How Jewish summer camps are dealing with the latest COVID-19 spike
The BA.5 subvariant has hit some camps harder than others.
Earlier this year, as summer approached, Amy Skopp Cooper hoped that after three years, children across the Ramah network of Conservative Jewish camps would experience something approximating normalcy.
But on the first day of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires on June 28, she received some distressing news: Nearly all of the 40 members of the kitchen and dining room staff had tested positive for COVID-19. They would have to quarantine for six days, per camp policy — with hundreds of hungry kids at the gates.
So Skopp Cooper, the director of the National Ramah Commission, and two dozen other senior staff and board members rolled up their sleeves and began mashing potatoes, snipping string beans and preparing chicken. They performed double duty — as camp administrators and impromptu chefs — until the regular kitchen staff returned.
“We did some cooking, we did dishwashing,” Skopp Cooper told eJewishPhilanthropy. “We ran the dining hall.”
The kitchen staff infections were a particularly disruptive example of an issue Jewish camps have been contending with during the third summer since the start of the pandemic: the spread of the BA.5 subvariant. Across Ramah’s camps in North America, 560 out of 11,000 total campers and staff have contracted COVID since the beginning of the summer, with no documented cases of serious illness.
The surge in cases has come alongside a loosening of restrictions. While camps were able to keep case numbers relatively low last summer through strict testing, masking and podding protocols across the Jewish camp ecosystem, camps are now prioritizing a return to most of the pre-pandemic status quo.
“We expected that there was a potential for a slow community spread, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in every one of our programs,” Skopp Cooper said. In 2021, she added, “Every camp podded its kids and prevented all counselors from leaving the whole summer. [This year,] every program I know of is ensuring that its counselors make appropriate choices during days off but is allowing its staff to leave during days off.”
The BA.5 subvariant has hit some camps harder than others. In Northern California, where the subvariant appears to be driving a spike in cases, campers at JCC Maccabi Sports Camp were sent home 48 hours early due to an outbreak among staff and campers. The camp’s second session began on time.
“Just over a dozen campers and staff had tested positive… so we made the decision that it was important to close the session about 48 hours early to prevent further infections,” Nathaniel Bergson-Michelson, chief marketing officer for the Oshman Family JCC, which runs the camp, told eJP.
The response to positive tests varies from camp to camp. Some camps have space available for campers to quarantine on site and eventually return to communal activities. Other camps instruct campers who test positive to return home to quarantine and return when the period is over. Some camps also require campers to wear masks for a period following their quarantine.
Camp administrators across organizations all said that despite the case numbers, this summer feels very different from the last. Campers are no longer divided into pods, camps have lifted their attendance limits and in most regions campers are not wearing masks.
“It’s definitely not pre-2020,” said Natalie Vinegar, director of marketing and communications for B’nei Akiva, a Modern Orthodox network that runs five day camps and five overnight camps. But, she added, “overall, it’s a very positive atmosphere… There have been so many variants. It doesn’t seem like just because there’s a new variant people are getting nervous.”
Not knowing when, or if, new variants will arise makes planning difficult. “It’s hard to tell, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next with COVID. That’s been the challenge of this since the very beginning,” Skopp Cooper said, adding that Ramah follows the lead of its medical committee that they “trust and rely on.”
Mitigation protocols vary across camps, but all follow the latest recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as local and state health department guidance. The upshot is that camps have had to deal with COVID as a part of the summer experience, which at times has stretched camp staff thin. Ahead of this summer, Jewish camps across the country were already experiencing a shortage of counselors.
“Once again, this summer has proven to be a heroic effort on the part of camp staff,” Adina Frydman, CEO of Young Judaea Global, told eJP. “From the directors to the counselors to the medical committees, this is an all-hands-on-deck moment to ensure that our campers can have a carefree, joyful and transformational summer.”
Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said that in addition to parents, board members and alumni stepping in to fill staff shortages, some camps were raising additional funds to compensate staff in an effort to show recognition for how they’re handling this summer’s challenging circumstances. And he was confident that despite the cases and quarantines, COVID-19 would not be the defining memory of this summer for most camps.
“Campers and college-age counselors all need camp more than ever,” he said. They need time away from their screens and time interacting with each other in real life… For the vast majority of camps, we still see camp photos and videos filled with Jewish life being experienced and appreciated. In the end, that will be the story of the summer.”