Trust, Confidence, and Integrity: A Reflection on Camp and COVID-19

By Paul J. Reichenbach

Throughout the 44 years I had the privilege of supervising many of the youth programs of the Union for Reform Judaism, I could never have imagined this moment in time. I’m feeling compelled to share my thoughts about the summer to come.

For 17 years, until I retired last September, I was honored to supervise and partner with the extraordinary URJ camp directors across North America. As I traveled each summer to visit our astounding network of camps and Israel programs, I witnessed boundless joy and the rousing engagement of young people exploring Jewish identity and pride.

The magic of every summer has always been the creative and sophisticated programmatic excellence of these transformative immersive experiences. Campers and young adult role model staff members return home at the conclusion of every summer with deep friendships, a love of their special community, and inspired to continue their lifelong Jewish journey.

Parents have always treasured their children’s happiness at camp and its remarkable impact on their lives.

The leadership of our camps have always understood that while the jubilant experience of camp is a profound reflection of our mission and vision, the foundation of the success of URJ camps and travel programs is the trust and confidence expressed by parents and their deep faith in knowing that nothing is more important than the health and welfare of young people entrusted to our care.

For many years, the URJ youth program leadership, in honest and transparent communication with parents, has made it crystal clear that every decision made has always been focused on our core Jewish values and the physical and emotional wellbeing of children.

This is why I believe that it is the correct and responsible decision not to open our beloved camps or run our travel programs this summer. I so deeply respect the process that my colleagues and successors have undertaken to arrive at this painful and complicated decision.

We all understand that, given what young people and their parents have experienced in the past few months, not being able to attend camp or travel together to Israel will be profoundly sad. For so many of our campers, their arrival at camp each summer fulfills their exhilarating dreams of a place where they would always feel welcome and safe (and their parents would get a much-deserved break).

But given the multitude of implications for exposing campers, staff members and families to COVID-19, hosting people in tightly knit environments, where social distancing would be impossible, would be in conflict with all we hold to be true.

Teen travel to Israel this summer would create additional risks for young people thousands of miles from home. Lengthy flights to Europe and Israel, as well as daily group travel by bus to a multitude of sites and accommodations, would add significant unknown exposure. The intricate ability to manage and care for participants and staff “on the road” could profoundly increase challenges and threaten the welfare of our young people.

The ability to manage infectious illness in camp and during group travel has always been a tremendous challenge – and the presence of even one positive test for COVID-19 at camp would be insurmountable, both medically and emotionally.

While the URJ camp directors are superheroes in so many ways, it’s inconceivable that any professional camp director, in collaboration with every camp’s highly skilled medical team, could responsibly and confidently manage the highest priority for URJ camps and parents. The idea that a camp community member who has been exposed to the COVID-19 returns home and infects family members and friends (especially those with preexisting health problems) would be overwhelmingly tragic – and the idea that camp could be the source of a potentially life-threating illness is beyond imagination.

I have often shared that my first summer in a Jewish camp 51 years ago (at URJ Kutz Camp, of blessed memory) changed the arc of my life. Indeed, this will be the first summer since 1961 that I will not be present in a camp community.

I look forward to visiting my grandchildren in summers to come as they experience the enchanted magic of camp. I also so look forward, with hope and optimism, that in summer to come, under the insight, integrity and wisdom of URJ camp leadership, our campers and young adults will return to the place and friends they love so dearly.

Paul J. Reichenbach is Retired Director, URJ Camp and Israel Programs.