Amidst a Summer of Uncertainty for Camps, We Counselors Weren’t Forgotten

By Solomon Fox

Looking back at the middle of March seems like an eternity ago. Businesses started to shut down, schools transitioned their operations to virtual platforms, and everyone was focused on the present. While our country began to battle a vicious pandemic, few knew what the next couple of months – especially what our summer camps – would look like. As weeks went on, various leaders of camps in North America met with their staff, boards, investors, and community members to discuss what a Summer 2020 season would look like.

I anxiously waited for the June 1 deadline that my camp set to announce their Summer 2020 plans, although I was prepared for the worst news. – And on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, I received the official email announcing that my camp, Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, would be cancelling its 2020 season. The cancelling of camp inevitably meant that I and the nearly 400 staff members employed at Ramah Nyack wouldn’t be able to learn together, grow as leaders, and experience the special impact a summer at camp can have. Especially for counselors at my camp – where a majority of the staff are day camp madrichim (counselors) during the day and sleep over at night – they would be missing out on two unique experiences.

Jewish summer camps across the country had budgets to balance, tuition money to deal with, and families to reach out to.

This time of uncertainty for Jewish camping institutions would seemingly make it too difficult to focus on supporting the counselors who were supposed to be experiencing camp over the summer.

Enter The Nachshon Project. 

While the future of Jewish summer camps was still uncertain for Summer 2020, Rabbi Todd Zeff, Rabbi Joshua B. Cohen, and Batsheva Gross at The Nachshon Project began to think of how to gather passionate camp counselors from across the country to learn together and connect in ways never before possible, as the world began to shut down, through Zoom.

Twenty minutes before Ramah Nyack sent out their email to staff, I received my acceptance letter to The Nachshon Project’s inaugural Counselor Fellowship.

What is the Counselor Fellowship? For 3 weeks during May/June, I and around 350 counselors of different ages, levels of experience, and across various movements gathered to train together and learn as young Jewish adults, through the lens of virtual camp. We regularly heard from well-known leaders in the Jewish community, met by movement, and learned about social work, business, and Jewish education as they relate to our camps.

When I logged onto the first Zoom session, I found myself playing Jewish geography, scrolling down the seemingly endless ‘Participants’ list to see who I recognized from different moments in my life. Young adults from every type of Jewish summer camp were represented in the group, and although our summers looked drastically different, we all had the same passion for serving our camp communities, even when the question of how we could serve our home camps in 2020 was still in question.

Every year during Shavua Hachanah (Staff Week) at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, we learn about navigating bunk dynamics, building inclusive environments, and ensuring all campers feel safe. In a virtual setting we had to completely reimagine how to ensure the safety and happiness of campers in a completely new way. Sessions such as “Navigating Camper Social Dynamics” or “Inclusion at Camp” helped staff begin to reimagine virtual programs and how to ensure campers feel safe and included on Zoom.

Participants in the fellowship were required to attend all sessions, write two reflections, create a program to be implemented for virtual camp, and staff programs throughout the 2020 summer. In return, participants are awarded a stipend, generously funded by The Nachshon Project.

In a time of difficulty for camps facing budget shortages but still yearning to provide a robust program for families online, the Counselor Fellowship filled in the gap of finding a staff for virtual programs, training a group already passionate about camping.

One of the most valuable parts of the fellowship was the individual camp cohort meetings where we created our program as part of the fellowship requirement. The Ramah Day Camp in Nyack cohort ended up hosting a 3-hour Maccabiah (Color War) event for campers during the first week of our virtual summer. Over 100 campers were involved and we were able to utilize training we received in inclusivity, creativity, and leadership throughout the day. Other final programs from other camps ranged from art activities for younger campers to sessions for older campers on important social issues in our country.

Jewish camps are facing budget crises and are meticulously planning for the future, eagerly anticipating Summer 2021.  Staff, specialists, directors, and families are stepping up and adapting in ways never imagined before in order to ensure success this summer and beyond. Despite the state of camps this summer, programs like the Counselor Fellowship show that Jewish camps are still prioritizing their staff, are strong, and will emerge strong for years to come.

Solomon Fox has been working at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack for the past 5 summers. Earlier this summer, he was a participant in the first cohort of The Nachshon Project’s Counselor Fellowship. This Fall he will be a first-year in the Joint Program between JTS and Columbia.