By Rabbi Joe Menashe
Trust is the foundational currency of summer camp. Campers wholly trust their counselors. Counselors and staff trust their administration, and the administration, in turn, trusts their counselors and staff. Trust, of course, is also vital between administration and parents, as parents relinquish some of their responsibilities to administration and administration agrees to take on these responsibilities while maintaining the safety of all of its constituents. Across North America, these partnerships of trust enable parents to send their kids away for weeks at a time. This bond is profound and sacred, and it underlies every decision that camp administrations and boards of directors are considering as they navigate the possibility of opening camp this summer, during the era of COVID-19.
As I know is the case with camp directors all over the country, I receive multiple questions daily – from parents, staff members, campers, donors, board members, and my own children – about our decisions for the summer. At this point, most of us are still waiting to see IF a door will be open to us by the various authorities that have say-so including oversight agencies, insurance companies, federal, state and local governments and departments of public health. We are waiting and hoping for a ‘yes’ along with its guidelines and restrictions for this summer and then camps will need to decide if we SHOULD.
Nearly everyone with whom I speak seems to have strong opinions about whether we should or should not open this summer. From my perspective, the landscape changes daily and is far from clear. On the ‘must have camp’ side, I understand how meaningful and essential camp would be for the campers who count down days toward the summer starting in September and have mediated life indoors, via screens, since March. On the ‘absolutely can’t have camp’ side, I recognize the significant complexities and dangers that might dominate a summer camp experience during the era of coronavirus. As each camping entity struggles with profound decisions over the days and weeks ahead, I offer three suggestions for all of us. I do so with a recognition of what we all have in common: a deep love for Jewish camping and a commitment to its ability to continue and thrive for future generations.
- Mahloket L’shem Shemayim / Sacred Disagreement:
Different Jewish camps may make different decisions: and that is okay. Each camp or camping system will navigate a myriad of governmental, geographic, logistical and philosophical considerations that might result in different – yet equally responsible- final outcomes. I hold my colleagues and the lay leadership in Jewish camping in the highest regard, and I inherently trust their integrity and judgment. As the leaders of Camp Ramah in California process, day in and day out, possibilities and decisions for this summer, we lead with listening, knowing that reasonable, smart and knowledgeable people will have different perspectives about the ‘right’ decision.
- Tzofiya / Looking Ahead:
The motto of Camp Ramah in California is ‘A Journey for a Lifetime.’ How important that we all keep an eye toward each person’s lifelong connection to their Jewish camp and the long-term wellbeing of our Jewish summer camps. Amidst tremendous uncertainty and grand decisions about this summer, we must also keep our focus on the future of our beloved community members and the financial viability and flourishing of our precious Jewish camps.
- Hodayah V’Asiyah / Gratitude & Action:
Each Jewish camp has character, culture and aspirations based on Jewish values. During these times of personal, financial and camp uncertainties, let us double-down on those values. At Camp Ramah in California, one edah’s (age group’s) value for the summer is hodayah v’asiyah, gratitude and action. I deeply hope that we get to hear the chaotic joy of kids in camp this summer, but, even more importantly, I pray that our camping community can remain grateful for and supportive of the institutions that we love and the people that make them what they are during the summer and throughout the year.
Trust doesn’t mean blind acceptance. I know that whatever decision we make at Camp Ramah in CA, we will have families who will have preferred a different outcome. At this time each of us has heightened anxiety and fears, and it is through this lens that we view the wellbeing of our children and the prospects of camp this summer. As we navigate these uncertain times for Jewish camping and the whole world, may we emerge healthy, strong, and with an increased currency of trust that ultimately ensures an even more robust future for Jewish camping and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Joe Menashe has been the Executive Director of Camp Ramah in California since 2010 and was a Fellow in Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Executive Leadership Institute IV cohort.