Reflections on a Sacred Summer

By Michael Schlank

Over the past 10 months the concept of radical uncertainty (a term coined by John Kay and Mervyn King) has consistently felt like the most appropriate way to describe our world. The entirety of humanity has been living through an upheaval and disruption in our daily lives that in January of 2020 was incomprehensible to all but the handful of physicians and scientists who had dedicated their lives to the study of infectious disease. 

We now understand both the human devastation the pandemic has wrought but also how difficult it will be to sustain and support our communal institutions. The financial needs of our synagogues, schools. JCCs, and other cultural and social service organizations are monumental – nowhere is that more evident than in Jewish summer camp.

In the Jewish community the cessation of communal prayer and celebration shook us to our core. However, in June when overnight summer camps began to be canceled the depth of this pandemic began to truly sink in for many of us. As one by one, residential camp directors sent tear-filled messages to their families that overnight camp would not be running in 2020. The community wept with them because we all understand that Jewish camp is at the heart of our communal experience.

Empirically we know, Jewish camp is the single most powerful and formative experience for Jewish young people. It fosters continuity and connection to Jewish peoplehood. The best Jewish summer camps have learned to extend their reach beyond the confines of the summer months and become an integral part of the camper (and in some cases the family’s) Jewish identity. Campers go to Israel and become staff. Staff are role models for their campers and become active Jewish Zionists on campus and in their communities. Jewish summer Camp is where Jewish young people develop a sense of self and where lifelong bonds to their Jewish peoplehood are forged and fostered. The pandemic put this all in peril.  

But, with the same ferocity of that the virus struck the community rallied. Individual donors and large foundations alike came together and literally saved Jewish summer camps from certain disaster. With a communal response unprecedented in American history the community said no – this virus won’t destroy summer Jewish camps. While the pain of closing camps and canceling of trips to Israel was palpable, the resolute response to the existential threat posed by those cancelations was equally tangible. The organized Jewish community rose up and in concert with thousands upon thousands of individual families drew a line in the sand and emphatically stated – Jewish summer camps would not be another victim of COVID-19.  

And for now, that line has held.  

This fall- on an almost daily basis- summer Jewish camp professionals come together to hold that line and work to prepare for the Summer of 2021. While there is much we still do not know, we do know that right now many of us have made the commitment to focus our efforts on opening camp this summer. We have learned lessons from last summer’s experiences and continue to develop best practices for health and safety. 

It won’t be easy and there will still be hurdles to overcome. Many of us are still in tenuous financial positions, more help will be needed. But we are all determined now more than ever that it is our sacred duty and responsibility to open and run summer camp this summer. The months ahead are certain to be dark and even dangerous. There is a light at the end of this tunnel and that light is reflecting off a bright silver canoe in the middle of a lake of brilliant sunny summer day in 2021 or the glimmer of a a sunrise at Masada.

 We have much work left to do to get to that light. Rest assured in offices and living rooms all across North America and Israel that work is being done with a purpose and dedication that is unrivaled and with a sense of purpose and pride that is unmatched. This next summer will surely be more resource intensive than any summer prior, and we may all need communal support to get through this. But our mission is clear and with the right resources and resolve the Summer of 2021 will be the most important and sacred summer in a century or more. 

Michael Schlank is the CEO of NJY Camps-the largest Jewish summer camp organization in North America. He began his tenure on Sept 1st 2020.