Jewish Summer Camps Try To Beat the Heat

Campers play in front of the newly built cabins at Gamp Galil Habonim Dror in Bucks County. Courtesy of David Weiss

When Julian Gersh was a camper at the JCC Camps at Medford in New Jersey, there were days when he just didn’t feel like swimming.

Now, as a counselor at the same summer camps, Gersh, 17, said campers don’t have any qualms about going in the water; they all want to jump in because “it’s just so boiling hot.”

Gersh has noticed that summers have been hotter over the last few years, and he isn’t alone. 

Some camp administrators in the greater Philadelphia area have noticed the summer heat, particularly in the past three years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that last month’s average temperatures were the hottest in its 127-year recorded history — 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average temperature from 1991-2020.

“We’ve had more heat advisory days than we’ve ever had,” said Colleen Lane, program coordinator at KleinLife in Philadelphia, host of a Jewish summer day camp. There were five heat advisory days in the first 15 days of camp.

For some day camps, many outdoor activities, such as kickball and archery, are swapped for indoor ones, like art and board games.

“We’d rather them be outside playing, but their safety comes first,” Lane said.

Aquatics are the exception to this rule: In addition to increased time at the pool, lake or splash park, campers are encouraged to visit cool down stations and drink water, albeit from reusable water bottles instead of the thousands of plastic cups used in previous years.

But changes in the climate haven’t just brought the heat.

“It’s less about the rising temperatures, which is something that we can count on. We’re now having to pay attention to unusual weather patterns,” David Weiss, executive director of Camp Galil Habonim Dror in Bucks County, said.

Sara Sideman, camp director for JCC Camps at Medford, said there’s been more storms this year than in previous years, relegating campers indoors for the day.

“It impacts the day and impacts the camper experience,’’ Sideman said. “It’s not something we have control over.”

Camp administrators are used to greeting challenges with spontaneity and creativity, even when organizing
indoors activities.

Jordan Bravato, director of Camp Kef at the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood, helped organize a paper airplane contest indoors for his campers, and Camp Kef hired an occupational therapist to come in and set up obstacle courses indoors.

However, with so many new changes in programming, Camp Kef has had to tweak its spending.

“When we were sitting down and working on our camp budget, we were being much more mindful of the amount of money that we’re going to be spending programmatically,” Bravato said. “We did have to create these new programs that could be done indoors.”

While financial implications were program-oriented for some, for Camp Galil, addressing warmer weather meant building new cabins with good insulation to keep the heat out. These cabins have cost the camp $55,000 over the past couple years.

But despite so many changes, counselors have taken schedule changes in stride, adapting quickly, Bravato says.

Campers are the ones struggling at times. 

While many are happy to be able to return to camp this year after last summer’s pandemic restrictions limited camps’ capacities, mask-wearing in the heat is unbearable for some. 

Gersh has had to deal with his 9-year-old campers having “meltdowns,” refusing to wear masks because of the heat. 

“It’s really bad,” he said.

For Gersh, climate change feels more dire than just navigating more water breaks and kids wearing masks. He feels that campers have to pay the price for actions of the older generations, “people polluting in a way that contributes to global warming.”

“The fact that it’s now their burden that impacts their summer and their experiences in their life — It’s just really an injustice,” Gersh said.

Camper Max at Camp Shalom, one of the JCC Camps at Medford, at the lake’s Witbit Park | Courtesy of Stephanie Dworkin

Many of these Jewish summer camps that weave Jewish values and lessons into their camp activities are trying to take action to combat climate change. They are turning to the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, to try to take action to become more “green”.

Camp Galil switched its electrical power to source solar and wind power; Camp Kef has worked on ways to make its air conditioning system more efficient; the JCC Camps at Medford have a “green committee” in the works with the counselors.

Though camps feel empowered to take action, there’s a looming feeling that this work isn’t enough — that more will have to be done. Many camps just don’t know what the future will hold, what actions to take next.

“It’s absolutely something that our campers and counselors worry about: the notion of global warming and global climate change,” Weiss said. “They are incredibly aware that this is going to impact them for the rest of their lives.”

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