Fireworks fascinate me. The multisensory experience of sights, sounds, and warmth connotes celebration – perhaps a home run, a “Happily Ever After” day at Disney, or a summertime festival. This week’s return of July 4th celebratory fireworks heralds, we hope, the beginning of the end of our covid nightmare.
For many in the Jewish community, we are witnessing our own much-needed display of restoration and celebration: the reopening of Jewish summer camps. We don’t need actual fireworks; our social media feeds, news articles, email updates, and communal conversations capture the emotional story. Campers and counselors finally have been welcomed back to their summer homes.
The joyous renewal of smiles and laughter, singing and dancing, warm our hearts and souls, signaling a return of normalcy, energy, and community.
The work of my team at Foundation for Jewish Camp – both passionate lay leaders and dedicated professionals – for these past 16 months has been focused solely on helping to make this happen. As the global pandemic forced the world to shut down, summer camps – like small businesses everywhere – were plunged into survival mode.
Nearly all Jewish overnight camps in North America were shuttered during the summer of 2020, resulting in a funding gap of more than $150 million, a number so big it posed an existential threat. While many day camps were able to open for at least some part of last summer, they did so with significantly fewer participants. As the pandemic dragged on, many of us wondered if 2021 would mean more of the same. And even if they could reopen, camps knew they faced even greater financial burdens as they worked to ensure everyone’s health and safety.
We also feared the toll covid has taken on the campers, counselors, and their families – stuck in the joyless slog of Zoom school, with canceled extracurriculars and communal worship and milestone observances forced online. Opportunities for camaraderie and fun have been scarce as uncertainty and anxiety prevailed.
Camp, as an antidote, would be more essential than ever before.
The communal response these past 16 months has been nothing short of amazing. FJC, supported by generous philanthropists, foundations, and the Jewish federation system across North America, joined with our network of camps as the people who love them refused to accept permanent closures of institutions beloved by generations of alumni. Collectively, we secured emergency funds – through a combination of loans, grants, and cost reductions – without which many camps simply would not have been able to stay afloat.
For months, as we prepared for this summer, we all were mired in a cycle of contingency planning. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and then from state and local (or Canadian and provincial) health authorities, evolved continuously, further complicating the difficult planning process. (In fact, only this past week did Ontario’s provincial government finally approve the re-opening of their overnight camps — beginning this week.)
Camp professionals worked harder than ever before, experiencing a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs. We admire their resilience and determination, never giving up on the hope that we could overcome the myriad challenges to return to the real reason we’re in this work: to help kids form their own sense of community, joy, and meaning during these critical formative years in their lives.
For all of us, it feels like waking from a very long, very bad dream. None of us have been spared loss during the pandemic – and from all of the other complicated situations we have experienced during this period. And no matter how big or small the stakes, those losses have been painful. If we’ve ever needed an infusion of pure joy and fun, it’s now.
The longed-for lazy months of summer finally have arrived. After 22 months, camps have reopened their gates. Weary campers, no longer confined to a laptop screen, once again can make real friends, in person, and see each other’s faces, smiling, around the campfire. Counselors, too, once again can be the admired role models, developing and refining their own leadership skills as they pass down the traditions of their camps to the next generation.
I couldn’t help but smile watching NYC’s July 4th fireworks display from our perch in Fort Lee. Just knowing that the simple joys – and intentional magic – of summer camp have returned gives me, and should give us all, a much-needed boost of energy and optimism. Like communal fireworks, the glowing reports received from camps thus far can and should reverberate deep within each of us.
Together, we celebrate the fruits of our collective efforts to survive, to overcome, and to renew – not only the field of Jewish camp, but also our Jewish communal enterprise.