A Day in the Life of Summer Camp During a Pandemic

Lucy Sawyer enjoys a cool respite from her mask. | Photo by Janine Nelson

For long enough to dream that it might stay that way, the weather at Camp Kef on July 9 was pleasant. Cloudy with a slight breeze, just barely humid.

At 9:30 a.m., after drop-off had finished and their parents headed off to the uncertain world of adults, masked campers at Camp Kef kicked a soccer ball around the field and scurried over the playground structures. A small boy in a full Spiderman costume tiptoed down a wooden beam, followed by three bunkmates. The voice of The Weeknd boomed from the speakers and over the sparsely-peopled expanse of grass.

Camp Kef, at the Kaiserman JCC, is one of several local Jewish day camps open this summer. Gan Izzy Summer Day Camp of Bucks County is open, along with Gan Israel Camps of Greater Philadelphia, Camp Achdus, Camp Ateres for Girls, Makom Community and KleinLife Summer Day Camp. All of them are taking precautions while still trying to approximate normal camp life.

At Kef, administrators and counselors were in discussion for months about how to safely open for the summer. It’s a process that has required frequent reconfigurations. The leadership of the Kaiserman JCC relies on several larger organizations for advice, and what they’ve had to say — “they” being bodies like the Montgomery County Health Department and the Jewish Federations of North America — has changed as federal and state recommendations mutated.

It was only on July 1 that Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine announced that anyone over the age of 2, without any mitigating conditions, would be required to wear a mask.

Kef Director Jordan Bravato shook his head as he recounted that directive. Had anyone involved in that decision considered how a 3-year-old might react to wearing a mask for a full day?

Girls in Keshet — entering fifth and sixth grade — take basketball instruction. | Photo by Janine Nelson

Like it or not, it’s now the letter of the law at Kef, where the face coverings range from tightly wrapped bandanas to more breathable face shields. The camp has a seven-page document listing the various health precautions that all campers, counselors and parents need to take for the camp to function. For starters, every camper has their temperature taken at the start of each day.

Camp administrators have also employed a cohorting method. Cohorting, in this case, means that campers are kept strictly among their own bunks, with their own counselors. In the case that a camper is ill, or that they have been exposed to someone that is ill, this allows the camp to isolate a specific cohort for testing and other procedures, rather than shutting down the entire camp.

Similarly puzzle-like problems pervade the new version of camp. For example, every 40-minute activity period is followed by 30 minutes of bunk time, as activity specialists sanitize all of the equipment that they’ve just used.

Those precautions weren’t enough to make everyone comfortable enough to send their children to camp; Bravato said enrollment is down a bit more than half from that of a typical summer.

Still, on July 9, the campers whose parents had decided to send them to camp were enjoying regular camp activities, with slight adaptations for safety. Down at the archery range, campers are made to stand in Hula Hoops six feet apart as they wait for their turn to send arrows skittering into the woods behind the targets.

“Bunk 20, what’re we supposed to do when we’re waiting our turn?” Bravato called to a group of boys idling at the top of the hill that overlooks the range. Their counselor looked up at his charges as they trudged downward. “Guys,” he said, “you’re embarrassing me.”

In a covered tent on the main field, one bunk assembled miniature boats with quiet determination.

Gaga is gone, and missed less than expected, said Matt Martin, youth programming and camp associate director. In the place of sports that would require one ball to be touched by everyone, specialists have adapted a more clinical style: basketball shooting drills, rather than 5 on 5, for example.

At the pool, the typical teeming has been replaced with a calmer alternative. One bunk at a time takes each pool, which allows a brief respite from masks. They are, however, watched over by masked lifeguards.

At a yoga session, the oldest campers, Chalutzim, were asked to write down words that brought them peace. Campers settle on “peace,” “music” and “sleep.” In a normal summer, Chalutzim would be counselors-in-training, but of course, that’s not the case.

And so today, a group that was earlier stalking around a parking lot with neon water pistols is now breathing in slowly, and then exhaling. One camper, on what had become a fully sunny day, was wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

“He’s makin’ me hot just looking at him,” his counselor said.

It’s a challenging summer, Bravato said, but the planning was much harder than the execution. There are even some families who have reached out to see if there’s a possibility that their children might be integrated into camp at this later point.

The quiet can be eerie at times, Martin said. But there’s still kef happening at Camp Kef. And who knows? By the end of the summer, they may be able to have Kabbalat Shabbat in an open field.

[email protected]; 215-832-0740

Online Camp Options

A number of Jewish summer camps in the Philadelphia made the decision to forgo in-person activities this summer.

Listed below are some online offerings from those camps.

URJ Camp Harlam
Harlam is offering three one-week virtual camp sessions, called Harlam at Home: Summer Edition. Programming includes song sessions and Shabbat services. Intended for children entering grades 2-8 (teen programming to come later in the summer). The cost is $100/week per child, and financial assistance is available. Harlam at Home ends July 17, but it will offer community-wide programming at no cost throughout the remainder of the summer. Details can be found at harlam.org/harlamathome.

Camp Havaya
Camp Havaya will feature more than 100 “camp-style” programs until July 25. Campers can sing, cook, play games and more. With a few exceptions, all programming is open to the community. Programming is free and can be found at havayasummerprograms.org/havayahome.

Camp Galil
Camp Galil is promoting Galil at Home until Aug. 8 for anyone 8-18. Additionally, the camp will offer a weekly “Taste of Galil” for children K-fourth grade. Participation in the former has a suggested donation per camper; the latter is $5/week. Programming includes leadership training, social justice workshops and “Galil-classic music and comedy performance on Saturday nights.” Galil at Home registration is at galilathome.eventbrite.com, and Taste of Galil registration is at tasteofgalil2020.eventbrite.com.

Camp Fox
Camp Fox, a project of the Kaiserman JCC, will offer online programming for children K-fifth grade until Aug. 14. Activities include break dancing, songwriting and zoology, among others. Free, with a suggested donation. Register at campfoxjcc.org.

Camp Ramah
Camp Ramah in the Poconos, along with Ramah Day Camp, will host programs for overnight campers, day camp-aged children and special needs children until July 24. Activities include virtual color war, Shabbat services and more. No cost. Email [email protected] for more information.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here