URJ Camp Newman staff dance together on Shabbat before the return of campers, June 2021.
URJ Camp Newman staff dance together on Shabbat before the return of campers, June 2021.

‘Pure magic’: Jewish summer camps return after year of Covid

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“Welcome home.”

That’s the message leaders of URJ Camp Newman, the Jewish overnight camp nestled in the forested hills north of Santa Rosa, are imparting to campers this year, after a long and challenging four years away from their Porter Creek campus.

Starting June 18, the first batch of more than 700 campers arrived to kick off the highly anticipated 2021 season.

The homecoming is momentous. Newman, like all six of the Bay Area’s Jewish sleepaway camps, was shuttered due to Covid-19 last year, unable to run in-person programming for the first time since its founding in 1947.

But the journey back to normalcy has been even more fraught for Newman, the largest Reform summer camp on the West Coast. In October 2017, it was almost entirely leveled by wildfire. The Torahs were salvaged, but not much else — 81 of the site’s 90 buildings were destroyed. For the 2018 and 2019 seasons, camp was held at Cal State Maritime Academy in Vallejo.

Rubble after a wildfire at Camp Newman
Most buildings at Camp Newman burned to the ground in 2017, seen here shortly after the wildfire.

In the interim, a lot has changed at the home base, according to camp director Rabbi Allie Fischman and executive director Ari Vared. And a lot has stayed the same.

“We’ve invested around $40 million in the site, and that’s only the first third of the work we need to do,” Vared said.

“Even though so much is brand new, it feels so familiar,” Fischman added. “It feels so comfortable — almost exactly like it felt being here before.”

In conversations with J., leaders of the Bay Area’s Jewish overnight camps, many of which have been welcoming campers for the first time in two years, shared a sense of hopefulness, gratitude and optimism about the summer ahead, even as campers and staff deal with the remnants of a pandemic that has, like the 2017 Tubbs Fire, left devastation in its wake.

Each benefited from a task force convened in partnership with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation to implement Covid-19 guidelines that err on the side of caution but still allow for regular camp activities to proceed, more or less, as normal.

Amid these challenges, the sentiment among Jewish community leadership is that the need for summer camp has never been greater.

“The impact of Covid-19 on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of our children is unfathomable,” the Federation wrote in a blog post about its efforts to help camps operate this year. “To put it mildly, they are Zoomed out.”

Via a donor-advised fund administered by the Federation, philanthropist Fred Isaac awarded grants for the purchase of thousands of Covid-19 tests for camps within the consortium, known as the Bay Area Jewish Camp Collective.

There is no question families are ready. While camp leaders spent the offseason anxiously following shifting public health guidelines and hoping that widespread vaccinations would stop the virus in its tracks, many parents were reserving spots for their kids as early as the winter.

Jamie Simon
Jamie Simon

“We opened up enrollment on Dec. 1,” said Jamie Simon, CEO of Camp Tawonga. “And we filled up the very first day.” Tawonga will bring some 1,200 campers to its campsite near Yosemite National Park this summer.

The demand, Simon said, “speaks to how much camp is needed right now for kids. It’s the antidote to shelter-in-place. It’s being in a community, outside, with friends, away from technology. And it’s building Jewish identity.”

All of the region’s Jewish overnight camps — Tawonga, Newman, Eden Village West, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, Be’chol Lashon and Ramah of Northern California — are operating this year, some at slightly lower capacity than normal. All are taking precautions against Covid-19, using similar policies with slight variations.

Camp Tawonga is back open, and campers are having a ball.
Camp Tawonga is back open, and campers are having a ball.

For one thing, all are requiring staff to be fully vaccinated. Only one camp J. spoke with, S.F.-based Be’chol Lashon, is requiring campers 12 and older to be vaccinated as well; camp doesn’t start until Aug. 1, giving teens ample time to get the approved Pfizer vaccine.

The others are not requiring that teen campers be vaxxed, even as they anticipate many will be. (The FDA has not yet approved a vaccine for children under 12).

To guard against any risk of transmission of the virus, the camps are creating a “bubble” environment, where comings and goings are tightly controlled.

Camps have banned outside visitors, a hard hit particularly at Newman, which in previous years drew anywhere from 75 to 300 people from Bay Area congregations to campus for Friday night Shabbat services. Instead, the services will be streamed.

At Newman and Tawonga, staff (largely college-age) are required to stay on campus for the length of their employment, which for some means the full summer of camp.

“We made a decision as a URJ system that we would keep our staff on site,” Fischman said, speaking of Camp Newman and 14 sister camps affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism across North America.

In a world that’s been so complicated, camp reminds you what it feels like to live in a world of kindness and community.

At Newman, that means most staff will be on campus for 10 weeks, from training in early June through the end of camp in mid-August. Some will be on site for 12 weeks.

“At first, it’s a lot to grasp in your mind, not leaving camp for that long,” Fischman said. “But it feels so natural now that they’re back.” During training earlier this month, leadership took efforts to keep staff spirits high. The day Fischman spoke with J., administrators were planning a mock graduation ceremony for staff who graduated this year, replete with a “prom.”

And to help the counselors unwind during their off-hours, the camp has created “little oases” for hanging out, having some snacks, playing pingpong and relaxing.

Each camp outlined an extensive Covid-19 testing regimen that relies upon funds from the Fred Isaac grant.

“I don’t know if we would have been able to create a safe Covid bubble without it,” Simon said.

For its part, Newman’s leadership described the routine for the 700 or so campers signed up for summer sessions. Each will undertake a PCR Covid test three days before camp and a rapid test upon arrival, and will be retested on days 3 and 6 (along with staff).

Campers will be asked to wear masks when they are interacting with anyone outside their bunk, but within their own bunk, they can go unmasked. After 10 days of camp session, if there are no positive tests, testing will stop.

Miles Simon, Asher Goldwasser and Ben Gottlieb enjoying post-pandemic life at Camp Tawonga.
Miles Simon, Asher Goldwasser and Ben Gottlieb enjoying post-pandemic life at Camp Tawonga.

“Once they’ve had 10 days worth of surveillance and testing, it would have shown up positive at that point,” Fischman said. “The schedule changes a bit, [but] everything else is going to feel like normal camp. We’re still doing Shabbat services, dancing, singing, archery, climbing, the high-ropes course …

“Hopefully it won’t feel like it’s infringing on the camp experience,” Fischman added. “We’ve been here with staff for a couple weeks and even when wearing masks, everything still feels like camp.”

At Tawonga, which is implementing a similar testing system and pod rules for masking, almost all activities will be done outside. The camp built an outdoor dining pavilion for meals.

“We’re not doing programming inside,” Simon said. “But we don’t usually do programming inside. We do rock climbing, go to the river, the pool, art, music. It’s very easy to run our programs outside.”

Other campuses are following similar testing regimens.

Maccabi Sports Camp, which is run by the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, sent tests home for families before camp and will test upon arrival at camp and twice during the session. But, unlike other camps, Maccabi Sports will allow its all-vaccinated staff to venture off site.

Sally Flinchbaugh
Sally Flinchbaugh

“We decided staff can go off [campus], because everybody’s vaccinated,” Oshman COO Sally Kauffman Flinchbaugh said. “We’re in an area in Santa Clara [and] San Mateo [counties] that is so highly vaccinated. We’re feeling comfortable.”

Eden Village West, an ecofriendly, “farm to table” camp located in a bend of the Russian River in Healdsburg, will be running its third summer camp since opening in 2018.

It was 106 degrees on campus when J. recently spoke with operations manager Nava Sherwood. She said the camp plans to host about 230 campers during two three-week sessions this summer. Like the others, Eden Village is requiring Covid tests before and during camp, and is not allowing anyone on or off campus.

“I hate to put it this way,” Sherwood said, “but basically it’s no contact with the outside world.”

She said the consortium of Bay Area summer camps, guided by medical advice from pediatrician and American Camp Association adviser Dr. Laura Blaisdel, has been instrumental in helping the camp form its policies.

For Be’chol Lashon, which usually runs a two-week camp program for Jews of color from around the United States and beyond, camp almost didn’t happen this year. Its usual site, Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma, remains closed.

Marcella White Campbell
Marcella White Campbell

By May of this year, “I was preparing statements to tell the community we couldn’t do it,” Be’chol Lashon director Marcella White Campbell told J.

But under the wire, drawn to the mission of the organization, Cloverleaf Ranch in Santa Rosa offered to host.

“They specifically said they want to help a camp like ours,” Campbell said. Just weeks later, the camp had signed up about 40 campers, around half from out of state. Campbell is requiring all staff and campers 12 and older to be vaccinated, and the session will last only one week starting Aug. 1.

As activities got underway at Camp Newman this week, hundreds of campers ditched their smartphones for the summer and reunited with friends, many of whom they hadn’t seen in two years.

Even with masks, it was a return to a semblance of normalcy after a year of anything but. And this time, it’s on their old stomping grounds.

“The only way to describe it is it feels like pure magic,” said Vared, the executive director. “In a world that’s been so complicated, camp reminds you what it feels like to live in a world of kindness and community.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.