Camp is Not Cancelled; It Has Moved Online:
Jewish Summer Camps Should Announce Online Programming Now, and Funders Should Help

By Sarah Bunin Benor

As more and more camps announce cancellations, campers, parents, and staff members are forlorn. So much will be lost – the kids’ independence, their exploration of nature and friendships, the landscapes dotted with Hebrew and other Judaic symbols, the electrifying energy of singing and dancing with hundreds of other teens. But some of the benefits of camp can be conveyed through online programming. If camps are leaning in that direction, they should not wait until the summer to plan and announce such offerings. They should reconceive their “cancellation” emails as announcements that their summer sessions have shifted from in-person to online.

Online programming will help camps overcome multiple existential challenges, including those related to continuity and financial stability. Regarding continuity, milestone rituals will look much different, but campers will not have to worry about missing them. They can receive their five-year shirts by mail, join a virtual send-off ceremony for the oldest division, or collaboratively design a division plaque that will eventually be posted in its designated spot in the chadar ochel.

As for finances, many camps are offering families three options: a full refund, a tuition rollover, or a donation (or a combination). A fourth – and perhaps the default – option should be applying part of their tuition to online camp. Maybe it would cost $200 per week instead of $1200. Some families that registered for 4 weeks of sleepaway camp might opt for 8 weeks of online camp, as they’ve already paid for it and had to cancel their summer trips or day camp sessions. Or perhaps some programs will be available to anyone, but the more personalized programs will be limited to those who pay. This converted tuition will not fully overcome camps’ financial hardships, but it can help. Foundations and Federations can also help by offering serious incentives.

In addition to the benefits for camps, running online programs will also benefit three constituencies:

  • Campers: Most kids will be home with few scheduled activities, itching for social connection, familiar camp ritual, and new experiences.
  • Parents: Whether parents are working from an office, from home, or not at all, most will welcome activities that occupy their children a few hours each day. 3rd-4th graders and those with disabilities might need supervision, but most campers will be independent enough to click on Zoom links and participate in online activities with little parent involvement.
  • Staff: Many counselors and specialists will be available and eager not to miss out on the camp experience (and the additional line on their résumé), even for little or no pay.

Camp administrators should communicate with campers, parents, and staff to brainstorm ideas and determine what will work best for their camp, which might range from no online activities to a brief daily check-in to full days of programming. Articles have offered several program ideas, such as Josh Satok’s calls for art, cooking, movement, and trivia. FJC has already created a platform where staff members from a variety of camps offer video content available to any internet users. Recently, for example, JCC Camp Chi made shakshuka (1,700 views), Camp Young Judaea Midwest did Zumba (748 views), Camp Tawonga taught nature drawing (622 views), and Camp Interlaken made lanyards (558 views). The large number of views indicates that participants from multiple camps are tuning in.

Such programs have the potential to engage some kids for hours and enable camps to share resources. But most kids will want more engagement. I support Eileen Snow Prince’s call for interactive activities like charades, makerspace, scavenger hunts, and “Virtual Bunks” – small age-based groups that convene by Zoom for games and social time. As my teenage daughters point out, campers are most interested in socializing with their friends. Virtual gatherings can fulfill this need by including small breakout groups and allowing participants to “chat” individually and with the whole group (in contrast to school, where chat is disabled). Older campers can take turns leading conversations or activities – an opportunity for leadership development.

I also suggest that camps offer electives where kids conceive and execute (age-appropriate) individual and group projects, which could involve painting, lego creations, short films, music videos, or social justice initiatives. Small groups of campers would convene daily with a counselor or specialist to get some instruction and share their progress, but much of the work would be done independently, and the week or session might culminate in an exhibition. Another idea is adapting activities kids love, like Minecraft, Magic the Gathering, and TikTok, for particular Jewish camps. Among the brainstorming threads in Natalie Blitt’s Facebook group 2020: The Summer We Had to Make Up Camp are many other ideas, including intra-camp and inter-camp competitions, a badge system, and interest-based groups.

Camps should not attempt to transfer all camp activities to Zoom. Communal singing only works when everyone but the leader is muted, ultimate frisbee just can’t happen online, and the timing of camp activities probably won’t enable wake-up and bedtime rituals. But with thoughtful planning, and some additional funding and training, camps can adapt many of their favorite activities to cyberspace.

Obviously, online camp will pale in comparison to in-person camp. It will not be feasible for all camps or all divisions. And some families will opt out, seeing it as an unnecessary burden or too similar to online school. But the benefits of online camp – for campers, parents, staffers, and, camps – greatly outweigh full cancellation. It’s an opportunity for modeling and participating in creative adaptation – a life skill that will serve us all in the months and years to come.

Sarah Bunin Benor is a Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies in the HUC-JIR Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, co-author of Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, a board member of Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, and a parent of three children who are dreading the likely announcements that their camps will be cancelled.