From Screen-Free Camp to Camp-on-Screen

By Michael Fingerman

Camp leaders work through major challenges all the time – it’s a burden we take on each summer when we literally build a city in the middle of the woods. With such responsibility, seasoned leaders have seen it all: storms, floods, blackouts and even contagious disease, but nothing has challenged us to rethink our practices like COVID-19 has.

Do we cancel camp?” Answering this daunting question, undoubtedly being asked at camp headquarters around the country, was the first challenge my team and I faced last spring at Camp Ramah Darom, where I was Program Director. After a difficult but necessary decision to cancel camp for Summer 2020, we quickly changed gears to focus on designing a strategy to continue engaging our community of campers and staff.

Canceling camp is no lighthearted matter. Our campers’ wish to return to camp began with tears on the bus ride home at the end of their last summer. Their hope intensified once their schools went online and they found themselves pent up at home. We worried about the mental health of our campers as well as our staff as they went through major disruptions and disappointments during these unprecedented times. With seemingly everything headed online, we wondered… “Could camp happen online too?”

Many people love camp davka because it is offline. Without access to the internet or technology, camp offers a unique digital-free respite for campers; a place where they can shed the social pressures haunting them on Instagram or TikTok. There is nothing quite like this bubble we create, which isolates ourselves from the information overload from the outside world. As camp leaders made tough decisions about the fate of in-person camp for Summer 2020, critics argued that camp could not happen online AND be any good.

Phones, tablets, and laptops are the critical tools we need today to keep our lives in order. Those of us now working from home are more reliant than ever on our devices. The irony lies in this camp-insiders’ secret: When people are at camp, they are no longer controlled by their devices – and without them, they experience a powerful connection with their friends, community, and God.

At camp you can focus with much less distraction, whether you’re coaching soccer, davening between the trees, or staying up late chatting with friends. Access to these devices would only take away from the experience. With this in mind, my team asked: How do we create our kehillah kedoshah (holy community), with our devices?

In May of this year, the senior leadership team operated in similar fashion to when camp is running as planned. Our daily huddles in the chadar ochel (dining room) moved to Zoom meetings from our own dining rooms where we made quick decisions, just as we do at camp. We set goals and built a schedule for what would be the first-ever kayitz babayit (summer at home). And when we shared the tough news with our counselors that we could no longer offer them jobs for the summer, they immediately answered the call to volunteer, just as they would have if there was a crisis at camp.

At Camp Ramah Darom this past summer, 433 campers and over 90 volunteer staff took part in our 4-week program. Campers met on-screen for aidah (grade level) programs and elective activities for one hour each day. They participated in talent shows, sports, arts and crafts, creative tefillah, dress-up days, Hebrew lessons, and the best of our camp traditions. We welcomed first-time campers, celebrated the accomplishments of our oldest cohort, and book-ended our weeks as an entire community with Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah. During that sacred hour each day, campers and staff created a space where our kehillah kedoshah existed on the internet. And even though they were using their phones, tablets, and laptops, the presence of camp friends on screen was an excellent distraction to have.

Supporting one another, especially during times of crisis, is a cherished camp value that we practice through all the challenges we face. At Camp Ramah Darom, we create a place where you can be comfortable being your most honest self and live a Jewish life with uninhibited joy. This summer, we figured out how to do that while physically apart so we could practice another one of our values – caring deeply about each other’s health and wellness, just as we do when we’re together in person.

We discovered that the camp bubble exists not only in Clayton, GA (in our case), but wherever we can create the distraction-free experience of being a part of our kehillah kedoshah. During past summers, that meant asking campers and staff not to use their devices. This summer we challenged our volunteer staff to do the opposite. This fundamental shift in thought taught us that when we meet new challenges with creativity and flexibility in practice, our most important values will endure.

Summer camps across North America will now shift into recruitment season and plan for a happy, healthy, in-person summer in 2021 (with fingers crossed). Precautionary adjustments to elements of camp such as the daily activity schedule, trips, and dining hall etiquette may leave campers and counselors worried that the traditions they’ve known and loved might not exist when they return. But camp leaders must forge ahead with the lessons learned from a summer spent on-screen. We need to educate our counselors on the distinction between our enduring values and the changing practices that embody them, so that they can once again bring their positivity, excitement, and inspiration which makes camp so magical.

Michael Fingerman is a first-year student at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership on the Social Impact MBA track. He currently lives in Cambridge, MA.