Jewish Summer Camps: Ready to Go, Waiting for Directions

Photo courtesy Camp Moshava Ennismore

Summer camp directors who have spent the past year planning how to re-open overnight camps safely, after having been shut down last summer in the midst of the pandemic, say they’re ready to go, but are still waiting for approval from provincial governments.

The Ontario Camps Association, which represents 450 camps in the province, began researching and then lobbying the provincial government not long after camps were shut down in May 2020. 

Jack Goodman, owner of Camp New Moon and head of the OCA’s COVID-19 task force, is optimistic that camps will re-open this summer.

“There’s no question that from our dialogue with the political side, they recognize that camps need to open. They want them to open. And from the public health perspective, it’s the same message: ‘We want camps to operate and we want them to be as safe as possible,’” Goodman said.

“We’re hopeful and we’re optimistic, providing these (COVID) variants and the pandemic go in the direction that most health experts expect it to go.”

Meantime, the four-week lockdown that was enacted in Ontario starting April 8 comes at a perfect time for camp if it increases vaccinations and drives down cases before the summer, Goodman said.

The first draft of the Ontario government’s guidelines for summer camps is expected to arrive in the next few days, Goodman noted. From there, the OCA will draw up a detailed field guide to help camps put government regulations about issues such as cohort size and testing protocols into practice.

It’s clear that camps will operate differently this year.

Many have already told campers they will need to isolate before camp starts, and busing to camp might not be provided.

Once kids and staff arrive, they’ll be in the “camp bubble” for the summer, with no days off out of camp for staff and no trips or outings.

Everything from how food is served in the dining hall to how campers gather at the flagpole or for sports days will likely change, directors say.

But after an unprecedented summer when camp was cancelled, followed by 18 months of on-again, off-again school, parents are eager to enroll their children, says Vicky Shizgal, director of Camp Moshava Ennismore in Ontario.

“We, along with most of the Jewish camps, launched our registration in the fall and our numbers are all very strong. We are almost at capacity,” she said.

“With our new normal, I don’t think it matters what camp was in the past. In comparison to what they’ve had to go through last year, this will be extremely special, because it’s something they haven’t been able to do for the past year,” Shizgal said.

“Kids going to a pool together or going down to a lake and taking canoes out as a bunk – they haven’t been able to do that.”

Camp directors in Quebec and Manitoba say they too are waiting for their provincial governments to give them the green light.

In Winnipeg, Danial Sprintz, executive director of Camp Massad, is also waiting to hear if Manitoba will allow overnight camp to open. “We know we can do it safely, but right now we don’t if we have the ear of anyone who can help us out,” he said.

Massad operated as a day camp last summer but that model isn’t financially viable, Sprintz said. If the province can’t give an answer this month, Sprintz said the camp will not be able to open this summer.

At Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa, which operates a site in Quebec, director Cindy Presser-Benedek says the situation is similar to that in Ontario, with provincial health authorities reviewing camps’ policies.

The challenges facing summer camps are numerous, directors point out. Overnight camps are in a fragile position financially, as they have been the only industry that has been closed and not re-opened since the pandemic started.

Meanwhile, directors have invested large sums to comply with COVID protocols in anticipation of opening. B’nai Brith of Ottawa, for example, is spending between $200,000 and $300,000 on testing kits, personal protective equipment (PPE) and extra tents to add space to communal areas like the dining hall, Presser-Benedek said.

As a non-profit, the camp has no choice but to pass those costs on to families in a small surcharge, although families receiving financial assistance will be exempt, she said.

Camps are also looking at shorter sessions, or dropping a second session they normally would have offered later in the summer, to preserve the “camp bubble.”

Jewish camps, which often have a large contingent of campers and staff from Israel and the United States, are also looking at borders that are still closed, as well as quarantine rules, and wondering how they will manage.

At Moshava, about 100 campers and staff come from Israel, but their plans are still on hold, Shizgal said. Shinshinim – Israeli high school students who normally spend a year working at synagogues and schools in Toronto and then work at camps in the summer – will also not attend this year.

Many camps which depend on international campers and staff are nervous about what the summer will look like, Goodman said. His own camp hosts 12 Israeli campers as part of a charity project.

The OCA is working with federal authorities to see if camp staff can receive a similar exemption as farm workers, and may quarantine at camp before campers arrive.

Despite the uncertain prospects for the summer of 2021, parents are ready to send their kids to camp.

“There was true sadness and a loss felt last summer, and the eagerness and excitement about coming back home this summer has been so wonderful,” Presser-Benedek says. “Nobody ever thought that camp would be forced to close… but it made people really appreciate and love camp.”

The best is yet to come.

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