Quebec Jewish sleepaway camps are reopening this summer

Camp B'nai Brith (Montreal)

For the first time in a century, Camp B’nai Brith (CBB) was closed last year. So the Quebec public health department’s green light to overnight camps this summer is especially joyous for the thousands who consider the Laurentian camp a home away from home.

“Since 1921, when it was founded, CBB had never missed a season,”’ said director Josh Pepin. “It kept going through wars, financial crises and epidemics. In fact, it was founded, like many other camps in North America, to serve the community in during hard times.”

On May 6 the province’s overnight camps, which were all required to shutter in 2020, were given approval to operate this summer, with restrictions that continue to be fine-tuned with the course of COVID.

CBB is the oldest and largest of the community camps recognized by Federation CJA. The others—the Harry Bronfman YCC Country Camp, Camp Kinneret-Biluim, and Camp Massad—are also reopening.

For CBB, the shutdown meant not only the loss of children’s camping, but also its year-round operations, primarily the rental of its retreat centre. KlezKanada, an annual weeklong cultural event held at the end of August and bringing in more than 300 people, many from out of province, for example, will be virtual again this year.

Pepin is expecting registration to exceed the 700-750 campers CBB averages over two sessions each summer. Despite the uncertainty, demand has been high, he said, due to kids being largely cooped up the past year.

Registrants for last season were given full refunds, he said, amounting to more than $700,000. Nevertheless, registration began for 2021 last fall in the hope that the pandemic would wane and reopening would be possible.

CBB remains true to its founding philosophy, accepting all children regardless of ability to pay.

The first session will begin July 1, a few days later than normal, and the second on July 26. Campers are being asked to quarantine for five days after the end of school, he said. They must provide proof a negative PCR test within 48 hours of camp start, and will be tested again at camp within five to seven days, he added.

“After that point we will effectively be shut down,” said Pepin. Anyone else who has to come into the camp afterward, such as delivery or trades people, will have to follow strict measures.

The health protocols for the province’s camps have been largely developed by the chair of the Jewish camp’s medical committee, Dr. Earl Rubin, chief of infectious diseases at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Rubin, who has been a camp doctor for more than 30 years, was a driving force in persuading the government that camps could run safely.

The outlook has improved with the lowering of the minimum vaccination age to 12 as of May 25, and an inoculation blitz is taking place in the schools in June.

Pepin said campers will be organized into “bubbles” to minimize the risk of transmission. Indoor activities will be limited and masks worn when needed. He noted that a few years ago, CBB replaced the windows on the dining hall with garage-type doors that when open permit plenty of ventilation.

CBB usually receives a significant number of campers from outside Quebec, especially Ontario. The land border between the two provinces has been closed since April 18 when the coronavirus variants were surging. On May 29, the closure was extended to June 16.

Pepin said CBB has a wait list of Ontarians, in case the blockade is lifted. However, priority is being given to campers from Quebec.

Staffing has been a bigger challenge, even though the border closure does not apply to those who are coming to Quebec to work. Normally, 25-35 per cent of CBB’s staff is from out of province, Pepin said, and that includes Israel.

With the uncertainty over reopening, some potential staff have found jobs elsewhere for the summer. Finding local employees has been more difficult than usual because CBB will not allow them to leave the camp for days off or nights out, for example.

Camp staff, regardless of age, were earlier given priority in the vaccination schedule, and CBB is “strongly recommending” that they get their shots, Pepin said.

CBB will also operate its on-site day camp this summer, although only registration by the week is being accepted; no daily or by drop-in participants.

RELATED STORY: Summer camps get green light in some provinces (but remain shuttered in others)

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