Why it’s right that Reform summer camps aren’t opening this summer

URJ Camp Newman logoI’m a rabbi in large part because of Reform summer camp. It’s true that I grew up in a fairly observant household (especially for the Reform Movement at that time); that I’ve always asked the “big questions”; and that one of my grandfathers was a rabbi. But it was at Jewish summer camp where Judaism came alive and became really relevant to life, where all these things clicked. 

That’s why I volunteer each summer as faculty: To help make the magic that shaped me.

A week ago today, multiple messages arrived in my inbox about the extremely difficult and sad decision not to hold Reform Jewish summer camp in person this year.   Reform Israel programs are also cancelled this summer.  It was such big news that it was reported by CNN.

URJ Greene Family Camp logoI am broken-hearted about it, and so is everyone I know who loves camp.  When I was a kid, I counted the other 48 or 50 weeks every year until I could return to the home of my heart for a few weeks each summer.  It was the only place where this socially awkward, intellectual introvert felt truly welcomed and loved by the majority of my peers.  Closing will pose all sorts of hardships for parents and kids, for staff and administration, for the survival of the camps themselves.  But I absolutely support the decision.

URJ Camp Harlam logoOver the past month, there have been several articles published in the Jewish Daily Forward about the potential for closing camp, along with calls for keeping it open.   Three weeks ago, Judi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of the Forward, wrote “Let there be camp — please!“, a heartfelt prayer and poem of praise for the institution that has shaped so many Jewish leaders of today.

Let there be mosquito-ridden outdoor movie nights and teva* trips with hot dogs on sticks over open flames. Let there be job wheels that seem to always saddle the same sad sap with toilet-cleaning duties. Let there be fights about who gets the first shower, let there be clothes-swapping among the tweenage girls, let there be hand-holding on the walks back to the bunk after evening activity, let there be marathon rounds of Crazy Eights and Magic: the Gathering.

Lord, if you’re listening, let there be camp…

*teva = nature

Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute welcome signThe week before that, a former camper and parent-of-campers at my own Jewish summer camp, OSRUI in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, wrote “I’m a pediatrician and a parent. We should send our kids to summer camp.” At the time, he could write that

…the modeling data from The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, strongly suggest that by the time summer comes, the worst of this first round of COVID will be well behind us.

Camp Shwayder logoJewish summer camp can be the gateway back to normalcy for our children as the immediate issues of the COVID-19 pandemic start to wane over time.

Today these projections are no longer likely.  With states now reopening — even some where the caseload and death rate are still increasingprojections now suggest more than double the number of cumulative deaths by August than were previously forecast, with the daily death rate nearly doubling and the daily number of new cases increasing 8-fold by the end of this month.  URJ Camp Coleman logoNothing has changed in the the virus’s contagion nor our susceptibility.  Camps are closed for the same reason schools are closed, and more. 

Yet just this week the Forward published another claim that summer camp can and should be opened.  Abraham Wyner wrote in “I’m a statistician. Closing camp because of corona is a huge mistake“:

URJ Camp Kalsman logoIt may initially seem prudent to close camp, but if the risk is not only acceptable but comparable to the risks we accept every day, then camp should open. The benefits of camp are many and they should not be ignored.

Let’s start with the benefits of remaining open. First and foremost you have the immense reward of camp itself. The Jewish summer camp experience is the most successful method we have for Jewish identity building. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the Jewish sleep-away camp experience has a large positive impact on holding Jewish values and future life choices like marriage and child-rearing. A decision to close camps this summer will have consequences for future summers.

Furthermore, many camps that do not open this summer may never open again. …

He goes on to say:

URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy logoCamp age children are not only unlikely to develop symptoms, but they also have a very small chance of being sufficiently ill to require hospitalization, and almost no chance of dying (only infants have appreciable risk). The mortality rate for persons under 55 (regardless of underlying condition, see figure below) has so far, in the two months total of community transmission in Philadelphia, been less than one in 20,000 residents which is similar to the risk of dying in a traffic accident over the time we have been isolating at URJ Camp George logohome.

Unfortunately, that small probability is magnified by at least a factor of 100 for seniors and those with serious underlying health problems. But it is considerably less so for the population of campers and staff that would attend camp.

That COVID-19 is a terrible illness is not disputable and should be taken extremely seriously. But the mortality risk is almost entirely localized to our most vulnerable populations while sparing the very population that would be attending camp. The data shows that the mortality risk to campers and staff is well less than the acceptable risk undertaken every day by driving.

URJ Jacobs Camp logoAnd even more can be done to make camp safe for the vulnerable with easily implemented procedures. Campers and staff could be required to completely isolate in the weeks before camp. During camp, visitors could be kept to a minimum and deliveries and all interactions between the outside world and camp should maintain strict protections.

Mr. Wyner may know his statistics, but he doesn’t know summer camp.  Camp looks like it’s all about youth and people in their 20s, and in truth they are the heart of it; but there are plenty of us old folks contributing to their safety, knowledge, structure, etc. 

URJ Crane Lake Camp loogoThinking about my own beloved Crane Lake, where I will not be volunteering this summer:  The year-round caretaker and head of maintenance is around my age.  The nurses and doctors that volunteer for a week or two, or are hired for the summer, are all around my age.  The camp director, the office administrator, inclusion specialist, social worker — these are all people who have many years of experience, which is a big part of why URJ summer camps provide such high-quality experiences for our campers.

URJ Eisner Camp logoAnd then there’s faculty.  Reform Camps don’t operate without us.  As the letter I received last week says, “You infuse the summer with the content and passion that inspires campers and staff members alike to seek  out additional opportunities for Jewish learning and action during the year. ”  At 57, I’m not even the oldest of the returning faculty at Eisner, Crane Lake and SciTech.  The idea that camp is run entirely by young people is decades out of date, if it ever was true.

And in any case, the statistics that *truly* matter are not those of age and immunity, but the reality that all human systems function with a statistically-predictable amount of messiness. There really is no way to ensure that the coronavirus would stay away from every camp, all summer.  Mr. Wyner’s plan would require several thousand people to completely isolate themselves for two weeks before camp.  Could we really trust that the hundreds of people who are at each camp have been URJ 6 Points SciTech logoscrupulous — and lucky — in their preparations?  Again, take myself: Two of my children are teenagers living at home.  Can I absolutely guarantee that my teens are not going to the store without masks, or otherwise doing something that might bring them into contact with the coronavirus? No!  I believe they are doing well, but I won’t predicate someone else’s life or health on it. 

And does two weeks with no symptoms guarantee that you’re not a carrier?  No, it doesn’t.  We now know that people who never develop symptoms may be busy sharing the virus with everybody they come in contact with.  So even if I abandoned my responsibilities to my family and made them feed me for two weeks, and if we could agree on who would restrict themselves to the bathroom without the shower, the end result would be no more certainty than I have right now.

And all this for one week as faculty?  And no, staying the whole summer is not an option for me. Besides the fact that I’m needed at home, and that especially this year High Holy Day preparation must begin before camp is over, working at camp is exhausting.  I used to be able to do two weeks, now I prefer only one.  A whole summer?  Not happening!

Camp Daisy and Harry Stein logoWe can’t realistically believe that 17 Reform summer camps could entirely exclude the virus.  The idea that any kind of social distancing could be enforced among the campers (and even less among the young staff!) is laughable.  Campers come from large geographic areas, counselors and unit heads come from all over the US, and much of the specialist, kitchen, and maintenance staff is hired from overseas through URJ 6 Points Sports Academy logoCampAmerica.  Even without overseas staff, were that possible, the nature of camp means that a single outbreak would potentially be transmitted to hundreds of families and dozens of communities at the end of the session.

URJ GUCI camp logoWe take pikuach nefesh, saving life, seriously.  That is why I support the heart-breaking decision to close Reform Movement camps.  It will not kill the camps; they are too important and too beloved.  For this summer, camps are offering what virtual programming they can.  When it is safe, we will return; and when we do, we won’t have blood on our hands. As Rabbi Chase Foster wrote today, “Trust camps when they say it’s not safe. And it’s not safe.