‘Where you want to be’

‘Where you want to be’

New Jersey Y Camps prepare for the summer of 2022

Staffers get into the spirit of Messy Day at Cedar Lake Camp last summer. (New Jersey Y Camps)
Staffers get into the spirit of Messy Day at Cedar Lake Camp last summer. (New Jersey Y Camps)

Summer’s coming!

How straightforwardly wonderful that sounds. Camp is starting again!

Every summer at camp is brand new, fresh, and sparkling, and every camper is excited, eager, and incapable of homesickness. And will never be bitten by a mosquito. And will never get bored or whiny. And every counselor will be a teenage saint.

Let’s try again.

Camp is starting again. It’s thrilling and it’s also scary. It’s been a hard year, after a hard summer last year and an even harder year before it. Kids and counselors and staff come with both hope and history.

Camps in general — and the New Jersey Y Camps, the focus of this story, in particular — are looking forward to the start of the summer with both joy and a real understanding of the challenges they face.

These happy — and exhausted — campers are at the color war finale at Cedar Lake last summer. (All photos from summer 2021. Courtesy New Jersey Y Camps)

“Last summer was a really positive experience for the kids, but it was really challenging for the adults,” Michael Schlank, the Jersey Y Camps’ CEO, said. “We really wanted to get kids back to camp, and it was really successful. Our staff worked probably as hard as they ever have worked in their entire lives, but it’s what they really love doing.

“Still, it was a really hard summer.”

Many of us are adrift in a sea of timelessness, but sometimes hard numbers help. Last summer, the summer of 2021, saw most kids back at camp, but in fairly impermeable bubbles. No one could go in or out of camp. They got to camp after a school year spent either entirely onscreen alone at home, or from a masked, socially distanced school. The virus was an unchecked threat then; vaccines, remember, weren’t widely available to adults until the beginning of 2021, and kids between 12 and 15 couldn’t get them until May of that year. They weren’t available to 5- to 11-year-olds until November 2021, seven months ago.

This year’s been closer to normal at school, but still odd, and there has been a great deal of pent-up anxiety. Some kids have been acting out.

Last year, Mr. Schlank said, “we had a group of kids who for the most part hadn’t spent significant time in groups with other children for almost two years, and there were a lot of small and sometimes big issues that reared their heads. That was true for staff also.

“The thing about camp is that some of them went from zero, from just being at home, to being with 1,500 other people.

“That was a challenge.”

These Cedar Lake campers are having fun beading.

And then there were supply chain issues, and behind everything the question of how to deal with this still mysterious virus.

But still, it was an uplifting summer, Mr. Schlank said. “By the end of the summer, everyone who got to participate in it felt both tired and privileged. I know I felt that.

“Spending all the time we did working with each other and with the children was what we had been looking forward to. It was enormously rewarding.”

All in all, he said, “warts and all, it ended up being a fantastic summer.”

“From the New Jersey Y’s perspective, it was an important milestone.” The system’s centennial should have been in 2020, but that’s when the camps were closed, so “this was the system’s 100th summer, and we got to do what we love to do,” he said.

From the financial side — because although the camps are nonprofit, they must bring in enough money, including from donors, to stay afloat — this has been a surprisingly successful year.

Some of Camp Nesher’s campers and staff beam at the camera.

The camps are prospering, and enrollment is way up this summer. “It’s enormous,” Mr. Schlank said. “The agency is probably in as good a position as it has been, certainly for the last generation, and going back as far as anyone can remember.”

The camps survived a financial scandal a few years ago, but a new board came in and cleaned it up. Now, that board has transitioned out and a new one has taken over. “The transition has been really healthy,” Mr. Schlank said. The outgoing board chair, Steve Seiden, handed the job over to Suzanne Albin Tucker; both of them are active members of the MetroWest and larger Jewish communities.

“From a governance place, we are super healthy,” Mr. Schlank continued. “We have done some reorganization at the staff level, and the narrative in the community is that NJ Y Camps are where you want to be if you’re a Jewish kid, and where you want to send your kid if you’re a Jewish family.”

Philanthropy has done well, too; community members who were in a position to help saw both the needs that the camps fill and the needs that the camps themselves have. Grants and fundraising have brought in new sources of income for new projects.

“We are really proud that we got a Yedid Nefesh grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, so we can bring in another mental health expert,” Mr. Schlank said. “This is a multiyear, yearlong program that allows for training and support for someone who will be focused on mental health, particularly at the teen level. We have another grant that will allow us to provide help in similar ways to the staff.

“We have recognized that mental health is as important as physical health. We want to be able to de-stigmatize it, to talk about it openly. Just as we have doctors and nurses, we have mental health experts. We believe that we are in the forefront of thinking and talking about mental health issues in a way that makes everyone comfortable.”

Camp Nesher campers and staff hold tight to their water bottles as they stand together.

Staff training protocols “are being formed almost from the day that we leave camp the summer before,” Mr. Schlank said. “It goes on all year round. We have outside consultants who work on it all year round, and we start training our staff in the spring, and it runs all the way through our senior staff training, in the first week of June.

“Part and parcel and integral to who we are is making sure that every member of our staff, whether they are counselors or caretakers or work in the kitchen or at the pool, feels that they are in a safe space, that camp is a place where everyone is respected and everyone is taken care of; that we understand and think very deeply about dealing with each individual person as a human being. Whatever the issue — sexual abuse or social-emotional health or whatever — we are being proactive in trying to create a community that does not tolerate abusive behavior.

“Sometimes things happen; we are prepared and trained to deal with them. We have procedures and policies in place, and we have training to create a community in which those behaviors are not tolerated, and where people can share if they feel that they are feeling unsafe physically, psychologically, or emotionally.”

Staffing levels are another vast improvement from last summer. Then, not only was it hard to recruit North Americans, because of covid, but also camps were not allowed to hire the overseas workers — other than Israelis  — upon whom camp generally depends. They were able to bring in Israelis, though, “and we learned how successful we can be with our Israeli staff,” Mr. Schlank said.

Israelis “are integrated into camp,” he continued. “They do everything. Some staffers from other countries work in support jobs, and others are bunk counselors or specialists or arts and crafts counselors. They’re not necessarily Jewish, but most of them are.

“We are very fortunate to have folks from Australia and New Zealand, who generally end up on the waterfront. They’re usually a little older.”

This summer, everyone can come back.

Nesher campers develop strong friendships.

“For the first time in three years we could do overseas recruiting in Mexico and in England and in Israel,” Mr. Schlank said. “It was great to really meet the staff, not over Zoom but by sitting and talking with them.

“It’s the same thing with recruiting families. We did some of it on Zoom, but many parents wanted to meet our camp directors in person.” So the camp provided both Zoom and actual in-person meetings.

This year, the camps also are offering pre- and post-summer camps; last week, there was a Shavuot camp. “We have Tzofim — Israeli Scouts — and family camp all up and running,” he said. “We have come a long way in a short time.”

The camps’ leaders have worked to intensify the Jewish content. (One of the camps, Nesher, is for Orthodox children; its Jewish content is specifically Orthodox.) “The staff has spent a lot of time thinking about how we integrate our Jewish values and culture into camp life, not only on Shabbat or days with Jewish meaning built in” — days like Tisha b’Av. “I think that this summer folks will see a marked difference on how we focus on it.

“We know that families send their children to camp to get a rich Jewish experience and we are doing it in ways that make everyone comfortable, whether you are a day school family or you get your Jewish values and meaning mainly from camp.”

The Jersey Y Camps have developed a Jewish curriculum that blends core Jewish values with camp life. It focuses on one value each week — courage, curiosity, patience, leadership, creativity, understanding, and confidence – and uses examples and emotions that affect camp life to bring them to life.

More Camp Nesher girls smile together.

The first week is devoted to courage — ometz in Hebrew, and the word is both spelled in Hebrew and transliterated into English in the curriculum — and acknowledges that it takes courage to leave everything familiar to come to camp for the first time. Exercises involve recognizing and rewarding courage.

By the last week, the curriculum focuses on confidence — bitachon — as it looks at the progress campers will have made, and how it hopes they will leave camp.

“We are not just a camp, but a Jewish camp,” Mr. Schlank said. “We are not just a community, we are a kehilla.” A Jewish community. “We create a place where we live our Jewish values every day.”

Meanwhile, there’s still covid to deal with, of course. It’s changed — it keeps changing — but it’s not gone.

“We have an internal medical committee, and we have hired PM Pediatrics as our outside medical advisers,” Mr. Schlank said. “We make our plans, and adjust as necessary. We’re nimble.

“Staff has to be vaccinated, and so do children traveling out of camp,” he said. “We are not requiring vaccinations for the kids who are not traveling; our medical folks have made our decisions based on what we’re comfortable with.”

Camp Nesher boys are ready for Shabbat.

That said, Mr. Schlank continued, “we recommend that everyone gets vaccinated, and the vast majority of our kids — well north of 95 percent — are. We really feel very comfortable knowing that the community will be as safe as it would have been if we had mandated vaccines for everyone, because people are listening to the smart science.”

Everyone will be tested before getting to camp, he added.

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

“You can feel the excitement among camp professionals, many of whom already have moved up to their camp sites to prepare for the arrival of staff and staff training week, followed by the campers,” he said. “Many of them have expressed their joy at getting back to their summer homes.”

But he also acknowledged the pressures of the outside world. “There is a growing fragility among all camp professionals right now,” he said. “There are a number of factors. There is consternation over the continuing presence of covid.” Last year, he said, bubbling kept covid away; this year, the virus is far less deadly but frustratingly ineradicable. Large gatherings always seem to yield a few people with the infection.

“Last week, the CDC issued an updated protocol for camps and immersive summer experiences,” Mr. Fingerman said. “I am not an expert, but I think that camps are now re-evaluating their not-yet-finalized covid protocols in light of that. There are likely to be more tests throughout the summer then they previously had thought necessary.”

In fact, he said, “I am limiting the number of camp visits that my staff and I will make this summer. Normally I’d be at 30 camps. We are cutting back significantly, because we don’t want to add an additional burden to the camps.”

It’s twilight at Cedar Lake Camp — a great time to be on a jet ski.

Mr. Fingerman, like just about everyone else at the foundation, loves visiting camps. “We can’t wait for 2023!” he said.

This year, he said, staffers will have to have a different experience than the one the virus imposed on them last year. They cannot be kept in a bubble, apart from the outside world. “In order to recruit successfully, camps had to promise that there would be time off duty and off campus,” Mr. Fingerman said. “That will require more guidance, testing, and care. Counselors work really hard, and they are very careful in the way they protect their campers, so they need time to keep building their resilience and to recharge their batteries.

“And it’s not just about covid,” he continued. “There is an increased concern over mental health, which has only gotten worse among younger campers and counselors. So this is yet another area that’s adding to directors’ concerns. And then with the tragedies in Buffalo and Texas and Tulsa, there is an increased concern about security.”

There have been no threats, he added; the concern is not specific. But it’s real.

“New Jersey Y Camps have done a really good job of refreshing their security procedures and protocols,” Mr. Fingerman said. “They’re working with Secure Community Network,” the North American Jewish community’s security agency.

“And then there’s a concern over the dramatically rising costs of operating this summer,” he continued. “Food, fuel, and staffing costs all have gone through the roofs. Many of the camps set their tuition prices in September or August, when we were facing a totally different level of inflation. We never anticipated that it would be at this level.

“These concerns are weighing on camp professionals.”

But still there is much room — and much need — for joy.

Mr. Fingerman, like Mr. Schlank, talked about the high enrollment numbers at the Jersey Y Camps. “It’s tremendously helpful to know that families have returned. The retention rates are very strong at NJ Y Camps. That is a compliment to the staff and the quality of the program.

“There are also a high number of new campers. Last year we had very many, because that basically was two years of new campers.” That’s because there was no camp in 2020. “But we are ahead in numbers of new campers versus 2019. So there is a buoyancy in families’ enrollment participation, and in their confidence in the camps. And there is a record number of Israeli shlichim” — counselors — “who will be spending their summer in camp creating connections with campers and other counselors.”

Mr. Fingerman, again like Mr. Schlank, talked about the Yedid Nefesh grants that his foundation gives to camps. Yedid Nefesh — the words mean “beloved soul,” and are the opening words to a hauntingly beautiful Shabbat melody — “which is funded by the Marcus Foundation, is to add new social workers or have them get additional qualifications. We awarded grants to more than 60 camps to help address the social, emotional, spiritual, and mental health issues.”

Then he focused on one specific set of camps.

“NJ Y Camps continues to be a bright star in the constellation of Jewish camps in North America,” Mr. Fingerman said.

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