Jewish camps

With summer approaching, Ramah’s new national director doesn’t expect a post-COVID world

After closing in 2020 and facing huge budget gaps, camps have largely rebounded through staff reductions, federal grants and donations — but they acknowledge that dealing with the pandemic is still a top priority.

In May 2020, as Jewish sleepaway camps reconciled themselves to their first summer without campers, the National Ramah Commission identified an ominous side effect to the shutdowns: Its 10 overnight camps would end the year with a $27 million budget shortfall. 

Two years later, camps have largely adapted to COVID-19. Through a combination of vaccine mandates and other public health measures, Jewish camps nationwide opened for 2021 and are set to welcome campers again this coming summer even as case rates seesaw. Ramah camps in particular were so successful at mitigating the spread of the virus last year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a glowing report about their policies. 

But with another summer approaching, managing COVID-19 remains the Ramah Commission’s top priority as it transitions to new leadership. And the lingering effects of COVID mean that staffing at all levels could be an issue for Ramah, and Jewish camps nationally.

“Aspirationally, I’d love to say we’re in a post-COVID world. Realistically, and wearing a camp director hat, I think we are thinking that we’re still going to be in a COVID world this summer,” said Amy Skopp Cooper, the new director of the National Ramah Commission, the umbrella group for the Conservative movement’s camps.

“At least for the next few years, what is a priority right now?” she added. “A priority is simply having opportunities where children and young adults can be part of an active community, where they feel safe, where they feel secure, where they feel like their life is not being governed by quarantine, and mask-on, mask-off.”

Skopp Cooper expects Ramah camps to meet their 2019 enrollment numbers, and says the biggest potential barrier could be restrictions on capacity in California and Canada, where two Ramah camps are located. In total, the network’s day and sleepaway camps had 12,000 campers in 2019. 

Financially, Ramah camps are in a similar spot, having closed much of their deficit through private donations and government loan forgiveness, though Skopp Cooper’s predecessor, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, said camps had to shrink their year-round staffs by roughly 20%. Now, he said, the network is at a “more-or-less break-even point” in terms of budgets.

Skopp Cooper said no Ramah camp has had to make cuts to programs or facilities. 

“In March of 2020, we might have, for the first few weeks thought this could be an existential crisis,” Skopp Cooper said. “In 2021, because we had a full camp season, the camps for the most part did well.”

The picture is not so different for Jewish camps nationwide, said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). Fingerman expects camps across the board to report a 15% decline in enrollment relative to 2019, mostly due to limits on attendance. Fingerman did note that a program his organization runs for first-time campers got nearly 10,000 applicants in 2021, as opposed to a pre-pandemic average of 7,000. In total, according to a 2018 FJC survey, there are 166 Jewish overnight camps in North America, serving more than 80,000 campers at the time. 

Collectively, Fingerman said, camps faced a $150 million shortfall in 2020. That gap was largely bridged through loan forgiveness, philanthropy and layoffs or furloughs of some 15% of year-round staff. The layoffs and other cuts saved the camps a total of around $20 million, while another $25 million came from federal loans that have mostly been forgiven. The rest, about $100 million, came from a range of donations — from Jewish federations, private foundations and donors, and parents who donated or rolled over their tuition. 

The most pressing issue, both Fingerman and Skopp Cooper said, is staffing. In 2020, Cooper said, Ramah “missed a crop of junior counselors” who have now grown older and moved onto internships or other jobs, or who may be taking part in the Great Resignation and staying home.

The staffing shortages among counselors could trickle up to senior staff and administrators: If there are fewer junior counselors coming in, there may be fewer unit heads and assistant directors down the line. 

“The impact of COVID on camps is not just financial, but the camps are busy rebuilding the pipeline of campers, of counselors and of professionals,” Fingerman said. “That’s adding to the level of stress.”

Those staffing changes have affected Skopp Cooper personally. She was the Ramah Commission’s associate director, and was preparing to take over for Cohen when COVID hit. Instead, in 2021, she spent the summer partially filling in for a camp director in California who was on parental leave. She began as Ramah’s national director earlier this month. 

There are still some concerns this year that resonate with the anxieties of 2020, she said. In the first months of the pandemic, camps were stockpiling hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, which ended up not being as critical to stopping the spread as experts once thought. Now, Skopp Cooper is worried about whether camps will have enough rapid tests. 

Ramah camps are also expanding their mental health staffs this summer to address campers’ struggles with the pandemic. 

“We now have to purchase all of these supplies,” she said. “That’s a big expense that we need to do right now, without having a full picture of what’s happening next… We are keeping our pulse on where to purchase [rapid tests] and when we think we’re going to need to do it by, but I’m really hoping that in the next few months there won’t be such a shortage anymore.”

Still, Skopp Cooper is keeping an eye on the post-COVID world, whenever it may come. She says there are certain changes she’d make permanent at camp, like more intimate cabin-level programming, even as the virus recedes. 

“In-camp programming that counselors were able to organize or other young adults were able to run with their campers — everything from bunk prayers in the morning to more intimate picnic-style meals,” she said when listing pandemic measures that could be in place five years from now. “That depended on young adults using all their creative talents and energy, which was really remarkable to see.”