Camp Stories | After Two Synagogue Shootings, a Look at Camp Security

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Summer camp 2019Safety is a top priority for many Jewish organizations, and Jewish summer camps are no exception in 2019.

Staying sharp, unfortunately, is more vital than ever these days for people in the Jewish community, who must remain watchful and vigilant after the shootings in Pittsburgh and California.

David Weiss is the executive director at Habonim Dror Camp Galil in Ottsville, where staff training includes drills on active shooters, severe weather, bomb threats, intruders and missing persons. The camp constantly evaluates and updates security measures and protocols to stay current on best practices that they learn from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Secure Community Network and the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Weiss said the most recent shooting didn’t lead to any major changes in protocol, as security is already constantly updated. Last year, the camp received a small security grant to update its gate and add more cameras.

“There wasn’t an increased level of concern or anxiety, because that level was already there. We were already working on these plans for several years now,” Weiss said. “We’re always trying to keep on our toes. The police station is literally right up the road from us and [security is] definitely something people are much more aware of this year because of Pittsburgh and California. But, on the other hand, it is something that summer camps, typically Jewish summer camps, have been very mindful of in the past years, especially ever since Sandy Hook.”

At Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a security consultant specializing in Jewish community spaces was brought on to audit the camp’s security systems and protocols. Camp Executive Director Rabbi Joel Seltzer said local Department of Homeland Security and FBI agents have toured the camp to give suggestions and advice. He explained that the camp, and many other Jewish organizations in the area, were introduced to the security personnel after the 2017 nationwide wave of bomb threats called in to JCCs and other Jewish institutions. Like Galil, Ramah has made investments into its security infrastructure in recent years, adding additional cameras and a campwide public address system.

“So the truth is, our philosophy has been the same for the last 20 years or so, which is the security of our campus has to be the number one priority because the fun and the joy and the Judaism that comes from Jewish summer camp can only be created in an environment where a child feels safe,” Seltzer said. “So long even before the Poway or the Pittsburgh of today, and really since post-9/11, our camp in particular has been extremely thoughtful and has invested a significant amount of time, money and resources into our current infrastructure and building it to get to this state.”

A camper at a Jewish summer camp holds a Torah scroll surrounded by other campers
Campers at Camp Harlam (Courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Camp)

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a nonprofit advocating for Jewish day and overnight camps across North America, explained that there’s been a recent push from the organization for increased funding on the federal level for security in rural areas where many overnight camps are located, as many day camps are connected to synagogues, schools and other institutions in urban areas close to law enforcement. While the question of security has reentered the public conversation, Fingerman said he hasn’t noticed much of an uptick in parental concern.

“All of us are concerned about the overall rise of anti-Semitism, but I haven’t heard too much [about] camps hearing from parents other than [from] our encouragement of camps to communicate with parents what they do every year,” Fingerman said. “Every year, camps are refreshing their security procedures and that would happen anyway, but, of course, the growing concern over the rise of anti-Semitism, camps are certainly putting more effort into training their staff this summer and preparedness.”

Lisa David, director of Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, said a recent grant allowed the camp to install additional lighting and construct a gatehouse for its 24-hour on-site security personnel. While she’s experienced only a handful of additional questions from parents about security, the topic is always on her mind.

“Regardless of outside events, we’re always trying to make some enhancements,” David said. “This is just a constant in our world today and something we have to remain vigilant about and make sure people feel safe, reassured and also prepared.”

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