Summer Camp 2020

“Dr. Lightman – Will there be camp this summer?”

This question rolls off every parent’s tongue nowadays, together with a look of longing that rivals that for a rebuilt Jerusalem replete with the Beit HaMikdash functioning at full capacity.

I sure hope that summer camp happens. This important tool for lifelong growth could possibly happen this summer if we are creative.

Why is summer camp important?

Many of us have experienced loads of family time the last almost three months. It’s great. It’s fabulous. It’s beautiful. And, honestly speaking, we need a break. Our children need a change and, please G-d, camp will provide that change.

For generations of children, summer means unlimited free time to play, explore and make memories that can last for a lifetime. It’s about learning to swim, play tennis, arts-and-crafts can lead to hobbies, Jewish learning – and so much more. In other words, camp allows for a deep dive into new skills and reviewing in a nonthreatening atmosphere. The benefits can have a ripple effect that can help learning throughout the year. Under the guidance of skilled instructors and talented artists and separated from the competitive environment called school, children can discover and develop new skills that may well prove beneficial into adulthood.

As long as the camp provides a positive and nurturing environment, children can figure out who they are, manage their daily chores and discover new skills that can shape their identity. Once a person tastes success, he will want more success. The only failure in camp is missing the opportunity to try new things.

In addition to the “skills” stimulation and exploration, camp can provide physical activity that is typically lacking for our children during the school year. It entails unplugging from technology: our children, due to COVID-19 circumstances much larger than them and us, have practically overdosed on technology the last several months. Children who are disconnected from their smartphones, tablets and computers can focus on their creative talents, engage with other children and explore the outdoors.

Summer camp offers a structured opportunity for children to grow. This venue for growth allows children to become independent and self-confident by gaining proficiency and prowess while socializing and making new friends.

Regarding the social component, many children are labelled during the school year – “studious,” “rambunctious,” to cite but a few examples. Once labelled, it is hard for the school and the child and his peers to move past that label. The camp setting should be a nonjudgmental one (as should school, for that matter). Because children in camp can make new friends, thereby moving beyond the same group of peers (which tends to reinforce the labelling), they are given the opportunity to break out of the categorizations, spread their wings and fly. Camp allows kids to get out and into an environment filled with people who see what is in front of them, rather than what they have been trained to see through years of false reinforcement.

Not enough can be said about the benefits of removing a person from a familiar environment (which has become hum-drum for so many) which means getting them out of their comfort zones and expanding their boundaries. They take risks with their new skills without the looming fear of failure and repercussions.

Camp then reinforces independence and empowerment. Nothing brings out and tests children’s independence than giving them time away from Mommy and Abba. Without our ubiquitous presence, children can learn to bring tasks to completion. They can begin to understand the thought that goes into a good decision and then learn more about themselves in the process. They can learn from other adults and from peers.

When children are away from home, they tend to grow in appreciating their Imma and Daddy, belongings, homemade chicken for Shabbat. Warning: The appreciation is not permanent. At best, it’s ephemeral. But it is there and it will grow over time.

As a result, this amalgam called camp builds resilience. New (or renewed) friendships, confidence, independence, and sense of belonging only enhance a child’s development. It helps them to grow from a kid into a strong, competent adult.

So how can we make camp happen this summer?

Unbelievably, overnight camp might be simpler to bring into reality than day camp. Why? Because overnight camp can be a self-contained happening. With tremendous planning, the camp can be sequestered from everyone but staff and campers.

Possibly all staff and campers should have a COVID nose swab test well as an antibodies test prior to arriving in camp. Although no one knows what having or not having antibodies means (or does not mean), at least a baseline has been established. Overseas staff must arrive two weeks in advance and quarantine. In addition, both staff and campers must have health forms with physical exams dated within the last 12 months together with vaccines. The flu vaccine must be required. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge people to have flu vaccines through June 30, 2020. It is one of the first lines of defense during this pandemic.

When campers board buses for camp, temperatures must be taken. Temperatures should be taken again upon arriving in camp. Once on camp grounds, no staff or campers can go off grounds and re-enter. This means finding roles for the swimming staff during the Nine Days. Medical staff would have to stay put. Of course, camps must have bona fide plans to handle Covid, should it rear its ugly head in camp.

One more thing – No nosh packages.

This is step 1.

Step 2 – No Visiting Day. Period. Visiting Day = germ potential. Let’s wipe out the potential proactively by not having Visiting Day.

I’ve never understood the concept of Visiting Day. When I was a doctor at Camps Bnos and Aguda, it was one of the worse days of the summer. Parents schlepped from wherever and kids were miserable, nagging for trips off grounds to shop for what they already had. How about parents chartering buses to bring their kids home Visiting Day? Doesn’t that defeat trying to foster independence and resilience in our children?

The goodbyes at the end of Visiting Day – The drama. The tears. It was (almost) like how Tisha B’Av should be. As a father, I experienced those dreadful goodbyes in several camps. My wife and I still chuckle about the “To the worse parents in the world because you didn’t bring me home at the end of Visiting Day” letters we received.

Visiting Day does not benefit kids nor does it help parents. Visiting Day helps the local eateries (and they work hard for parnassa). If camps open, perhaps they can order lunch or dinner from the local eateries as a treat for what would otherwise be the dreaded Visiting Day.

Step 3 has to do with programming. In my opinion, camps should go “back-to-basics.” The basics include food and shelter together with physical activity and loads of teamwork.

Based on the ages of bunks, camps should empower kids. One week, put a bunk in charge of food inventory, while another inventories crafts supplies, while another is in charge of peeling vegetables while another takes on learning an art project or two and then teaching it to other bunks. Get outdoors. Hike. Explore nature. Put on the rain boots and get out there to see the beautiful world that our Lord has created for our children and all others to learn, explore and enjoy. Make beds. Clean bunk houses (in addition to doing so on Erev Shabbat). Get in the kitchen and learn how to cook and bake. Of course, everything should be age appropriate.

Summer camp this year might be used to help stem the “Coronavirus slide.” Readers have heard about “summer learning loss,” a time when achievement in areas like reading and math decline over the summer months. The declines tend to be steeper for math than for reading and the extent (proportionally) of loss increases in the upper grades. Educators are concerned about Coronavirus slide combined with summer learning loss this year. Studies show that the summer slide can result in 2-3 months of learning while other studies show declines of no more than one month.

Camps could make some of this learning practical and relevant. Academic studies have demonstrated that most children learn something better when it is relevant to them. I am picturing the math that would be done by junior high school girls together with the camp’s hanhala to determine how much food items to order food items in order to feed the camp.

I am not a complete ogre. Bring in one night per trip one of the well known singers/entertainers with their entourage. Just keep them separate from campers.

Nearly forty years ago, I met the late Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald A”H when he had traveled to South Africa on business. He invited me to the United States to be a camp doctor in Camp Sternberg. I came but was unable to work as I did not have American malpractice insurance.

Under his tutelage, Camp Sternberg, which then was a federation owned and operated camp, was open to girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds. The tuition was within financial reach of most families, thereby creating a blend of girls from different backgrounds.

Camp Sternberg personified “barebones.” The bunk houses were what we’d call “dumps.” Toilets flushed yet barely. Showers had running water but not much more. Every morning (other than Shabbat), girls woke up, exercised old-fashioned calisthenics, davened and only then did they eat breakfast because they had “earned” it. Sternberg food was basic, wholesome and not fancy. I cannot imagine they were offered too many choices at meals.

The day’s program was filled with Jewish learning, art programming and lots of physical activity. Rain boots or galoshes were put on and off the girls went hiking through rivers and G-d knows what else, learning about nature and the wonders of the outdoors. Other than hikes, there were few trips off grounds. Evenings and Shabbat were filled with singing and dancing and plays put on for the girls by the girls.

And there was no canteen! In other words, no junk food! It is no wonder why, in the words of a Sternberg alumna who thrived during her years there, she left home “chubby” and, between the physical activity and healthful eating (with the Shabbat cake as a treat), she returned home slimmed down, happy as could be, her creative juices flowing and brimming over.

Difficult times — and no one will argue that we are in difficult times – create opportunities. Summer 2020 could be our opportunity to shift our society onto a more wholesome, healthy plan.

Making day camp happen does not appear to be as “easily” attainable. I am hoping that with creative staff, we can make it happen. For parents, finding activities to fill their children’s summer months can be a hassle.

I cannot think of any way to begin to assure people’s health when they come and go from a camp daily and then return home and are exposed to others who have been out-and-about and then return to camp the next morning with scores and scores of people who have also been out-and-about. I am not prepared at this time to tell people to live “as usual” (meaning pre-COVID) and let the chips fall where they may. That responsibility is too huge. Yet I also realize it will not be healthy for kids and parents to remain program-less the entire summer.

Beyond the summer is the school year. I sincerely hope we can return to some sense of normalcy on that front.

Allow me to take this opportunity to emphasize that by no means are we done with COVID. As a community, we need to begin preparing now for the flu season and, G-d forbid, a COVID resurge.

As always, daven.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.