For generations, summer overnight camp has been woven into the fabric of Jewish life.
Children eagerly anticipate those weeks at camp. Parents view the expense as investment in Jewish identity. Camp is where life-long friendships, and even romantic relationships leading to marriage, are formed. Jewish camp has proven a potent mix of education, prayer, Hebrew, and Israeli culture, as well as sports, recreation, and arts and crafts.
But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic and continued concern about spread of the coronavirus has forced cancellation of summer programs at Camp Coleman and Ramah Darom, and at Jewish camps elsewhere in the country.
Camp is so much a part of children’s lives that both Camp Coleman and Ramah Darom posted guidance for parents on how to break the news to their children and how to deal with their disappointment.
As of May 1, there had not been an announcement by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta about the status of Camp Barney Medintz, an overnight camp located in Cleveland, Ga., or the MJCCA’s day camp programs.
Camp Coleman, affiliated with the Reform movement, is also located in Cleveland, about 80 miles north of Atlanta. In a letter posted April 30 on its website, camp director Bobby Harris said, “It is with broken hearts that we share our plans to cancel all in-person activities held on our site for summer 2020. If at any point new information emerges and conditions change that lead us to be able to provide in-person gatherings, we will do so as a top priority,” he wrote.
“Our ongoing conversations with and learning from local, regional, and federal medical authorities, the Centers for Disease Control, and many leaders in camping, along with deep exploration by our camp professional and lay leadership teams, have led the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to the difficult conclusion that there are too many known and unknown risks for us to create an acceptable pathway forward for this summer,” Harris wrote. The cancellation at Camp Coleman will affect more than 850 campers, 200 staffers, and 40 clergy and educators.
In a video message, a clearly pained Harris said that the cancellation “saddens me deeply” and went on to say that “Painfully this is a step that we must now take in order to ensure the long term mission of Camp Coleman.”
URJ shuttered 15 camps, which served some 10,000 campers in 2019. This will be the first year since 1947 that summer camp has not been held at on-site locations. The Reform movement also has cancelled summer trips to Israel and other locations, along with all in-person youth activities.
Ramah Darom, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, is located about 107 miles northeast of Atlanta, near Clayton, Ga. There, a medical committee decided that risk of COVID-19 made holding camp this summer “untenable.”
“I am so, so sad and my heart is hurting to have to share the news of the cancelation of camp this summer,” Ramah Darom Director Geoff Menkowitz said in a video posted April 30 on the camp website. “We have been holding onto hope that it might be possible for us to still get back to camp this summer. … It has become clear that camp as we know it and love it is not possible right now.”
Before becoming president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta three years ago, Eric Robbins was for 11 years CEO of Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Ga., which serves children with illnesses, disabilities and other challenges. In response to the Camp Coleman and Ramah Darom cancellations, he said, “It makes us incredibly sad and shows the continued devastation from this pandemic. Camp was the most important part of my development and, despite two tough years, one when I lost a sibling and another when I was being treated for cancer, I never missed a summer. I can’t imagine what it will be like for so many who will miss this summer.
“We will be there for all our camps to help them through this challenge; we will be there for our camp families, working with our ecosystem partners to support program alternatives for this summer; and we will be there for our donors who are committed to our camps to make sure they know the dollars they have committed will be there to help send kids to camp this summer if any camp happens, or next summer if it doesn’t,” Robbins said.
Jewish overnight camp is not inexpensive and, as a statement on the Camp Coleman website noted: “The financial ramifications of this decision are significant for all of us.”
At Camp Coleman, camp was scheduled to open June 7 and the season to end July 30. A two-week session for rising third and fourth graders had a listed cost of $2,710. A four-week session ran from $4,995 to $5,520, depending on age. A double, or eight-week session, was $9,485 to $10,550. Costs were a few hundred dollars more for families that are not members of URJ congregations.
The Camp Coleman website advised families that they would receive an email that “will include several options on how to handle your tuition, including options to make a donation that will be generously matched by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, to credit fees paid for use on future URJ programs, and/or receive a refund.”
Sessions at Ramah Darom were set to begin June 9 and end August 3. The price of a two-week “taste of” session for first-time campers began at $2,705. Four-week sessions, for grades four and up, began at $5,470 for four weeks and could run as high as $9,565 for eight weeks.
The Ramah Darom website listed three options: Converting all or a portion of the paid tuition into a tax-deductible donation that would be matched dollar for dollar by the Grinspoon Foundation; roll over tuition and automatically enroll for camp in summer 2021, with a guarantee of no price increase; or accept an offer of a refund.
On the emotional side of the ledger, both Camp Coleman and Ramah Darom offered resources for dealing with disappointed children.
Audra Kaplan, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, is director of camper care and the Tikvah Support Program at Ramah Darom. Her message on the camp website included: “Allow your child to have their feelings, let them cry, be angry, be quiet, and then let them cry some more. … Give them space and time to express their thoughts and feelings and to grieve this loss. … Resist the urge to compare the loss of Camp to greater losses, this will only serve to invalidate their feelings.
… Encourage your child to connect with their Camp friends, to reach out to others and not wait for others to call. … Give them time to process. Some kids may need more time to understand. Some might be angry with Camp, allow them to feel mad, this is part of the grieving process. Be careful not to add your own feelings to theirs.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that, based on information from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, there are more than 180,000 campers and staff at 300-plus Jewish overnight and day camps. Jeremy Fingerman, the foundation CEO, estimated that Jewish camps could lose $150 million because of coronavirus-related cancellations, according to JTA.
Harris’ letter to the Camp Coleman community concluded: “As we sing at camp, ‘Hineh mah tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad’ – how good it is for us to be together, and how thankful we will be when we can be together again.”