Camp in the Season of Swine Flu

Just when you think that you’ve seen most of what there is to see, life throws something new at you…

It’s camp season, that wonderful time of year when our children get away from the grit and grime of a city summer to find fun and growth in greener settings both near and far. My own children have, for many years, been regulars at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, both as campers and as staff. That camp has been a part of my life since the early 70’s, when I worked there, and it will always have a special place in my heart.

Camp started on July 1- late, as camp beginnings go- but it wasn’t only the late date that made the first day of camp this year unique. The lurking threat of swine flu is giving all camp directors nightmares. There have been news reports, widely circulated, of camps with huge numbers of cases, in some instances threatening the very ability to run the program. The all-important question to be asked is, how do you guard against the rapid spread of a highly infectious disease in an environment where many hundreds of campers share bunks, dining halls, clothing, bathrooms, and countless personal items?

There are no definitive answers to that question, of course. Camp is an epidemiologist’s nightmare. It’s impossible to create an environment that guarantees immunity from swine flu, or any other virus or infection. But there is a simple answer to how you start to try. You make a superhuman effort not to let the virus into camp in the first place.

And so it was that, for the first time in the camp’s long history, no child was admitted to camp on July 1 without first being screened at the camp gate (over and above the usual medical forms that had to be filled out). My wife and I were part of a group of staff members and parent volunteers who literally met every family at the gate of the camp, gave them a brief health questionnaire to fill out regarding how they were feeling that day and whether they had recently been exposed to someone with the illness and related questions, and then took the temperature of each and every child and staff member who was to be a part of the Ramah in the Berkshires family this summer. If you failed that screening, you were sent home, no discussion.

As I reflect back on those few hours, it strikes me as one of the more remarkable camp experiences I’ve ever had. Interestingly, of all the parents I spoke to- and they were many- only one complained that it was a waste of time. Most of the parents were grateful that the camp was making such a determined effort. As a camp parent, so am I.

My wife and I were happy to help out. But in the final analysis, Ramah, along with countless other camps similarly challenged, is simply doing what a good camp must do- namely, everything in its power to insure the health and well-being of its summer population.

Now if it would just stop raining….

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.