2017 Camp Kee Tov campers Jules Rabinowitz, Isabelle Keim and June Waggoner. (Photo/Courtesy Emily Schnitzer)
2017 Camp Kee Tov campers Jules Rabinowitz, Isabelle Keim and June Waggoner. (Photo/Courtesy Emily Schnitzer)

Jewish day camps prep for a fun but unusual summer

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After months of being stuck at home, with schools closed and programs canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, kids will be able to get outside this summer at several Jewish day camps that have decided they can open safely with protective measures in place.

Camp Gan Israel, run by Chabads in several different locations, will be open throughout the Bay Area, including in Walnut Creek, Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Berkeley.

Rabbi Ber Rosenblat, who operates Camp Gan Israel in the South Bay, said if the response from parents is any indication, opening camp has been a welcome piece of news.

“We reopened our camp enrollment with our revised program at midnight on Monday, June 2, and by 9 a.m. we were over 30 percent filled up, with one age group on a waitlist,” Rosenblat said. “By Wednesday afternoon, we were at about 80 percent capacity.”

What children learn and experience in the relaxed camp environment can sometimes be even more meaningful than what they pick up throughout the year, he said. And feeling a sense of community and connection is needed now more than ever.

“Children have been isolated and confused. They don’t see their friends and classmates, they don’t have those [in real life] social experiences that make up normal life,” Rosenblat said. “This year, I think camp is even more relevant and important.”

And yet, how do Jewish day camps operate safely in the age of Covid-19? It’s a question that has been given serious thought, according to camp directors, who have been doing a good deal of advance planning.

“We started planning with a question — can we provide our motto of ‘safe, fun, Jewish’?” Rosenblat said. “If we can provide a safe, fun, Jewish experience for our campers, then we must. If we cannot, then we will close.”

Camp Gan Israel Solano campers playing basketball. (Photo/Rabbi Chaim Zaklos)
Camp Gan Israel Solano campers playing basketball. (Photo/Rabbi Chaim Zaklos)

Camp organizers spent hours researching and studying guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the American Camping Association, and state and county health officials. “After much thought, we came up with a comprehensive plan, had it reviewed by both medical and camping professionals, and got the green light.”

Campers will undergo a health screening each morning and get their temperatures taken. There won’t be any hugging or hand holding allowed, and swimming trips are canceled. The San Francisco location has eliminated field trips, baking and cooking classes, and high-contact sports.

“On the other hand, so much will be the same,” Rosenblat said, “the friends, the fun, nurturing counselors and the exciting camp spirit and Jewish experience.”

The JCC of San Francisco recently announced it would be starting its in-person day camp in July with safety precautions in place. Campers will have their temperatures checked each morning and will be required to wear masks when in public spaces. The furniture in classrooms will be arranged so campers can maintain social distancing. And counselors will make sure campers are washing and sanitizing their hands “frequently,” a notice on the JCC website says, and will “help them to avoid touching their faces as much as possible.”

After running a “Camp at Home” virtual program in June, the JCC of the East Bay will offer a four-week, in-person camp session in Berkeley starting July 6. The same goes for the Oshman Family JCC’s J-Camp, which will hold one four-week session starting July 6. Camp Shalom at the Addison-Penzak JCC will open camp on June 29 and hold two three-week sessions.

Other JCCs have either decided to continue with online programming or are still exploring their options.

At Camp Gan Israel in Berkeley, the directors are ready to offer what they call “out-of-the-box CGI.”

In a letter to camp families, Rabbi Yehuda and Miriam Ferris said they are “committed to providing a warm, Ruach-filled Gan Israel experience this summer and await final confirmation from the local authorities. “

There will be new dates, shorter hours and “an ideal location, out of doors at beautiful North Lake Temescal,” the letter said. “At this time, we are planning to stay at the park all day. We will not be leaving for trips or swimming. Parents will transport children to and from camp each day,” and no extended care will be provided.

If we can provide a safe, fun, Jewish experience for our campers, then we must. If we cannot, then we will close.

“As we prepare for camp this summer, we will adjust camp to any new health and safety requirements that may be necessary,” the message said. “We are committed to creating the best and most vibrant version of Gan Israel possible within the legal and safety requirements.”

In Berkeley, Camp Kee Tov will begin July 6, most likely offering two three-week sessions. One veteran parent said she trusts the leaders to get it right in terms of health and safety, and believes the benefits of having her three children in camp this summer outweigh the risks.

Rachel Ostroy said her two teenage girls, Mimi, 15, and Lena, 17, will be camp counselors, and 11-year-old Leo will attend as a camper. “Leo has been going since the summer before kindergarten and he will be entering sixth grade,” she said.

The girls also started as campers the summer before kindergarten, but a brief move to L.A. meant a couple of summers missed, she said.

“However, as soon as we decided to move back, the first thing I did was sign up for Kee Tov,” Ostroy said. The children “need some continuity in their lives, the connection with their community, opportunity to be outside and be social, get out of the house, be off screens … I could go on.”

The camp, a program of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, will “look very different” to returning campers and families, said director Beckett Sheeder. But the hope is that “the extra precautions we’re going to be taking will simply allow for kids to get outside, to resocialize and to have some fun this summer.”

Like other regional day camps, overnights and field trips are out this year at Kee Tov, but a “fun and ruach-filled summer for our campers and their families” is planned, Sheeder said.

“We feel strongly that the service we provide families is essential to the emotional and physical health of our community, not to mention helping to take some load off of parents and allow them to get back to work,” Sheeder said. “I hear from parents all the time about how desperate they are for something to do for their children. For us, creating safe spaces for children to socialize with their peers (even in small groups) and get outside this summer is also an urgent public health and education concern.”

Many of the camp directors say the respite camp offers parents and children has never been more essential, and provides physical and mental well-being for families.

“We are hearing from so many members of the community that access to safe child care is something they desperately need,” Sheeder said. “We have been willing to make big structural changes to the basic framework of camp in order to follow the most stringent health and safety guidelines. because if that’s what it takes for us to offer Camp Kee Tov to our families this summer, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.