Seniors upset that Camp B’nai Brith ends program for the elderly

Camp B’nai Brith has been serving the Montreal Jewish community for close to a century. (Camp B’nai Brith/Facebook photo)

A group of seniors is fighting the decision by Camp B’nai Brith (CBB) to terminate a summer camping program for their age group that has been running for more than 40 years.

CBB says participation in the two-week sojourn for seniors, held concurrently with the children’s summer camping period, has been declining for years and is no longer economically viable nor in keeping with CBB’s central mission of serving mainly underprivileged Jewish kids.

The senior campers stayed in the Laurentian camp’s retreat centre, which has a capacity of about 120.

They have modest incomes, and in recent years have been mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, from Montreal and Toronto. The amount they pay does not cover the full cost of their stay, CBB says.

CBB, which is a Federation CJA agency, is offering a compromise: running the program off-season in September, said executive director Josh Pepin, contingent upon a minimal registration of 80 to 85 and not from Toronto. (The camp is used in the latter half of August, after the children leave, by KlezKanada).

“We are all aware that our summers are much too short,” CBB said in a statement to The CJN. “We only have a brief window for our young Jewish Montrealers to enjoy camp and, unfortunately, it no longer makes sense for one of our principal buildings to be used at less than full capacity.”

Accommodating seniors outside of July and August is actually more feasible from the standpoint of hiring staff, he explained.

Pepin said that for at least the last 10 years CBB has been covering the cost of this program, not the Federation or Cummings Centre, an early partner. Even the grants CBB has been receiving from Centraide of Greater Montreal since 2005 ($147,000 last year) is designated for children’s camping, Pepin said.

Marina Yurkansky, one of those protesting, says that these brief summer getaways are immensely enjoyed by the participants, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, former gulag inmates and war veterans.

The group released a statement explaining why:

“This trip to the camp was the highlight of our lives; we counted the days until it was time to go. This outing gave us a chance to see each other and to have Shabbat shared with friends, get away from our small apartments into the fresh air, break barriers of isolation and loneliness, improve our physical and mental health.”

She says about 100 signatures have been collected on a petition to keep the program going as it has been.

Yurkansky, 72, and her husband Yury, 82, have gone to CBB, a scenic lakeside property near Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., for 19 summers.

The September offer is not appealing to them because by then it is starting to get colder up north, she said, and it’s too expensive. For six days, she said, CBB is asking her and Yury to pay $1,000 each. That compares to the $650 they each paid for two weeks in mid-summer last year.

She also says it would be virtually impossible to recruit the minimum number of registrants CBB says it must have. Pepin said that CBB is willing to pay for the marketing of a revamped program.

Pepin also said CBB was able to continue the program in 2018 and 2019 because the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) rented the facility for six weeks for its North American leadership program, bringing in extra revenue. He said the organization decided not to return this year.

The statement reads, “Last fall, the board of directors of CBB made the difficult, yet fiscally responsible, decision to follow in the footsteps of every other Jewish camp in North America and end our senior citizen program due to the drop in the popularity of the program … At the outset, it is important to note that a seniors’ program is not part of our core mission.”

The CBB board said it believes it gave the seniors “ample time to make other arrangements.”

Founded in 1921 by the B’nai Brith for Jewish kids in need, CBB is described on the federation website as having a mission to “the most vulnerable individuals in our community: the poor, the elderly, new immigrants and those with special needs.”

Pepin, the executive director since 2011, noted that CBB’s children’s registration had dipped steeply by the time he started and was in trouble, but has been climbing back up.

Last summer, CBB had about 715 regular campers, about half of them subsidized, and close to 1,000 participants overall with its special programs, including those for Israeli war orphans and day campers.

The statement also said, “Over the years, the seniors’ program … served as a nice complement to our summer camp program, allowing for intergenerational dialogue and learning. In its prime (up to the early 2000s), we had 80 to 100 in each of the four sessions over the summer months.

“Unfortunately, today, despite our best effort, participation has fallen significantly,” averaging 50 to 70.

Last summer, Pepin said, there were two seniors’ groups – one from Montreal and one from Toronto – “and there was hardly any interaction with our campers and staff.”

Yurkansky counters that enrolment has dwindled because the program is given no publicity. “No one knows about it,” she said. The reason Russian speakers have become the great majority is that “we know each other” and that’s how word got around, she said.

Pepin said cost is not the only factor that was weighed in the decision.

CBB would like to make other uses of the retreat centre, a two-story complex, such as serving more children with special needs, providing dormitories for staff or housing rainy day activities.