Agility and Collaboration During Uncertain Times

Shabbat at URJ Camp Eisner

By Jeremy J. Fingerman

In a typical year, these days of spring would mark the final countdown to a summer full of friendship, fun, and an immersive Jewish camping experience. Yet, as we all know, this spring is anything but typical.

Our world continues to confront an uncertain path forward. And we do so, in some ways, more connected and more aligned than ever before.  

Our entire community is longing for Jewish camp – especially after this extended period of quarantines and physical distancing. The dedicated professionals operating more than 300 day and overnight camps across North America yearn to deliver joyful Judaism and a deep sense of community for the over 180,000 youth, teens, and college-age counselors for whom they prepare diligently all year long.  

People keep saying, “we want camp!” They keep asking, “will camp happen?” Unfortunately, answering these questions is not so simple. We live in a period of immense uncertainty and complexity where decision making, in so many ways, is beyond our control. 

Providing a safe and healthy environment for all participants is priority number one. To do so, camps take guidance on a whole host of challenges from the Center for Disease Control, state and local health authorities regarding summer 2020. The American Camp Association has been working closely with the CDC, to develop guidelines and operational procedures for camps this summer. These guidelines will serve as a baseline for county, state or province regulations which will also be a key factor for determining whether and how camps operate this summer. 

Camps must also address a complexity of issues including testing, staffing, scheduling, transportation, sanitation protocols – among so many others. With the borders closed and restrictions on travel, how do camps make up for the 1,500 Israeli shlichim and thousands of additional staff from around the world that fill essential roles during the summer? A traditional summer experience may simply not be possible in this unprecedented time. 

These decisions are not easy, especially for our Jewish camp professionals; this is their life blood – and their livelihood. I have so much admiration for them! They model, for all of us, though, the very best of our community. Just as they have learned to have “rainy day plans,” they remain nimble and agile, keeping many different balls in the air as they consider many various scenarios. They share with each other as collaborators, colleagues, and friends. They are balancing their community’s desire for meaningful connections, their financial pressures to stay afloat, and the very real concern for the health and safety of their whole camp community.

Next week, camps will begin to announce their plans regarding Summer 2020. Camp directors, in partnership with their volunteer leadership, are weighing a multitude of diverse, and ever-changing factors, and each camp’s ultimate decision to open, delay, or close will vary from camp to camp and be based on each camp’s unique, local situation and timing. We honor and respect the thoughtful decisions each will make.

Regardless of what this summer brings, it’s evident that camps will face enormous budget shortfalls. As we approach the coming weeks, we are incredibly grateful for the initial support of the broader community who continue to make Jewish camp a philanthropic priority. 

We’re thankful that the newly-announced Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) will provide more than $80 million in interest-free loans and grants to support U.S.-based Jewish nonprofit organizations that advance Jewish education, engagement and leadership. Foundation for Jewish Camp will be proud to act as the primary advocate for camp applicants as part of the National Emergency Coalition.

And in a continued demonstration of their amazing investment and support for the field, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be providing an additional $10 million in matching grants to Jewish camps which participate in their JCamp180 program. 

Local federations and foundations are also stepping up. UJA-Federation of NY announced this week a commitment of up to $6 million in new emergency grants for local day and overnight camps. FJC anticipates continued investments in the field from other communities across North America in the coming weeks.

Yet, despite these generous initial initiatives and others pending, there remains a large funding gap and camps will need significant support from the broader Jewish community to offset the huge impact of lost revenues this summer. We will work collaboratively across the field to reduce costs, access loans, and, most importantly, raise funds. We must secure these vital communal assets.

An important aspect of FJC’s strategic plan recognizes that camp has an essential role to play in people’s lives beyond specific locations during the summer months. FJC views Jewish camp as year-round and lifelong. Each camp has a “brand,” consisting of its unique character, specific rituals, and spirit. 

Reflecting back over the last six weeks, we’ve seen just how deeply valued, beloved, and trusted camp brands are to their communities, as evidenced by the significant number of people who participate virtually in song sessions, art activities, Havdalah services, and otherwise endeavor to welcome their familiar camp brand into their homes during this unfamiliar time. 

Whatever happens this summer, we know camp will play an increasingly important role in our Jewish community post-pandemic. Camp professionals have been greatly challenged, agile, and brave as they navigate these uncertain times. They have done so – and will continue to do so – by working together to provide a sense of normalcy, ruach (spirit), and connection for our community.

We owe them our admiration and support.

Jeremy J. Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).