Reform Jewish Summer Camps to Close for 2020 Season

Eisner Camp in Massachusetts
Eisner Camp in Massachusetts, a view of its lake seen here, is among 16 Reform movement overnight camps that will not open this summer. (URJ-Eisner-Camp-lake by Warren B. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

 By Ben Sales / JTA

All Reform Jewish summer camps will remain closed for the 2020 summer due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The landmark decision, made April 30, will affect 15 overnight camps across the country, which collectively served some 10,000 campers in 2019. The Reform movement, the largest in the United States, is the first to suspend its entire summer camp network. It’s the first time in more than 70 years that the movement is suspending its camps.

The movement is also canceling all of its trips to Israel and other locations, as well as all in-person youth activities. A statement from the Union for Reform Judaism said that if it ends up becoming possible to open the camps, “doing so will be our top priority.”

“After months of carefully following and evaluating the evolving COVID-19 situation, the URJ has reached the heartbreaking, difficult, and values-based decision to cancel all in-person activities this summer,” read the statement. “Although we have continued to plan, prepare, pray, and hope for another transformative summer, the risks posed by COVID-19 threaten our most sacred values: the health and well-being of our children, staff, and faculty that attend camp, along with their communities back home.”

Overnight camp is a centerpiece of the American Jewish community, with children often attending and sometimes then working at the same camps that their parents attended. Lasting anywhere from a few days to eight weeks, camps generally include Jewish education, prayer, Israeli cultural activities and Hebrew — along with sports, arts and crafts, and the like.

Whether the camps can operate given the pandemic has been an increasingly pressing question. Some states are beginning to lift some of the restrictions they imposed to slow the spread of the disease, and mounting evidence suggests that children are less vulnerable than adults.

At the same time, public health officials say returning to business as usual would not be safe, and many camps require campers and their families to travel great distances to attend. Camp directors have told JTA that state and local social distancing regulations, as they are now, would prevent camps from opening.

Also April 30, two Conservative Jewish Ramah camps, in Colorado and Wisconsin, announced that they would be delaying their start dates to at least July 1 and June 30, respectively, because of the pandemic. A third Ramah camp, in Georgia, is expected to make a similar announcement soon.

But they are continuing to leave open the possibility that overnight camp will be possible for at least a portion of the summer.

“Based on the current situation, including available data, government regulations, and our health standards, it appears unlikely that we will be able to run camp at all this summer, though we remain hopeful that we can join together for at least part of the 2020 camp season,” Ramah in Wisconsin’s executive director, Jacob Cytryn, wrote in an email to community members. Ramah in Wisconsin has run every summer for more than 70 years.

In the Cleveland area, Camp Wise also has canceled this summer due to the coronavirus. The camp, according to its website, was founded in 1907.

“Camps are about groups of children and staff who are together every day,” read a statement from Michael Hyman, president and CEO of the Mandel Jewish Community Center, which runs the camp. “For the well-being of campers, their families, our staff and the community, it was best to cancel the operation of all camp programs for the summer of 2020.”

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