The history of Jewish camping in North America can be traced back to the early 1900s when families in the city sent their kids to camp in an attempt to escape the polio pandemic. At the time, camp was the perfect combination of being outside, in community, and a place for Jewish kids to be with other Jewish kids.
Over a hundred years later, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the field of Jewish summer camp, like so much else. COVID caused nearly all overnight Jewish camps to cancel in-person activities for the 2020 summer and operate under severe constraints in 2021. Thankfully, 2022 has seen a marked return to normalcy, a trend we hope will continue while recognizing that the landscape has been irrevocably altered in ways not seen since at least the 1930s and 1940s, before our camps--OSRUI and Ramah Wisconsin-- and many others throughout the U.S. and Canada, were founded. (JCC Camp Chi, founded in 1921, is one notable exception in the Chicago area.)
Most significantly, and perhaps least surprisingly, are the ways COVID-19 has impacted our camper population. In the summers of 2021 and 2022, we saw the profound impact of the pandemic on children's social skills and a spike in mental health challenges.
Thankfully, the overall trend from 2021 to 2022 was a shift from acute mental health crises to camps being better prepared to support campers engaged in support programs and treatment for chronic conditions.
We anticipate that, every few years, we will see new waves of COVID's impacts on different age bands of kids, as those who missed two years of high school, like our current counselors, were impacted differently than those who missed parts of pre-school, elementary school, or middle school.
Camp remains an ideal antidote to many of the negative impacts of COVID on our children. There is no better place to accelerate group- and independent-living skills. We offer our campers low-stakes and loving environments with an emphasis on fun and developing self-confidence. With no screens and under the guidance of counselors, kids learn what it means to build relationships with their peers. Days are spent outside in an immersive, joyful, and Jewish environment.
We know that COVID has also impacted parents as they think about sending their kids to camp for the first time. We have had more conversations with families that start with "my child has never slept away from home" or "my camper is nervous about being around so many people." These are normal feelings and worries given what kids have navigated in the last two years, and camp can offer a safe place for kids to practice the skills of independence and resiliency, and to learn what it means to be a part of a community.
In addition to the impact on campers, the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have also disrupted, as our broader Jewish community knows well, issues ranging from supply chain challenges; to the availability of labor; to the costs of goods and services; and more. These, too, impact the overnight camping sector.
The last three years have been a journey for the field of Jewish camp, one we all hope will quickly recede into the background. With that hope, we also assume that the reality will be more complex, and though every year will feel more like a pre-COVID summer, certain fundamentals are forever changed. It was truly thanks to so many in our communities--including JUF's leadership--that our Jewish summer camps were able to sustain themselves through these initial few years.
Jewish camps are already deep into registering campers, hiring staff, and planning experiences for our 2023 summer. Summers at camp are more important than ever for the children, adolescents, and emerging adults in our community. Even as the weather turns colder, thanks for joining us in counting down to another amazing summer at camp!
Jacob Cytryn is the Executive Director at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and Ramah Day Camp in Chicagoland. Solly Kane is the Executive Director at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), the Reform Movement's overnight camp and retreat center in Wisconsin.