An Inside Look: Running Camp Ramah During Covid

A year ago, after a devastating summer without camp, our senior leadership turned our sights on making sure that camp opened in 2021. I hadn’t even heard of Ted Lasso at that point. All of us believed that we would open Camp Ramah New England no matter what. As we spent countless hours trying to figure out what the COVID situation would require and how to staff and run camp, it became more clear that opening camp was one thing, but navigating everything the summer would throw at us would be a very different thing. I honestly shared with our team that opening camp on June 29 would be incredible and was something I hung on to, but getting to August 22 would be the happiest day of my life (apologies to my wife and our wedding day and to my children and the days they were born). It if wasn’t for Henri literally raining on our parade, I think closing day would have been the best day ever. Here are a few inside reflections on a year in which I can truly say, “camp delivered.”

I think people understand on some level that running Ramah is a lot more complicated than the camps portrayed in Wet Hot American Summer or the classic movie Meatballs. We are a big operation. There are many decisions that need to be made in the early fall that set the course for the following summer.

One example is the staffing model of camp. In the fall, we decided to reduce the number of staff members to ensure that we had enough housing in the event that we experienced any cases of COVID-19. We also realized that we might not be able to bring a full complement of staff members from Israel and Europe. At that juncture, we also were uncertain about how many of our young adults would want to return to camp as counselors.

All of these factors, and many others relating to staffing, had an impact on the design and implementation of our program and basic operational needs, such as food services and maintenance. I won’t bore you with the details, but take my word for it, we had to change our operational plans multiple times based on ever-changing local regulations and staff availability.

Everyone knew that campers would come to camp with all sorts of experiences and challenges based on how COVID had impacted them over the previous eighteen months. We had experience supporting campers with various challenges, but the campers’ needs were exponentially greater than in past years. Our camper care team spent many hours conferring with our consulting psychologist and making plans with parents. One of the pandemic’s biggest impacts was that kids grew almost two years in size but many had not had the matching experiences socially, psychologically, and in many other respects. Campers arrived needing to learn how to function in a community at age-appropriate levels. There were bumps to be sure, but the biggest triumph was seeing our campers heal and flourish in real time.

 

How did we make this happen? Above all, our counseling staff performed at an exceptional level all summer. These young 18 to 21 year olds, coming off their own very challenging circumstances, banded together with purpose to bring their own Ramah experiences to their campers. One area that our senior staff got right was understanding early on that being a counselor would be challenging. We worked hard to ensure that staff life was as good as possible so that counselors would be happy, feel supported in their jobs, and able to make the magic happen for their campers.

When camp opened, it was amazing to see the rush of emotion and joy of being back together at camp. It also was clear that missing a year of camp had a huge impact. We had two years of first-time campers, two years of first-time counselors, and everyone had missed a year where they would have grown, gained experience and become more immersed in the Ramah experience. There are a number of examples. Many campers didn’t know the camp’s shira (song) and rikud (dance) repertoires. There was some decline in campers’ ability to lead and participate in tefilot. The Nivonim campers had missed their Machon summer, when they would have learned the leadership skills for planning and running events like Yom Sport (color war). There were many counselors who had never consoled a homesick camper or planned an evening activity.

All of this, of course, was happening as we endeavored to address many COVID-related questions, such as our masking policy; where to eat and how to serve food; how to run a safe Yom Sport; and our procedures should there be a case of COVID. It took significant time and effort to address these and countless other questions. Decision fatigue is real. It certainly helped to have an exemplary leadership team and excellent counsel and support from our lay leaders and medical experts.

How did we pull it off? I think we had good fortune and we made sound decisions. The year-round leadership team tried to do two things to enable the summer staff to do their jobs. First, we tried to remove from the summer staff and campers the angst and decision-making around COVID. Towards the end of the summer, I was so happy to hear that COVID did not impact their experiences. Second, the leadership team tried to fill in where there were gaps. There are countless examples, from our senior team serving delicious hot snacks to our staff every night to my weekly Friday breakfast meetings with campers to review how to lead Shabbat tefilot. These efforts were both real work and highly rewarding. A highlight for me was seeing the campers lead the various tefilot on Shabbat mornings. I think every staff member can share a story about stepping up and going the extra mile – and feeling both exhausted and immensely satisfied.

The staff kept bringing the fun and support to our campers, who went all in on the experience and had the time of their lives. On the last Thursday of camp, when I watched everyone rapturously singing and dancing in the Bet Am Gadol (now that everyone knew the words and the moves!), it felt just like 2019. In that moment, I realized that our camp community was back and had delivered the experience all of us so deeply needed. I looked forward to Nivonim Shabbat, the end-of-camp rituals, and the last Seudah Shlishit shira, and then celebrating with the staff after the campers departed on Sunday.

How naive I was! I have been joking that if you wrote a movie about camp during the age of COVID and decided to have a twist ending with a hurricane hitting on the last day, the producers would have nixed the idea as just way too over the top. I had heard about Hurricane Henri for several days, but no one knew which direction it would take. We started making contingency plans but didn’t want to implement them unless the campers’ flight to Washington, DC was cancelled. There is way too much inside baseball to explain all the reasoning behind how we made the decisions, but once we learned that the flight was cancelled we were able to enact our plan and send the DC kids out by bus early on Sunday morning. The other campers were picked up early. Camp was pretty much empty by 10:30. So much for the “spike the football” moment.

For me, Sunday was a bizarre day. My daughter (and camp counselor) Tova left with my wife at 6:00 am to start her college experience at Vassar. I barely got to hug her goodbye before dashing off to make sure the luggage was getting loaded and the buses would be ready to go. The end of camp is always abrupt. You go from working 18 hours a day and being responsible for so much to being completely done. This year there weren’t even post-camp meetings as we sent all staff home. Being tired at camp is a way of life, but you never know how truly tired you are until you stop running. Let’s just say it is a deep-in-your-bones kind of tired.

As I head into Rosh Hashanah, the most dominant feeling I have is gratitude. I am so thankful to our year-round team for their relentless conviction that camp was going to happen and happen well. I am so appreciative of our summer staff for taking on the challenge of bringing the Ramah experience back to our campers and giving them the summer of their lives. I feel such gratitude to our campers for immersing themselves in the summer experience and displaying such a positive attitude all summer long. I am so pleased with the partnership and support of our camp families throughout – from the beginning of the pandemic, through camp closing in 2020, and ultimately to our reopening in June. It means so much that our families entrusted their children to us.

I don’t know if I have any great wisdom on how to approach these High Holy Days. I am certainly going to reflect and I am going to try to grow. If this year has taught me anything it is that finding community in the time of COVID is essential. We need each other and we need joy. My prayers and hope this year are that we take the positive lessons of COVID forward while leaving the awful impact of the pandemic behind. Shana Tova U’metukah.

About the Author
Rabbi Ed Gelb has served 15 years as the CEO/director of Camp Ramah in New England. Ed joined CRNE after a successful five-year tenure as director of Camp Alonim, which is affiliated with the Brandeis Bardin Institute. Raised in Wyoming, Ed is a longtime Ramahnik, having served on the staffs of Ramah California and Canada. Ed currently serves as head coach of the varsity boys basketball team at Maimonides School. Prior to directing Camp Alonim, Ed was a teacher, administrator and basketball coach at Yeshiva University High School in Los Angeles. Ed received his ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and graduated from UCLA with a BA in History. He lives in Sharon, Massachusetts with his wife, Tami, and their children, Yoni, Emma, Tova and Zachary.
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