able to serve more campers than they had in 2019.”

Some camps created bubbles, which meant that all the campers had to come at the same time. The campers who had shorter seasons left when their sessions were over, and their bunks were not refilled with new kids. The season became more intimate as it progressed. Other camps had two discrete bubbles, complete with not only new campers but new staffers as well. That helped because often it’s easier to find staffers if they can commit to spending less than a full summer in camp.

“The camp professionals have been very creative in their approaches,” Mr. Fingerman said. “There has been enormous creativity and enormous energy also in recouping the tremendous losses from 2020 and of opening safety this year.

“Part of the work of our foundation has been in helping to spread good ideas across the system.”

The losses the overnight camps incurred were huge. Having to remain closed “resulted in a funding gap in annual fixed costs of about $150 million,” Mr. Fingerman said. “That posed an existential threat to the field. So our foundation really tried to align the collective efforts of federations, other foundations, the camps, and their generous philanthropists and donors. All of us worked together to mitigate that lost $150 million.

“First we calculate that about $25 million of costs were reduced, some by layoffs, some through deferred capital projects, maintenance, and travel. In some cases, in some regions, some camps got together for collective procurement.

“Second, camps were able to borrow funds. We helped camps through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund. That was an amazing fund; through it, we distributed $14 million of interest-free loans.

“And then parents. We shared the idea that parents could either donate or roll over the tuition they paid for 2020. That really was a short-term loan. Some parents let the camps keep a portion of what they’d paid. It was a liability in 2021, but it helped them in 2020. And then there were the Small Business Administration’s PPP loans. In the first round, the camp system got over $30 million; most of those loans will have to be or have been forgiven. There was about $60 million in PPP and communal loans, and also some of the federations loaned money to camp.

Campers at the NYJ camp in Milford, Pennsylvania, sit together as evening falls. (NJY Camps)

“The third area was fund-raising. The federation system collectively put in over $15 million. The Grinspon Foundation put in about $10 million of incremental matching grants. We raised and distributed about $10 million in grants to camps last year, and more this year. Parental donations came close to $20 million, and then alumni and the camps did amazing fundraising. The collective efforts in the field truly mitigated 2020, and as we faced 2021, the capacity expansion grants helped camps raise the $16 million that closed the gap this year. And the second round of PPP loans were even more generous than the first round.

“We don’t know the totals for this year yet, but we think that collectively we not only mitigated 2020 but helped with 2021.”

Another big problem the camps have to face is what Mr. Fingerman calls “rebuilding the pipeline.” He’s talking about people now. “To restore the camps to full strength, and to have them grow, we have to rebuild the pipeline for campers, staffers, and professionals. The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us. Full-time camp professionals have been under increased stress, on the roller-coaster of anxiety. And there were the layoffs. We have to rebuild.”

It’s been getting harder, year by year, to recruit staffers, because as much as camp alumni love camp, they also feel ever-increasing pressure to build their resumes, and summer internships seem to be more career-oriented than being, say, head of waterfront might. Some alumni have to make more money than they can at camp; camp jobs are emotionally, spiritually, and socially fulfilling but they don’t pay particularly well. This summer, because of covid, staffers were not allowed to leave camp, so the thrills of going off campus, away from the kids, were not there. And the fear is that once that link is broken, once staffers have a summer away, once new campers don’t start, once sort-of-new campers have to take a summer off, the camp’s tug on them might be weakened. That’s the pipeline problem.

But Jewish camps have faced hard times before – there was a significant dip in enrollment in 2002, in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and another, which lasted for a few years, after the financial crash in 2009, Mr. Fingerman said. “That’s why we want to make sure that we are attracting more first-time campers.”

That’s done in part through the FJC’s One Happy Camper, which provides a needs-free grant to first-year campers who go to a camp in the foundation’s network. “The federations and One Happy Camper just processed the 100,000th camper who has gotten a one-time grant through the system, which we piloted in 2006 and started in earnest in 2007,” Mr. Fingerman said. “We have 45 community partners and the PJ Library as part of the One Happy Camper system. The federations also deserve a lot of praise for stepping up their collective efforts. One Happy Camper has created a new pool of campers, and it will continue to be strong for years to come.

“In the end, it’s all about building community and building connection to Jewish engagement and the Jewish life that happens uniquely at camp, with the experiences and the friendships and the memories. Now, we begin again, and the cycle begins again.”

As he thinks about the stories he’s heard from the 150 or so camps in the Foundation for Jewish Camps’ network this summer, Mr. Fingerman focuses on Eden Village Camp, in New York State’s Putnam County. “It’s a specialty cap that focusing on farming and sustainability,” he said. “It opened in 2010, and it was funded by the FJC’s specialty camp incubator.

“There is a huge farm there, and they made a garden with 12 plots, and each one is about a month in the Hebrew calendar. Each plot grows something that tells the story of its month.

“For the month of Av, they grow rose bushes. Rose bushes have thorns and flowers. The thorn is the destruction of Tisha b’Av, and rose is the rose of redemption. Of comfort.

“That is experiential education. The rose is so beautiful, but it has thorns. Comfort comes when you need it. You have both in life, the thorn and the bud.”

Campers and staffers work on their Israeli dance moves at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA, in 2015. (FJC)

Michael Schlank is the CEO of the New Jersey YM-YWHA camps, right over the border in Pennsylvania.

“This is the hardest summer anyone has imagined, for a lot of reasons,” Mr. Schlank said. “The covid cascade, the supply chain issues, the additional social and emotional issues the kids and staff are dealing with, the very basic challenge of trying to keep covid out of camps…

“But with all that said, when you get to walk around camp — I’m in the camp in Milford now — and you see 1,000 kids — there are another 500 in Nesher — and you see they’re enjoying themselves, they’re happy, they’re socializing and playing, and we’re teaching them Jewish values, and they spend time with their Israeli counterparts and Israeli counselors…” It’s wonderful, he said.

“Everyone is anxious. The kids are anxious. But they are able to be happy. They are happy. And it’s super-special.

“Instead of a regular visiting day, we had a virtual visiting day,” he continued. “There was a lot of trepidation about it. What will it look like? How will it go? Uniformly, the parents were kind and caring and understanding about the challenge of 1,000 Zoom calls. The kids got to see their parents and grandparents for 20 minutes each, and it was done. Not ideal. Not perfect. But done. We did it.

“In all of these, we are being creative. We have to be. There is a playbook for regular challenges, but where is the playbook for ending a Zoom call with a 7-year-old? We put together a resource guide for the families about how to do a Zoom call with your child, with best practices, what to say and what not to say.”

What are best practices? “Don’t open the call by talking about anything negative. Don’t say things like ‘We miss you so much’ or ‘We can’t wait until you come home.’ Those things might be true, but don’t say them. Don’t say ‘It doesn’t look like you’re happy.’ It’s only 20 minutes. You want the opportunity for them to speak.

“On the whole, the parents are really happy that we are able to do this.

“We have to be creative,” he continued. “There are supply chain issues, but there’s enough food. We just have to be creative with it.”

He has a story.

“I oversee the whole place, so I don’t get involved too much with the kids, because I can’t have a consistent relationship with them. But I saw a little boy on the first night of camp who was beside himself. It was his second year, but of course he missed last year, and it felt like the first year. I saw him crying, and I asked if I could help.

New Jersey Y’s Total Specialty Camps offer basketball, among other options. (NJY CAMPS)

“We talked for about an hour and a half about how hard it was for him to be here. He was so used to being at home with his mom and dad, and it was so challenging being in a bunk, and away from them.

“I didn’t see him for the next couple of days, and then he came up to me and gave me a fist pound and said, ‘I want to tell you something. I haven’t cried since we talked. I feel better than I’ve felt since this started.’

“It melts your heart. It makes you want to cry. For all the work that went into this, we were able to change a camper’s life. We made him feel comfortable and confident. 

“This is the most important summer they will ever spend.”

Marc Rauch is the director of Camp Kinder Ring, the Worker’s Circle camp in New York’s Dutchess County.

“I think that it’s been very positive overall,” he said. “The campers have had a tremendous level of excitement and energy. You can just see from their faces that they’re so happy to be in a congregate living environment with other kids. They’re all over the property, laughing and singing and dancing together.

“At the beginning of camp, we definitely were more restrictive, more careful; we did an extensive testing regimen. As the summer has gone on, we’ve moved more toward normal activities.

“It took a little longer than usual for kids to overcome homesickness. It took longer for those emotions to dissipate. But now it’s eased. We’re in the middle of color war. We are about 90 percent normal; we’re still masking going into the dining room, but for the most part when we’re with our cohorts, for the most part we’re unmasked.

“We have 485 campers this year; 180 of them are first-time campers,” Dr. Rauch continued. “At the end of next week, we’ll say goodbye to about 100 campers, and everyone else will remain.

“We’ve definitely seen more difficulties with the initial adjustment than ever before, and even with our returning campers. This has been their first time out of their homes for more than a year.

“Staffing has been challenging. Historically we hire a lot of international staff; we’ve lost everyone who comes from Europe. We did hire more Israelis than ever before, and also we were able to hire Mexicans, both as bunk staff and as support staff. And we also are seeing supply-chain issues.”

Kids at Perlman Camp in Lake Como, PA, enjoy tubing in 2019. (FJC)

One perhaps not-so-surprising change that he’s noticed this summer, Dr. Rauch said, is “a back-to-basics mentality. It’s old-school kumbaya. It’s being together. Mother Nature hasn’t exactly been the nicest this year. The first five days of camp, the real-feel temperatures were over 100 degrees, and then there was heavy, heavy rain, and then it got colder, and it’s pretty much rained every single day. We haven’t had a beautiful, sunny summer day yet.” But the kids’ joy in being together has overcome that set of problems.

“This year, probably more than ever, our focus has been on whole notion of Jewish cultural values, and particularly on making the world a better place,” he said. “It’s about being kind to one another, and in the world that we live in, boy oh boy do we need that. It’s about being kind, accepting differences, and learning to get along. Even for me, as director, the things that were big deals in the past seem minimized by larger global issues. We are much more focused on it’s being time to come together.”

“We did two things for the camps,” Jason Shames, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said. 

“We gave them” — that’s the Jersey Y camps — “a one-shot unrestricted $50,000 grant, and we gave them a $250,000 interest-free loan for last summer. 

“We work with the One Happy Camper program and we gave them money; the Foundation for Jewish Camp is our partner and one of our best friends. We cherish them. And we work very closely with the New Jersey Y camps as our partner agency.”

Why?

“Because camp plays a critical part in forming your Jewish identity, and in making connections to your Jewish identity, however you see that identity.

“The idea that the camps would suffer so greatly that they wouldn’t be available as a resource in the future was unacceptable to us, and we had the capacity to make sure that the camps would continue to exist moving forward,” Mr. Shames continued. “We were determined to make sure that would happen.

“Camp might look different, but the product itself must remain. It is critical to the survival of the Jewish people. So we did what we could, during an era when we were also balancing incredible social service needs, like nutrition and mental health. We were happy to be able to work with them, to give them financial flexibility so they could continue to exist moving forward.

“Even if the nature of camp changes, the institution still needs to exist. And the fact that we have such a strong partnership, trust, and faith in their professional and lay leadership is a testament to our collaborative work with them.

“If we didn’t think that they were headed in the right direction and had conviction, we wouldn’t have done it.

“This summer, we gave out 171 camp grants, which is about 50 percent higher than the average of the last four or five years. That goes to show that camp is a very desirable and viable product, if it’s done right.”

And right here, right now, it is being done right, Mr. Shames said.

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