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)

Covid resurgence hits local Jewish summer camps hard, closing one early

Shabbat on a Wednesday?

That’s how things went down at Maccabi Sports Camp in Atherton this month, when the camp was forced to end its first summer session two days early after a Covid outbreak among staff and campers.

Though Maccabi senior staff felt compelled to make that tough call, they made sure campers got a proper send-off. So the overnight sports camp celebrated its last Shabbat of the session on July 6, a Wednesday, holding a talent show and closing ceremony the next day.

“Camp is precious,” said Josh Steinharter, Maccabi’s senior director who himself tested positive for Covid and spent a week in quarantine. “We want every moment, every day, you can. Canceling and closing the session early was a difficult decision that left kids and staff sad, but it was the right thing to do to protect our community and ensure everyone is as safe as possible.”

Maccabi — which offers a core lineup of baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and volleyball for kids in grades 3 through 11 — isn’t the only Jewish summer camp facing Covid challenges this summer.

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A July 14 report in the Forward cited examples of outbreaks at camps across the country. Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, told the N.Y.-based Jewish news outlet, “I don’t think any of us were prepared for this level of increased waves that we’re seeing.”

Not that camps didn’t do everything possible to prepare.

At Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, campers had to sign a brit kehillah (community covenant) promising not to eat indoors in restaurants or go to large indoor gatherings unmasked in the week prior to attending camp. All Newman campers and staff, as with Maccabi and other local camps, were vaccinated and boosted. Testing was required on both the day before and the day of arrival.

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.

Still, during the most recent session, Covid struck Newman with a vengeance. With some 500 people on the Newman grounds at any given time during the summer, the initial outbreak constituted some 8 percent of the population.

Man smiling
Ari Vared

“We had over 40 cases in the first several weeks of camp [among] campers and staff,” said Ari Vared, Camp Newman’s executive director, “but only two in the second two weeks of camp. We adapt, learn and adjust.”

Vared said campers who tested positive had to return home to recuperate, but the camp didn’t forget them. Every kid at home received a care package of cookies and messages of love and support.

“Most left for seven or eight days,” Vared said. “We were able to welcome [back] most of the people who went home … When they came back, it was an opportunity to celebrate, to welcome them back in.” Camp runs through Aug. 14.

Camp Tawonga near Yosemite has also experienced positive cases among campers and staff on site this summer. Campers who test positive are sent home. And for fellow campers who might have been exposed, Tawonga came up with a plan.

Makom Shalom, the outdoor amphitheater where Shabbat services are held at Camp Tawonga, was donated by the Leslie family. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Makom Shalom, the outdoor amphitheater where Shabbat services are held at Camp Tawonga. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

“We don’t want to send home a whole bunk,” said Jamie Simon-Harris, Tawonga’s executive director. “They became a pod. They have to quarantine for five days, but we want to make it special for them. They got an ice cream party and special time on the lake. The kids are so inspiring and resilient in their responses. The kids want to keep the rest of the camp safe.”

Jamie Simon
Jamie Simon-Harris

Simon-Harris said the camp’s protocols have reduced the spread of Covid on site. And for most campers, it’s the summer experience they hoped for. The final session ends Aug. 9.

“Camp is as special and magical as ever,” she said. “Having been through this pandemic, kids need camp more than ever, to be outside in community, living within Jewish values. The kids are grateful and happy.”

At Maccabi, which is affiliated with the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Steinharter said he is proud of his counselors and coaching staff, calling them “resilient and amazing in these situations. They stepped up. In terms of Covid, our protocols worked. It highlights how incredibly challenging this epidemic continues to be. As much as we want to be done with it, it’s not done with us. Right now, [ending the session early] stings a little, but when campers look back, they’ll focus on the friends they made and the community they were part of.”

Vared at Camp Newman echoed that sentiment.

“Covid in some ways is the narrative of our society,” he said, “but not the narrative of the experience people are having at camp. Camp is beautiful and deeply meaningful as ever. The joy is there, the friendships and the laughter are there. In many ways, it’s the cure to everything that’s happening in our world.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.