The Jewish Summer Camp Season: Mostly Heartbreak

Camp Gesher, Ontario, Canada

By BARBARA SILVERSTEIN

The news that many camp communities in Ontario had been dreading came on May 19, when Premier Doug Ford announced that overnight camps would not be permitted to operate this summer.

The bad news began earlier, when on April 30, an email went out to Camp George campers and their families saying the 2020 summer camp season was cancelled.

By the Victoria Day weekend, the season was over for Camp Kadimah in Nova Scotia. Camp Ramah in Ontario had axed its first session about a week earlier.

These camps are among the more than 20 Jewish overnight camps across Canada that have been grappling with the impact of COVID.

Spokespersons for camps and letters to families posted on websites shared a common theme: Sadness and regret about the cancellation of the 2020 camp season.

Camp George executive director Jeff Rose called the cancellation “devastating” for his community.

“We all look forward to camp – the campers, the staff, the faculty and the professionals,” Rose told The CJR.

Located about 25 kms east of Parry Sound, Ont., Camp George is run by the U.S.-based Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). None of the URJ’s 15 summer camps will be operating this summer.

Rose said the URJ had planned for all contingencies in response to COVID.

“Every path led us to same outcome,” he said. “We could not open up camp. We could not assure our community that we would be able to keep the campers safe.”

In an announcement on its website, Camp Kadimah, which runs a summer camp in Nova Scotia, said it had made “the very difficult decision” to cancel the 2020 season for the first time in its 77-year history.

“We are truly pained by this decision and share in the disappointment of our entire Kadimah community,” the camp said.

Camp Ramah, located in Ontario’s Muskoka region, initially cancelled its first session. A letter on its website said the decision was made “with heavy hearts, but with clarity of mind that although this is not what we want, it is what we are compelled to do.”

While the letter referred to the first session, the full camp season is now officially cancelled.

For Jewish communal camps outside Ontario, the decision to open this summer is a waiting game predicated on the health and safety of campers and staff, and their respective provincial guidelines.  

Danial Sprintz, executive director of Camp Massad Manitoba, was uncertain about the summer. In an email, Sprintz wrote: “At this time we are not sure about the status of summer camp. We should know more by June 1, but I am currently planning on operating.”

Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa, located in Quyon, Que., is also in a “holding pattern,” said executive director Cindy Presser Benedek. 

“We’re waiting to hear from the Quebec government before we make our final call…It’s a really stressful time.”

She said she’s grateful that camp families are being patient. “They are respectful that we’re taking our time.” 

Risa Epstein, national executive director of Canadian Young Judaea (CYJ), said three affiliated camps, Kinneret and Biluim in Quebec and Camp Hatikvah in British Columbia, are also waiting to finalize decisions for the 2020 summer season.  

Other CYJ-affiliated camps, Shalom, Solelim and Machane Lev – all in Ontario – will not open this summer.

Epstein pointed out that although Camp Kadimah is in Nova Scotia, 80 percent of its campers come from Ontario.  

While the incidence of COVID is low in Nova Scotia, transporting the Ontario campers there would have presented a major health challenge, she said. “There were concerns around planes and the flights. The camp knew that it wasn’t going to work.”

Epstein said she was hopeful about running CYJ’s teen summer program in Israel. “We cancelled our original dates…it depends on the travel advisories.

“Things are opening up in Israel,” she said. “If there is any way to get the children to travel to Israel, we will, but we’re not going risk the health and safety of our participants.”

The Israel component is important to several other Zionist communal camps, but it is critical for Heart to Heart, a youth leadership program for Palestinian and Jewish youth from Israel. The program is held annually in Ontario.

A group of 20 Israeli teens equally divided between Palestinians and Jews spend three weeks together at Camp Shomria, where they are integrated into the summer camp program.

Through the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, Heart to Heart partners with Givat Haviva, an Israeli organization that recruits and prepares the teens for their summer in Canada.

Jenny Isaacs, director of Heart to Heart, lamented that the program would not be running this year. Givat Haviva programming had been suspended due to COVID social distancing requirements, and so preparations for the Canada experience had not been completed.

Rachel Saslove, executive director of Camp Shomria, said the camp will be offering some kind of programming over the summer, but the “magical experience” of being at camp is irreplaceable.

“We will have to move forward to imagine what 2021 will look like. That’s what’s helping me get through what will be a very big loss this summer.” 

Camp Gesher in Ontario and Camp Miriam on Gabriola Island, B.C. in British Colombia are affiliated with Habonim Dror, a Zionist youth movement that also runs four camps in the United States. The U.S. camps and Camp Gesher will be closed, while Camp Miriam continues to wait for provincial directives. 

Camp Gesher, Ontario, Canada
Camp Gesher (Photo Credit: Matthew Winick)

Shoshana Lipschultz, director of Camp Gesher, said the cancellation of camp “is devastating for the campers, the staff and the families. We all live for those 10 weeks of camp. The staff love it as much as the campers. They were all so enthusiastic about this summer.”

Trilby Smith, a board member and a former director at Camp Miriam in Vancouver, summed up the importance of a Jewish summer camp experience: “I think that for many people, camp is their point of connection with the Jewish community. Not having that could be really sad for those families and kids.”