As news continued to trickle in this week that most, if not all, Jewish summer overnight camps have officially cancelled due to COVID-19, I was overwhelmed with sadness.
Watching impassioned camp directors explain the careful thought process, educated reasoning, and finally, the plea for help struck me to my core. I know closing camp is the right thing to do. I know there aren’t any other options. I know safety is the most important thing. But I am left wondering why this seems to sting so badly, why this hurts so much more than many other sacrifices my family and I are enduring.
Why does this feel so impactful?
My first thought always leads to relationships and marriage. How many shidduchim (matches) aren’t going to happen this summer that should have? My wife and I started our journey at Jewish summer camp, as have hundreds, if not thousands of others. How many new generations and lives have been created because of Jewish summer camp? How many different communities have linked through partners who may not have met otherwise? How much tighter knit has the American Jewish community become because of lives built around summer romances?
Once I look past the relationships, I’m struck by so many other what-if’s, fleeting moments in time, erased this year.
What if this was the summer that a camper was finally going to try out for the group play? Did we lose the next Ben Platt, Debra Messing, William Shatner, or Jeremy Piven? (Camp Ramah, Camp Massad, and Camp Chi)
What if this was the summer that a camper was finally going to pick up a guitar or learn a new instrument? Did we lose the next Bob Dylan? (Herzl Camp)
What if this was the summer that a camper finally got matched up with the radio activity? Did we lose the next Wolf Blitzer or Jake Tapper? (Camp Ramah)
What if this was the summer that a camper tries out new jokes, showing the new “funny” side of themselves? Did we lose the next Coen Brothers or Seth Rogen? (Herzl Camp and Camp Miriam)
What if this was the summer that a camper gets published in the weekly newsletter for the first time? Did we lose the next Thomas Friedman? (Herzl Camp)
What if this was the summer that a camper participated in an inspiring Model-UN day? Did we lose the next Ben Bernanke or Henry Waxman? (Camp Ramah)
However, not everyone who goes to Jewish summer camp becomes famous, with a global reach of influence.
The sadness is felt in yet another set of what-if’s, the ones you see every day at a Jewish summer camp, shaping anyone who attends for even one summer.
What if this was the summer you were going to bond with a new set of friends? Often these friendships last a lifetime.
What if this was the summer you were going to hit a walk-off homerun or a game-winning shot? These are memories that you can look back on with pride during the tougher times in life.
What if this was the summer you were going to find God through prayer? How would this change your perspective if it was delayed even just for a year?
What if this was the summer you were going to fall in love with Israel? Zionism is what connects Jewish camp to our people’s homeland.
What if this was the summer that you were finally ready to open up about your anxiety, sexuality, fears, dreams, or aspirations? What if camp was the only place you felt safe enough to do so?
What if this was the summer that the extra responsibility as a counselor was going to give you confidence to succeed in your first semester at college? Where will that be supplemented in such a meaningful way?
As I pore through all of the what-if’s I’ve thought of and the thousands that I’m sure I didn’t, it becomes clear to me why this stings so badly, why this hurts so much, why this feels so impactful: one summer can change a life.
Due to circumstances beyond our control, this summer will take a toll on Jewish kids, parents, administrators, and alumni everywhere who were ready to experience all that camp had to offer.
What is in our control is ensuring that these moments continue in future summers. There will be asks from many institutions across the board for support, donations, time, effort, creative thinking, and bold action.
We need to take them seriously.
We need to protect our camps.
Our next “What if” can’t be, “What if we had done more?”