Inside the Multimillion Dollar Struggle for Jewish Camp in America This Summer

The Reform movement just announced its summer camps won’t open, but other camps are still wrestling with how to open and keep a centerpiece of Jewish life going

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Song leaders join campers and counselors in celebrating the end of Shabbat Havdalah service around the campfire at URJ Camp Harlam, in Kunkeltown, Penn.
Song leaders, campers and counselors celebrate the end of Shabbat at a havdalah campfire service, at Reform-affiliated Camp Harlam, in Pennsylvania.Credit: Courtesy of Foundation for Jewish Camp

A question that is almost prayer-like in its reverence and hope hangs in the air of Jewish family homes across North America: Will there be camp this summer amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Last Thursday, the Reform movement provided its anguished answer: It will not be opening its camps or running Israel travel programs and other in-person activities this summer. It is the largest Jewish movement in the United States and is the first of the organizations that run camps and summer programming networks to make such a decision.

Its move could potentially influence other camps and camp organizations as they wrestle with the same logistical and health conundrums of how to operate during this unprecedented health crisis.

“Among the many difficult decisions we have had to face together, today we share one that is especially difficult: After months of carefully following and evaluating the evolving COVID-19 situation, the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] has reached the heartbreaking, difficult, and values-based decision to cancel all in-person activities this summer,” the movement said in a statement.

Like other camps across North America trying to figure out how to proceed, the URJ said it made its decision after conferring with experts, including regional and federal medical authorities, and conversations with its professional and lay leadership teams.

“Ultimately, we determined that there are simply too many risks – both known and unknown, both now and over the full summer – to hold our programs as usual,” the statement added.

Some 10,000 children attended URJ camps in 2019, while overall some 90,000 children attend Jewish overnight camps.

Two Conservative Jewish Ramah camps, one in Colorado and the other in Wisconsin, also announced last week that they plan to delay the beginning of their camps to at least July 1.

‘Social experience’

Summer camp, and in particular overnight camp, is a central and highly cherished part of Jewish life in North America. With their immersive, fun-filled settings where friendships, Jewish experience and identity-building run deep, camps can feel like their own distinct and beloved worlds. For some families, it’s a tradition that generations of family members attend the same camp. Jewish overnight camps have soared in popularity in recent years, with a 20 percent increase in attendance over the past decade.

Girls at a previous Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.Credit: Camp Ramah in Wisconsin

The very nature of Jewish camp – sharing bunks, communal meals in dining halls, linking arms during sing-alongs, playing sports together – is what makes it so challenging to plan for, as most American states are currently functioning under lockdown and social distancing orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Camps are a social experience – the very opposite of social distancing – and camps are thinking hard: can they deliver a quality experience?” says Jeremy Fingerman, who heads the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which advises and advocates on behalf of the summer camps. “Each camp will have to make that determination, especially once we know the rules and regulations” from governors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Camp Association, he adds.

Camp directors and local Jewish leaderships have agonized over how to proceed, juggling various contingency plans – including the possibility of camp starting later in the summer or in modified formats – while grappling with financial concerns. In some cases, there are fears that if camps close this summer, some might not be able to reopen ever again.

Donors have stepped up to begin trying to address the tremendous financial need. There are estimates that even if most Jewish nonprofit camps can run this summer in some form, the additional costs they will incur could require as much as $150 million in funding assistance from the Jewish community to keep them afloat.

In the meantime, nonprofit Jewish camps have been working to borrow money from banks and secure small business loans from the U.S. federal government.

Navigating the storm

Helene Drobenare, executive director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, which consists of two day camps and an overnight camp, all in New York state, is operating in full crisis management mode.

“We are on a roller coaster; there is no model to look at,” Drobenare tells Haaretz in a phone interview.

To help strategize, she has created three Excel sheets on her computer with three different titles and budgets: “The Go Plan”; the “No Go Plan”; and the “Moderated Open.”

“First there is the ‘Go Plan,’ meaning we can make this happen and do it safely. As in, I’m there at the camp entrance waiting for arrivals with my baseball hat on,” says Drobenare, who has been directing at Camp Sprout Lake for the past 20 summers. The “No Go Plan” means, as she puts it, “We can’t do this, even though we pushed things to the ultimate.”

The “Moderated Open” means still holding camp on the ground, even if it means a delayed opening and shorter sessions.

Describing a day in her current life of meetings, strategizing and nimble pivoting, she says: “You wake up with a stomachache, go to bed with a glass of wine – and the next day you start all over again.”

“People say, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘I am preparing for war,’” she says with a laugh.

Drobenare is going to different banks asking for loans, figuring out which summer supplies they can order based on what they can afford. There has been no money coming in over the last couple of months. Before the crisis, families paid fees – some in full, others with down payments. But all of that has halted. And expenses continue to pile up. Like all camp directors, she has to make decisions regarding purchases of supplies, equipment, food and staff salaries, including those working in administration, maintenance and security.

She recently sent out a survey to families to assess their interest in holding camp this summer, even if it means shorter sessions. Eighty percent of families said they wanted camp in any form it might take.

Last Thursday, she sent out a letter to camp families, updating them following the Reform camps’ decision. Drobenare told them that at this stage, Camp Sprout Lake is not prepared to cancel its summer activities.

She closed her letter by writing about her response to a young camper’s question about when he will be able to return: “I answered him, ‘Sprout Lake will always be here waiting for you – but today we need to wait and make sure the world heals first. But that day will come – just hold on and be strong.’ I ask you all the same: please hold on – be strong.”

‘Balancing act’

Jacob Cytryn, executive director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, says he will always remember the night of Wednesday March 11, which was when he and his board convened around the dining room table of his board president in Chicago. It would be the last in-person meeting they were able to hold.

The enormity of the coronavirus crisis was just beginning to sink in – a “9/11 moment,” he says – and that’s when discussions began about the implications for summer camp.

Like Sprout Lake and others, Camp Ramah has pivoted to vigorous online programming this spring, in order to help campers maintain that strong community feeling, while the leadership continues to navigate its way forward.Cytryn updated his camp community by email last week, JTA reported, saying that based on the current data and government regulations, it seemed unlikely that Camp Ramah would run as usual this summer. However, he held out hope that part of the season might be salvaged. The Wisconsin camp has never missed a summer in its over 70 years of existence.

In an interview with Haaretz before that email went out, Cytryn said that he and his staff are balancing everyone’s desire for a summer camp with health concerns.

Jacob Cytryn, executive director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.Credit: Camp Ramah in Wisconsin

“It’s been a number of weeks of this balancing act,” he says. “We feel pressure to serve our people, and to a certain extent the Jewish community has put out this hope for camp this summer after a very disruptive spring.”

He adds that cooperation among Jewish nonprofit camps locally is strong – even though in normal times they would be competing for the same pool of Jewish campers. He describes weekly calls with other camps in his region where they compare notes and help each other.

‘Major crisis’

Leading the charge to help Jewish nonprofit camps survive the crisis, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation pledged in March to donate up to $10 million in new emergency grant funding.

“We hope that this new $10 million commitment will inspire others to help with needed funds to protect and sustain Jewish camp at this critical moment,” said foundation founder Harold Grinspoon when announcing the funding.

Reflecting the desire for others to donate what they can, the emergency funding effort welcomes partners and is being called “All Together Now.” For every $2 contributed to a specific camp or Jewish camps in general, the Grinspoon Foundation will donate $1 (up to $10 million).

“Right away, it was clear that this virus was going to impact the camps, that they would be among the first Jewish institutions that would have a major crisis,” says the foundation’s president, Winnie Sandler Grinspoon.

Winnie Sandler Grinspoon.Credit: Courtesy of the Harold Grinspoon

No matter what specific movements and camps decide, she says, Jewish camp is going to be under terrible financial strain either way. “With this match, we hope to encourage others who care about keeping camp beyond this summer – to protect camp from collapse. We hope they will help raise funds,” she tells Haaretz.

“When we look at our match [the $10 million funding], we know it cannot solve the entire problem. Our hope is that the combination of loans, private and government sources of funding, as well as [an] uptick in fundraising will help meet the bare minimum to help camps remain viable beyond this summer.”

Sandler Grinspoon estimates that if camp does not happen, the lost tuition fees and operating expenses will cost the North American Jewish community between $100 million to $150 million to ensure the camps make it to next summer.

To take part in the grant matching fund, people can give directly to specific camps or a movement’s camps, or without any stipulation.

“There’s no place like camp,” Sandler Grinspoon adds. “We don’t want to look back years from now to realize we had this incredible asset the community built over these years and that we did not step up to save them. I just hope that news of this grant encourages others to dig deep at this time, even as our stock portfolios go down and investments are suffering. Because this is that rainy day we saved for, and we want to make sure we do everything we possibly can to save camp.”

The UJA Federation of New York recently announced that it is allocating $6 million to help support overnight and day camps. According to Fingerman, other federations and foundations are also starting to step up with grants and donations.

‘Devastating’

The JCC movement is home to some 150 day camps, serving 58,000 kids each summer and employing 11,000 staff. It also has 25 overnight camps with a further 22,000 campers and 6,000 staff, making it the largest group of camps – equivalent to the United Reform Judaism and Ramah camps combined – according to Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America.

Krakow says the reality for day camps is different to overnight camps, since they are usually located on a fixed site that is already in use – like a JCC campus – and can, unlike overnight camps, become operational at short notice.

But if day camps are also forced to shut, the $30 million summer income they usually generate will be lost, impacting the JCCs’ ability to function in the year ahead, Krakow tells Haaretz.

Similarly, the potential loss of the $50 million from the overnight camps would be equally devastating. “So our camp leaders are going to hold on for as long as they possibly can” before making a final decision, Krakow notes.

Jewish philanthropy will be key to weathering the crisis, he says. Krakow hopes philanthropists will make low or no cost credit available to Jewish institutions, including camps, so they can borrow what they need now and repay in full once they recover.

‘Pick up the pieces’

Erika Marcus, a 50-year-old teacher from Plainview, New York, is in a family of second-generation Young Judaea campers. Her 13-year-old son is set for his first year at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, New York, while her 16-year-old son is registered for a trip to Israel this summer through the organization.

“Camp is important for my kids. Their friends there are very special, the camp culture, the positive feelings it sparks about their Jewish identity, culture and connections to Israel is something we cannot create at home,” Marcus tells Haaretz.

“After this Covid Pause (an author friend said it this way), camp will be a very welcome return to childhood and some normalcy, even if camp or the Israel program is modified. It will be healing for them and for us as parents to be able to pick up the pieces.”

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