Jewish camps boost security after Tree of Life, Poway
SecurityNew safety measures in place.

Jewish camps boost security after Tree of Life, Poway

Jewish camps consulted with the Department of Homeland Security, federation security directors, and local law enforcement to ensure safety of children and staff.

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)

Safety is a top priority for most Jewish organizations, including at Jewish summer camps. While many camps in Pennsylvania have had longstanding security protocol in place, the attacks at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, then at Chabad of Poway six months later, moved them to consult security experts anew, and to implement suggested upgrades where needed.

At the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s camps, including the James and Rachel Levinson Day Camp, and the Emma Kaufmann overnight camp located in Morgantown, West Virginia, several changes were introduced.

“As we have done in the past, the JCC evaluates and executes priorities in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, Brad Orsini [the community security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh] and local law enforcement in addition to the JCC’s director of security,” according to Cathy Samuels, the JCC’s senior director of development and communications. “The focus remains on assessment, awareness, training and communication at all JCC sites, including our camps, incorporating evidence-informed best practices.”

This summer, security coverage at EKC has been expanded “to 24-7,” Samuels said, and to “all hours of operation at our day camps at each site.”

Physical improvements at EKC include: an updated intercom system, entrance re-configurations that include a dedicated security booth, new fencing and video cameras. Additional lighting has been installed in various locations as well, and a dedicated a vehicle is now on hand 24 hours a day for response staff, if needed.

“There have been no security-related incidents at any of our camps through the first three weeks of camp,” Samuels said, and only a few inquiries from parents regarding security.

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a nonprofit advocating for Jewish day and overnight camps across North America, noted that there has been a recent push from that organization for increased funding on the federal level for security in rural areas where many overnight camps are located, as many day camps are connected to synagogues, schools and other institutions in urban areas closer to law enforcement.

While the question of security has reentered the public conversation, Fingerman has not noticed much of an uptick in parental concern.

“All of us are concerned about the overall rise of anti-Semitism, but I haven’t heard too much [about] camps hearing from parents other than [from] our encouragement of camps to communicate with parents what they do every year,” Fingerman said. “Of course, with the growing concern over the rise of anti-Semitism, camps are certainly putting more effort into training their staff this summer and preparedness.”

Such is the case at Camp Young Judaea Midwest in Waupaca, Wisconsin, which this summer is home to 31 campers from Pittsburgh in addition to two staff members and two counselors-in-training.

CYJ’s director, Robin Anderson, has not received an influx in parental calls about security this season, she said, noting that her camp is proactively communicative regarding its security protocols which have been in place for about 10 years.

“We are continuing to work closely with the local sheriff’s office and local emergency management,” Anderson said. “We have a great relationship with both parties who send armed reserve duty officers after hours. They stop by regularly to check in on the camp as well.”

CYJ also brought in representatives from the sheriff’s office during staff training “to discuss what to do in the event of an armed shooter on site,” and representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security walked the property in mid-May “to offer additional suggestions of safety measures to put in place,” Anderson said.

One security suggestion that CYJ implemented was to install a barrier gate for the purpose of “deterrence,” she noted.

At Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Conservative overnight camp, a security consultant specializing in Jewish communal spaces was brought in to audit the camp’s security protocols. Camp Executive Director Rabbi Joel Seltzer said local Department of Homeland Security and FBI agents toured the camp to give suggestions and advice. He explained that the camp, and many other Jewish organizations in the area, were introduced to the security personnel after the 2017 nationwide wave of bomb threats called in to JCCs and other Jewish institutions. Ramah has made investments into its security infrastructure in recent years, adding additional cameras and a camp-wide public address system.

“So the truth is, our philosophy has been the same for the last 20 years or so, which is the security of our campus has to be the number one priority because the fun and the joy and the Judaism that comes from Jewish summer camp can only be created in an environment where a child feels safe,” Seltzer said. “So, long even before the Poway or the Pittsburgh of today, and really since post-9/11, our camp in particular has been extremely thoughtful and has invested a significant amount of time, money and resources into our current infrastructure and building it to get to this state.”

A recent grant allowed Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania to install additional lighting and construct a gatehouse for its 24-hour on-site security personnel, according to Lisa David, director of Camp Harlam, one of the 18 overnight camps operated by the Union for Reform Judaism. This summer there are 25 campers from Pittsburgh there, as well as 10 staff members who attend school in the Pittsburgh area.

While she has received only a handful of additional questions from parents about security this summer, the topic is always on her mind.

“Regardless of outside events, we’re always trying to make some enhancements,” David said. “This is just a constant in our world today and something we have to remain vigilant about and make sure people feel safe, reassured and also prepared.” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
Eric Schucht is a writer for the Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia newspaper affiliated with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

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