The Path Forward for Camp

By Josh Satok

As the coronavirus pandemic continues with an end not seeming to be in sight for quite a while, as schools and synagogues have migrated online and are figuring out what a virtual presence looks like, the next major Jewish communal challenge is clear: what will happen with Jewish camp this summer. There is healthy debate on when and how decisions should be made, and which of the legal, financial, logistical, and ethical arguments and considerations should take precedence. I have staked out my personal position in an article last week, strongly believing that if they are to adhere to their own stated Jewish values, the more than 150 Jewish overnight camps across North America should call the ballgame and make the decision to shut down. But then what? If camps make the heartbreaking but, in my opinion necessary decision to not operate in summer 2020, what’s the path forward?

Here’s a game plan to ensure the best outcome for camps, campers, staff, parents, and the entire Jewish community:

  1. Communicate clearly- compassionately inform your stakeholders- campers, parents, staff, and your broader community- about the decision you’ve made, why you’ve made it, and how you will move forward. If there’s anything I learned from my experience of going through the closing of a camp last year when I was the Senior Assistant Director at URJ Kutz Camp, it’s that its is not about the difficult to swallow outcomes- its about the process. If you communicate with compassion and care, communities will understand and be on board for moving forward. If you get the communication wrong, you’ll have isolated your greatest supporters and are setting yourself up for failure.
  2. Take the time to cry. That’s what we do at camp- sad things happen, the last night of camp comes, we cry for what we’re losing, we honor the loss, and then we figure out how to move forward. We need to acknowledge what a loss it will be if this summer doesn’t happen, properly grieve, but not get stuck in our sadness. Last year, when I found out that the Union for Reform Judaism was shutting down my beloved Kutz Camp, our dedicated Kutz team needed to cry and deal with the loss we were feeling. But we didn’t shut down. We got hard to work figuring out how we would recruit the campers to come for our final summer and ensure that we had one amazing last hurrah for a final generation of campers. That’s what the broader Jewish camp world must now do- give ourselves the space to cry, and then pick up and move forward.
  3. Get to work immediately on ensuring the long-term financial viability of Jewish overnight camps- The first priority must be setting in place a plan with professional and especially lay leadership of our camps to ensure that camps will be able to survive into the future. I’ve heard feedback from my article that not running this summer would equate to accepting financial ruin. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation has been first to step into the void, setting up a matching grant program to work towards the continued financial stability of camps. Board members, donors, federations and foundations must work together to come up with a well thought out plan of how your camp will sustain itself into the future for summer 2021 and beyond.
  4. Partner with day camps to re-imagine summer 2020, if it becomes safe to do so- the same reasons that running overnight camp this summer unfortunately seems impossible provide a potential opportunity for day camps to have their moment in the sun. The day camp model seems to likely be more feasible given our current reality (despite the fact that kids come in and out and are exposed to their families and not just fellow campers- this is probably reliant on slightly more advanced testing capability than we currently have). Day camps can be shut down at a moment’s notice, with kids going home to their families without the massive logistical undertaking of shutting down an overnight camp. Day camps don’t need the same kind of medical facilities, and they aren’t located in rural communities that will be negatively impacted by camps’ presence. They are hyper-local, meaning that they will only be gathering campers from the immediate community, able to respond on a community-by-community basis. According to research I’ve done in the past with UJA Federation Toronto, many overnight camps have strong links already in place with day camps which they can turn to in order to provide the expertise and infrastructure to run some version of their programs in the cities their campers come from. If it’s feasible, synagogue and day school buildings, which will have been sitting empty for months, can be used for day camp programming, with the added benefit of getting an infusion of money to these institutions which will be suffering financial shortfalls and will desperately be craving the extra revenue that could come in as parents pull their kids from day schools because of financial pressure and synagogues may struggle with high holiday revenue if they can’t meet in person
  5. Create a coordinated “Zoom camp” model- if the present day reality stays into the summer and even some modified day camp model can’t work, camps will be called upon to provide some semblance of a program to kids who will otherwise be sitting around for months with absolutely nothing to do. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel hundreds of times for every different camp – let the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the camp movements, or another coordinating body, in partnership with all of our Jewish camps, get to work on creating one unified “Camp COVID,” utilizing Zoom and other technologies to provide the best virtual camp experience possible. Imagine a summer where every camper- and many who never were campers before- are tuning in to the same arts and crafts, cooking, movement, trivia and team-building activities over Zoom, with each camp having breakout time for their own camp, or connecting campers across age groups from around the country. Imagine bringing in grandparents to share activities with their grandchildren, giving the most vulnerable demographic a way to connect and lessen their isolation while connecting generations. Zoom camp has so much possibility- but only if it’s a coordinated effort rather than wasting all the energy and creativity on camps trying to each create their own separate programs.
  6. Utilize our college students- it doesn’t just have to be camp professionals and board members setting in motion the plans for this summer and saving our camps long-term. We’re about to have an army of college students, done school and with little to do, so sad they won’t be able to work at camp this summer and with their summer jobs or internships cancelled. Let’s make them partners in figuring out what this summer can look like, for the sake of camps and for their sakes, providing them something to do and a feeling of helping others, and adding much needed perspective to what are traditionally older boards without sufficient representation of young voices.
  7. Create culminating rituals- Just as this experience may be most difficult for students who are missing out on graduations, perhaps the greatest loss will be experienced by the oldest campers, who will miss out on the culminating experience of their camper careers, as well as staff who miss out on staff milestones. Maybe next summer you can bring what would have been your oldest age group up to camp for a week before or after their Israel trip. Maybe it’ll be possible to have “spring break camp,” getting them up to camp over their spring or Passover breaks for a final time with all their camp friends, when they most definitely won’t be craving more time around the house. We have the opportunity to imagine how to complete aspirational arcs, and help everyone feel the sense that they don’t have to miss out on experiences they’ve particularly looked forward to for so long

We can be, as a Canadian musical fundraiser was called this weekend, “stronger together.” This is no moment for siloing. This is a moment to create a coordinated effort the likes of which the world of Jewish camp has never seen. Together, we can emerge from this coronavirus crisis stronger than ever, with richer experiences for more Jewish young people. It may not look how we imagined it would look, and it may not take place at our beloved camp sites in summer 2020. But together, this moment of crisis can be overcome. Let’s build a better camp future and be stronger together.

Josh Satok has spent many years working in the Jewish camp world, most recently serving as the Senior Assistant Director at URJ Kutz Camp. He earned a Master’s in Jewish Professional Leadership an MBA in Nonprofit Management from Brandeis University and a degree in Religious Studies from Yale University. He is an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. He can be reached at