During these challenging and exhausting last two months, camp professionals — like everyone else — have been forced to pivot and adapt to unprecedented new circumstances. While camps always have prided themselves on offering an outdoor, in-person, and tech-free environment, we now see that virtual space plays an indispensable role in our new reality. Despite the challenge of integrating these two opposing ideas, camps have responded with their characteristic willingness to experiment, adapt, and innovate for the good of their community.
In thinking about our post-pandemic Jewish communal structure, we can learn much from this adaptive, innovative balancing act.
I’ve often said that each of the more than 160+ Jewish overnight camps serves as a laboratory for 21st-century Jewish life. Each bunk, unit, and larger community helps develop and nurture the development of a child’s Jewish identity and social-emotional skills. Through powerful immersive Jewish educational experiences, camp creates connections and friendships that will last a lifetime.
Now camps have begun to experiment with technology, piloting new ways to unleash the potential of the virtual space as a hub for ongoing engagement, meaningful Jewish connection, and valuable skill development. We have much to learn from what already has transpired and certainly what might happen throughout this summer, which will inform our strategies for communal engagement and connection, both year-round and lifelong.
Covid-19 will forever change our world in ways we can hardly imagine. Yet new efforts in the last two months offer clues for the priorities and strategies that will lead us all forward in our post-pandemic reality. They are:
- Community building. We will crave connection and community. Camps already have recreated specific, powerful experiences that are integral to each individual camp’s brand, like song sessions, Shabbat services, havdalah rituals, and other camp traditions. While nothing about our current reality is normal, these camps are focused on creating a sense of normalcy by providing ways for families to engage with their camp brand — and connect with their entire camp community — from home. The learning and success (and failures) that camps are experiencing now will inform how to proceed with year-round engagement post pandemic and how our entire community can use the virtual space effectively.
- Collaboration. We will need to work together. Just as in camp, our new world will require teamwork, partnerships, and cooperation in newly imagined ways. Just as in camp, breaking down barriers and silos helps everyone become more efficient, leveraging learnings and exchanging ideas to help everyone grow and succeed. I am proud to be part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Emergency Response Coalition of National Agencies, working together, forging new, successful pathways for our community.
- Skill development. We will need new skills. Adaptive learning skills will be required to navigate our new world, along with heightened ability in resilience, problem-solving, and communication. Camp traditionally has helped develop and refine these critical skills, and we must use the talent to share acquired skills with the greater community, beyond camp, to function better in our new reality.
- Experiential learning: We will learn by doing. No books can tell us how to manage in the post-pandemic world. Rather, camps have always taught us to have a rainy-day plan, because we know things never go exactly as planned. How true! A growth mindset — the hallmark of high quality summer camps, which encourage both campers and staff to experience, evaluate, and improve each day — will be key to learning and growth in our new world.
- Fun. We will need time to enjoy life. From Hebrew language to Israeli dancing, from hummus-making to art projects, camps have found ways to make Judaism cool in creative and engaging ways. Translating an in-person camp activity into an engaging at-home experience may be difficult, but camps are rising to the challenge. They have found compelling ways to create meaning infused with fun to provide a joyful reprieve from life as usual. Our community must embrace new approaches that balance intentionality and enjoyment in new ways.
Covid-19 has disrupted so much in our lives. For more than 180,000 children, teens, and college-age counselors, that includes their critically important Jewish summer camp experience. Camps remain essential in advancing the North American Jewish community and promoting positive engagement with participants’ Jewish identity. While the priority of supporting and sustaining in-person Jewish camp cannot and should not ever change, we feel fortunate that camps have already started experimenting and delivering what I call “camp beyond the summer.”
As camps begin to become truly year-round and lifelong enterprises, we will learn much about how to prepare, adapt, and innovate to meet the challenges and changes we will face in the days ahead. This work will set an example for how our entire Jewish community will survive and thrive in our new, post-pandemic world.