Fun with water balloons at Maccabi Sports Camp during summer 2019. (Photo/Courtesy JCC Maccabi Sports Camp)
Fun with water balloons at Maccabi Sports Camp during summer 2019. (Photo/Courtesy JCC Maccabi Sports Camp)

Camp Tawonga, JCC Maccabi Sports cancel overnight summer programs due to coronavirus

Camp Tawonga, the area’s largest Jewish overnight camp, and JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, an overnight camp on the Peninsula, told J. they have decided not to hold camp this summer due to Covid-19.

“For now, we’re canceling the typical summer camp summer,” said Jamie Simon-Harris, executive director of Tawonga.

The two join URJ Camp Newman, part of the Reform movement’s camp network, which announced last week it was canceling camp this summer.

Other local Jewish overnight and day camps are awaiting further guidelines from the CDC and state health officials before announcing plans. Camp Ramah, an overnight camp affiliated with the Conservative movement with California locations in Monterey and Ojai, will announce its plan on May 14.

Simon-Harris said there were two primary factors behind the decision.

“One, camp is the antithesis of social distancing,” she said. The experience of Tawonga campers is about bonding in friendship around shared experiences, she said. Eating and sleeping far away from each other, wearing masks and not allowing campers to touch each other — all possible requirements in upcoming CDC guidelines — would have struck at the heart of the camp atmosphere.

“Secondly, and just as importantly, Tuolumne County is not allowing large gatherings this summer,” Simon-Harris said. She said county officials were still determining whether any group events could take place, but in any case, “they’ve told us 500 is a nonstarter.”

Tawonga, which last year had 1,400 young campers, 1,300 family campers and 200 staff at its site near the Tuolumne River and Yosemite, already canceled the first session of family camp scheduled for Memorial Day weekend. Simon-Harris said Tawonga is looking into whether some kind of programming with smaller groups could happen during the summer and still hopes family camps can take place later in the season.

Two small cabins amid greenery, mountain in the background
Camper cabins at Camp Tawonga (Photo/File)

“We’re not canceling our family camps,” she said. “They’re in August and September. We’re cautiously optimistic they will run.”

But the expected camp experience won’t be in the cards for the hundreds of children and teens who usually attend Tawonga. A letter was sent out today, and families have been invited to tune in at 4:30 p.m. today for a town hall-style discussion with Tawonga staff to find out more.

JCC Maccabi also has decided not to run a summer program, senior director Josh Steinharter told J., and is canceling all 2020 sessions. He said the restrictions necessary for the sports camp to operate would be too difficult to maintain.

“Those parameters really prevent us from running camp and providing the camp experience,” he said.

JCC Maccabi, which in 2019 merged with the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, had 275 campers last year for its sports-focused camp that runs intensives in baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and volleyball.

Steinharter said families have reacted with “100 percent support, compassion and understanding” along with “lots of tears, crying and heartbreak.” But he emphasized that Maccabi closing for the greater public health good to limit the spread of Covid-19 actually reflects the camp’s values of putting the community first.

“What are we trying to teach kids at camp? And what’s our responsibility as camp to model that?” he said.

Both Steinharter and Simon-Harris have urged the camp community to take the long view, and keep in mind that one summer’s cancellation doesn’t mean the end of camp altogether. In the meantime, they will be finding ways to keep the community together over the summer in other ways, including virtual.

“We will gather again,” Simon-Harris said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.