Fate of some Jewish summer camps still unknown
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COVID-19Most Reform Jewish camps have cancelled thier 2020 sessions

Fate of some Jewish summer camps still unknown

Directors of local programs run by the JCC and Chabad do not yet know how, or if, they will run camp this summer

Campers at J&R in 2018.  (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)
Campers at J&R in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Between her two children – Max, 5, and Zoe, 11, both students at Community Day School – Robin Freyberg has six camp payments to make this year. Thanks to COVID-19, she doesn’t even know if her kids will end up going to camp and what, if anything, camp might resemble.

“I am so desperate to have some sense of normalcy for my children this summer that, if the camps open, I will send them,” said Freyberg, a Squirrel Hill parent and a clinician at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “The thought of them being stuck at home for all that time is sad.”

If organizations end up canceling programming this summer, Freyberg said she’d rather push her six camp payments to 2021 than seek a refund.

“We’re fortunate that we’re both working and working from home but it’s complicated – I can’t be home all day to entertain them,” Freyberg said. “I hope, eventually, the kids will have camp.”

The answer to the big question – “Will Jewish summer camps in Greater Pittsburgh open for operation this summer?” – was, as of press time, a resounding “We don’t know.”

“We have not gotten word of any decisions,” said Jason Kunzman, chief program officer with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. “Guidance continues to come out and is relatively fluid at this point.”

Kunzman said guidance on whether – or how – to open James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp in Monroeville, or Emma Kaufmann Camp, an overnight camp near Morgantown, West Virginia, will come from county and state health officials, governors’ orders and the American Camp Association.

“We’re doing everything in our power to make camp happen,” Kunzman said. “But, obviously, the health of our campers, families and staff are the top priorities.”

“Our goal right now is to piece [the guidance] all together and make the best decision we can while offering an amazing camp experience,” he added.

The summertime fate of Camp Gan Israel, a camp organized by Chabad that in recent years has taken place on site at Pittsburgh-area schools, also remains unclear. What is known is that, since Pittsburgh Public Schools is not renting its space for the summer, CGI camp – or some variation of it – likely would occur at the Chabad building in Squirrel Hill, on the corner of Forbes Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard.

Rabbi Yisroel Altein of Chabad said there are, tentatively at least, three “plans” for Camp Gan Israel this summer.

Plan A is a full summer session with swimming, trips and activities planned as usual, Altein said. Plan B is a modified schedule that accommodates government guidelines and tries to maintain the maximum amount of fun as possible. Plan C is a virtual camp to keep campers happy and connected, despite the challenging circumstances.

“We’re committed to making sure the kids have some kind of CGI experience,” Altein said. “We definitely will be able to make the guidelines work to make a plan. We just don’t have the guidance for June, July and August. We’re trying to prepare for what we can.”

The process of planning Camp Gan Israel’s summer session starts as early as October, said Bayla Oster, the camp’s program director.

“We actually have a beautiful brochure outlining all the fun that was planned before we realized that, as they say, ‘man plans and God laughs,’” Oster said. “Since then, it’s been a bit of a waiting game to see how the pandemic would unfold.

“The past few months have demonstrated that this pandemic is unpredictable,” she continued, adding Chabad was waiting to book flights for counselors as far flung as Illinois and California. “Right now, we’re a month and a half away from camp. We expect to make final decisions about programming in the next few weeks, but until then, it’s about seeing what happens and praying that things will get better.”

Both the JCC and Chabad were very clear, though, about one thing: if any family cancels its camp plans due to circumstances related to COVID-19, they will be issued a full refund.

Jonathan Weinkle is a Squirrel Hill physician who planned to send his three sons to Camp Young Judaea Midwest, a summer camp in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He said CYJ sprang into action when threatened with possible closure or adjustment due to COVID-19.

“There has been a river of activities from the very first days of the schools being closed,” Weinkle said. “They’ve been doing baking activities and alumni activities and all sorts of things to keep the spirit of camp going.”

CYJ could not be reached for comment by press time.

Will Weinkle send his three sons if the Wisconsin camp opens?

“I think there’s no good answer to this question,” he said. “From an emotional standpoint, closing camp is going to be devastating for the kids [and] Jewish summer camp is a big driver with the community and with Jewish identity. The question is, ‘Is it safe?’ We want everything to be safe.”

Weinkle floated the idea of having pseudo-mini-camps with fewer than 10 children at a time culled from those who planned to attend each larger camp.

“I would like to not see it completely lost but there’s always some danger out there – this is way worse than the flu,” he said. “Whatever is the most we can do without inviting danger, that’s what we should do.”

Nearly all Reform Jewish summer camps, and at least one Conservative camp, will remain closed for the 2020 summer, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The Reform movement, the largest in the United States, was the first to suspend its official summer camp network. It’s the first time in more than 70 years that the movement is suspending its camps.

The Reform movement is also canceling all of its trips to Israel and other locations, as well as all in-person youth activities. A statement from the Union for Reform Judaism said that if it ends up becoming possible to open the camps, “doing so will be our top priority.”

A handful of Reform camps not run by the Union for Reform Judaism are not bound by the decision.

Ramah Darom, a Conservative Jewish camp in Georgia, is also canceling its 2020 summer. An email to the camp community said that Georgia’s regulations currently would not allow them to operate the camp, which was scheduled to open in early June. The camp’s medical committee decided that, even if regulations change, it would be “untenable” to manage the risk posed by COVID-19.

On May 11, Camp Ramah in Canada announced that it had cancelled its first session for the summer of 2020. PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. Ben Sales, of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, contributed to this report.

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