26 June 2020
This week, my calendar reminded me to drop off my children at Jewish overnight camp. Every year, I look forward to this special ritual of taking one or more of my children to the same summer camp that shaped my own childhood and that of my parents. I see friends that I have not seen in a while, and even former campers for whom I was a counselor. The memories from every building come flooding back. But, like many families in Greater Washington, my family’s summer plans have changed dramatically due to the global health crisis.
In an effort to protect community health, most of the 150 Jewish overnight camps, as well as many Jewish day camps, across the country have made the painful decision to cancel the 2020 season. The closures were announced by camp directors with tears in their eyes, and received by heartbroken campers, parents, and staff.
Though logistical challenges certainly complicate a busy summer, the feeling of loss goes far beyond a lack of planned childcare. Jewish camp is a critical piece of the identity building formula for American Jews. Camp is a core part of what it means to be Jewish for more than 80,000 campers each summer, including more than 8,000 from Greater Washington.
Most summers, children return from all kinds of Jewish camps transformed by living, learning, and growing with their peers. They learn who they are and what it means to be a child, a teen, or a young adult in a supportive, immersive Jewish environment. They come home from religious camps, agriculture camps, arts camps and Zionist camps with new lifelong friendships, beloved rituals, and memories that forever tie them to each other and Jewish life. They understand on a gut level that Judaism and each of their particular interests and relationships exist and thrive together and not in isolation from each other.
The connections to Jewish values, identity, and leadership learned at camp are reflected in the data, too. A survey by the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that adults who attended Jewish camps as children felt more connected to Judaism and attached to Israel than their non-camping peers.
We cannot avoid this lost summer of Jewish camping. But together, we can ensure the loss of one camp season does not undermine our individual and collective journeys towards vibrant Jewish life. While it may not have the immediate appeal of singing songs at the top of their lungs or eating s’mores one after another while sitting around a campfire, our community’s children will have the opportunity to spend more time with their families this summer, to enjoy shabbat dinners at home, and to explore some of the many online activities developed by Jewish organizations to fill the gap.
We can also take heart in knowing that families in our community are working hard to support and sustain the viability of camps they love. Parents are enrolling their children for the 2021 season now and inviting friends and neighbors who have yet to discover the joy of Jewish camping to join them. And Federation and our broader community are committed to assisting local Jewish camps survive the financial losses of this season and ensuring even more families have access to a Jewish camping experience for their children in 2021. Our goal should be to have full enrollment at every one of our local camps next summer and to increase the overall level of participation in Jewish day and overnight camps.
Our community is built on the strong foundations of dedicated leaders and organizations, committed individuals, and supportive shared infrastructure. While the lack of camp this summer will be deeply felt, we will not allow the temporary loss to dampen our children’s collective engagement in positive Jewish experiences. That will remain as strong as ever. My children and I are already counting down to next summer at camp.