Jewish Camps Excited to Return to Normal

A Camp Galil activity in 2021. (Courtesy of Camp Galil Photographers)

In the next couple of weeks, Jewish camps will open around the region and, upon arrival, campers will take COVID tests to make sure they’re healthy enough to walk to their cabins.

If they pass, they may not have to worry about the virus again for the rest of the summer.

Unlike in 2021, when restrictions abounded due to the ongoing pandemic, local camp directors are allowing kids and counselors to relax a little this year. Gone are the bubble approaches that required everyone to stay on the grounds, the masks that prevented people from smiling at each other and the cohorts that restricted interaction between bunks.

None of this is to say that both overnight and day camp operations are ignoring the threat. If a camper gets COVID, he or she will have to quarantine for five days. Some camps still require vaccinations.

But no longer is the pesky virus going to define the summer, as it did when it canceled the 2020 season at many camps and restricted the 2021 season.

“We’re on our way to normalcy — or as much as normal might be these days,” said David Weiss, the executive director of Camp Galil in Ottsville. “We’re really looking forward to a very exciting summer, campers and staff coming together again.”

Last summer, Galil, an overnight operation with just under 150 campers, canceled out-of-camp trips and required kids to wear masks when they were with other bunks and/or indoors. This year, though, the trips are back, and the masks are gone.

Weiss feels confident because, unlike in 2021, kids under 12 can receive the COVID vaccine. Galil is mandating inoculation shots for campers and staff members in 2022.

Weiss, who took over as director in 2014, compared COVID vaccines to other, more normal vaccines, which he said the camp always required.

“Camps are no strangers to being strong stewards of public health,” he said. “It’s how we weathered Swine Flu (in 2009 and ’10), made the hard decisions in 2020 and came back strong in 2021.”

Justin Guida, the director of the Golden Slipper Camp in Stroudsburg, is using rapid testing as his primary mitigation tool. The overnight camp will stagger arrivals on the first day to make sure that every camper completes a test and gets a result. If the results are clean, campers can keep walking in.

That’s enough for Guida and his team.

“We think the testing is a great mitigation tool,” he said.

That approach is different from the one Golden Slipper implemented in 2021. A year ago, the overnight camp tested kids again on the fifth day and required masks for out-of-cohort activities.

Golden Slipper campers still got to enjoy their summers last year, despite certain COVID restrictions. (Photo by Matvey Lozinsky)

There were not too many of those activities, either. Campers ate only with their bunks, swam only in small groups and enjoyed electives with just one other bunk. In 2022, though, campers will eat meals together in the dining hall again; boys and girls will come together for free swim; and kids from all bunks can choose electives based on their preferences.

Guida said the approach will bring Golden Slipper “pretty much back to normal.” At the same time, he said the lack of restrictions makes him a little nervous.

But much like a school administrator, he learned how to deal with the virus last year. So now, if an outbreak happens, he knows he can just revert to 2021 limitations. Golden Slipper had zero cases during its reopening summer a year ago.

“I feel good that we have the plans,” Guida said.

Golden Slipper has 230 campers signed up for its first 3½-week session. It’s a higher number than last year’s 75% capacity but not as high as the camp’s pre-COVID average. Guida acknowledged that the Stroudsburg operation is still trying to “rebuild.”

Other camps in the area, like Pinemere Camp in Stroudsburg, the JCC Camps at Medford in South Jersey and Southampton Summer Day Camp in Bucks County, face a different challenge: They are all back to normal, pre-COVID numbers for 2022.

For the JCC Camps, that’s 1,500 kids, up from 200 in 2020 and 1,400 in 2021; for Southampton, it’s 500 instead of the 350 of a year ago; and for Pinemere, the numbers are at record levels for a camp that is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year: 330 campers in the first session, 275 in the second.

At all three camps, directors said they are ready for the increase.

Eytan Graubart, the executive director of Pinemere, is requiring two negative tests per person upon arrival and vaccinations for campers and staff members. He is also not allowing overnight off days for counselors, out-of-camp trips to big amusement parks and inter-camp games.

“We don’t need to expose 300 kids to another 300 kids that they haven’t been around,” Graubart said.

But outside of those limitations, camp activities will resemble 2019 as much as camper numbers. As Graubart put it, kids can come to Pinemere and interact with everyone, even those outside of their bunks. And counselors will be allowed to take off days during the day, while out-of-camp trips will be back.

“Last year, parents wanted to know everything about it. This year, parents are saying we’ve seen our kids go through school, Little League,” the director said. “They are saying, ‘We trust you.’”

Masks were still abundant at camps last summer, including during this activity at Pinemere Camp. (Courtesy of Pinemere Camp)

Graubart takes that responsibility seriously. If necessary, Pinemere can quarantine campers at camp or send them home to their families. It can also implement backup schedules if bunks have outbreaks.

“A little bit of it depends on the scenario,” Graubart said.

Day camps don’t have the same level of responsibility since campers go home at night. But they take it seriously, too.

The JCC Camps at Medford are continuing outdoor dining, just like last year, according to Director Sara Sideman. They are also keeping most of their programming outside.

Cohorts, though, are gone, while electives are back in full. Perhaps most importantly, masks are gone.

“It’s going to be special to see our kids step off the bus and smile that first day,” Sideman said.

Southampton leaders are walking a similar tightrope. Like last summer, they are mandating daily health screenings for all campers and staff members before they arrive. They are also going to continue making use of shaded areas for outdoor activities as well as adding an extra outdoor tent for the camp infirmary.

Despite those lingering COVID policies, others are going away. Campers can return to some popular indoor activities like cooking and the arcade. Director Lindsay Blum Schlesinger, who is taking over day-to-day management from her parents, said that some big Southampton events will return in 2022.

“Kids have never needed camp more; we can’t wait to see all those smiling faces on the first day,” she added. “This will be our 49th summer, and our top priority has always been the health and safety of our campers and staff, and this year will be no different.” JE


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