US Jewish summer camps grapple with likely coronavirus closures, delays

Organizers are faced with dilemma between thousands of kids missing out on summer highlight and losing a key community building tool, or potentially helping spread the disease

Ramah in the Rockies, seen here, is facing state and local regulatory hurdles that would make opening difficult this summer, its director said. (Courtesy of Ramah in the Rockies via JTA)
Ramah in the Rockies, seen here, is facing state and local regulatory hurdles that would make opening difficult this summer, its director said. (Courtesy of Ramah in the Rockies via JTA)

JTA — Thousands of parents and children have been asking the question for months, with increasing anxiety: Will the coronavirus cancel summer camp?

Three Jewish overnight camps, from the Conservative Ramah movement, are set to announce their decisions this week. Ramah in Wisconsin, Colorado’s Ramah in the Rockies and Ramah Darom in Georgia are scheduled to start camp in early to mid-June.

By Friday, they all plan to say whether that will actually happen. And the answer is probably going to be no.

It’s premature, camp directors say, to set a policy for the whole summer. But due to the continuing risks of the coronavirus pandemic, and the corresponding social distancing measures designed to slow its spread, camp is likely to at least be postponed, if not canceled outright.

“There’s a very high likelihood that there won’t be camp early [in the summer] for those who open early,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, which coordinates 10 camps.

“There’s a lot of risks associated with opening camp this summer, obviously, and every camp and every movement is going to have to make a decision as to whether the risks are smart,” he said.

Illustrative: Jewish summer camp at Surprise Lake Camp. (Surprise Lake Camp)

Whether camps can open has been the subject of emotional debate and intense stress for parents and children for whom the prospect of a summer at camp has been a beacon in a dark time. Shut down and thousands of children miss out on a highlight of their year, one that studies show is crucial to the formation of long-term Jewish identities. But staying open means potentially contributing to the spread of a disease that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

Camps are awaiting guidelines on summer camp from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that are due out this week. Then, camp directors said, they will need to see what state and local social distancing regulations will look like for the summer. Only after that will they be able to confer with their boards of directors and medical advisers before making a decision.

Ramah in Wisconsin, which has operated every summer for more than 70 years, is potentially facing its first shutdown ever, said Executive Director Jacob Cytryn. Each season, the camp serves 550 kids in third through 11th grade. It is scheduled to open June 16.

“The status quo right now in terms of governors’ stay-at-home orders in the Midwest, and the county situation up in the Northwoods [where the camp is located] would make it very difficult to open on time,” Cyrtryn said. “We remain hopeful and really want to figure out how to provide as much of a camp experience as we can.”

Illustrative: Cabins at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp in Northern California. (Courtesy of Camp Tawonga)

Cytryn will announce a decision on postponing by the end of the week. But, he said, “We’re not at a 50-50 coin flip. We’re far enough into this that we have a pretty good sense of the immediate decisions.”

(Full disclosure: I attended Ramah in Wisconsin as a camper while Cytryn was a counselor there.)

Ramah in the Rockies, which is scheduled to open June 9, is also facing state and local regulatory hurdles that would be difficult to surmount, said Executive Director Rabbi Eliav Bock. Bock also will announce a decision by the end of the week.

“At this moment, the regulations are such that there is no way that we could open based on what they are saying right now,” he said.

The camp, which was among the first nonprofits to receive a federal grant shoring up funding, will issue a final decision on the entire summer by June 1.

“Do we think that we, Ramah in the Rockies, can operate a community that provides for the safety of our campers and staff?” he asked. “If the answer is yes, then we go down one road. If the answer is no, we go down a different road.”

Ramah Darom’s director, Geoffrey Menkowitz, referred questions to Cohen.

Several other Ramah camps, including those in New York and Massachusetts, are set to open their summer sessions in late June. Their websites promise decisions about whether to open between mid-May and June 1.

The Ramah camps are among the largest and most established Jewish camps in the United States, but they are far from the only ones grappling with the question of whether to operate this summer. The Union for Reform Judaism operates 16 camps across the country, and there are also dozens of Orthodox, Reconstructionist and nonaffiliated Jewish camps.

Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp in Northern California. (Courtesy of Camp Tawonga)

Even if camps are able to operate this year at all, they will confront a whole different set of questions. Cytryn listed a few: Will the camp have sufficient medical staff? Can it purchase enough cleaning supplies? What about flour? Will it be able to bring in the traditional contingent of Israeli emissaries or hire European kitchen workers?

“We’re also imagining a world where we can’t run camp at our camp, but maybe we can do other in-person activities in our major cities,” he said. “We’re also holding open the possibility that camp as we know it, with the numbers we know, can’t happen.”

Both Cytryn and Bock expect their camps to weather the year financially, even if they can’t operate this summer. Both have committed to refunding tuition if camp is canceled. And both said their minds are on their campers, who will be missing even more time with their peers.

“Who are the teenagers this year who might be missing out on that experience if we don’t open?” Bock said. “That’s what makes me most sad.”

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