Jewish Summer Camps Go Virtual

July 13, 2020 – By LILA SARICK

There are no canoe trips, lake swims or campfires, but Jewish camps have pivoted to the virtual world to try and give campers a taste of summer.

With residential summer camps cancelled for the season because of COVID, many camps are offering free online programming, hoping to keep campers in touch with their friends and to give parents a break.

“Our big goal is for kids to feel connected while their world is upside down,” said Simon Wolle, executive director of Camp Northland B’nai Brith, (NBB) in Haliburton, Ont.

Camps are trying to change the face of virtual programming, especially for kids who may have found online education frustrating, Wolle said.

Northland, like other camps, offers a mix of activities to appeal to a wide variety of ages. There have been three-day classes led by professionals to teach kids magic or animation, as well as programs to learn the 2020 camp dance, trivia games and scavenger hunts.

Later in the summer, the camp will hold its annual Olympics event, which is “a huge rite of passage,” at camp, Wolle said. This year, alumni will be invited to compete on their childhood teams.

“Thousands of people have said ‘if I could have more chance to go to camp…’ now they have that chance,” Wolle said.

Summer camps which have switched to online programming have proven popular. The online version of Camp NBB, which is open to the entire community not just enrolled campers, had about 250 kids registered by the end of the first week.

Camp Ramah in Canada, which has 580 campers in Ontario’s cottage country, went online early during the pandemic with cooking classes, weekly Havdalah services and other activities.

But once the camp learned that it would not open this summer, staff began planning for a three-week program, with activities for different age groups.

“We had staff who said they wanted to do this. We did a whole separate training for them,” said Aviva Millstone, associate director of Camp Ramah in Canada.

Activities over the three weeks include sports, where campers are invited to go outside with a basketball and their screens and get some tips from counselors; Zumba; and camp-style programs like trivia.

Teenage campers who were supposed to have been in Israel this summer will spend three days a week with educators in Israel, and visit various sites virtually.

While online camp can’t replace an actual summer experience, counsellor Jake Offenheim did the next best thing and recreated Camp Ramah on Minecraft, designing a virtual playground for campers.

Building an exact replica of the camp took him about 150 hours, he said. Campers, accompanied by their counsellors, can visit places in camp, such as the basketball court or the gym and play a variety of games on the site.

Offenheim, who would have been head of canoeing at camp this summer, is now head of E-sports.

“Your kids are going to be playing video games,” he said. “Why not have them in a space with their friends and under supervision? It’s the closest thing to camp that we can do right now.”

Young Judaea camps across the country also moved online at the start of the pandemic, and the organization’s eight camps are continuing to offer programming, said Mark Kachuck, national education director of Canadian Young Judaea.

Each camp takes a turn leading Kabbalat Shabbat services, and a camp-wide flagpole ceremony on July 1 attracted over 200 people online.

Every camp also offers programs for the campers who had registered for the summer, with unit programs for younger campers, and leadership development training for the older ones.

Camp Machane Lev, a one-week program for LGBTQ campers, was also cancelled, delivering a huge blow to campers “who feel they can’t be their true selves at home,” Kachuck said.

The camp is reaching out to them and is exploring running a physically distanced day camp later in the summer.

Young Judaea had been hopeful that its Israel program would run, but in the end, it, too, was cancelled, although parents overwhelmingly supported it.

“Of all summers, it’s a hard one to miss,” Kachuck said. “It’s heart-wrenching. I feel for these kids, they’ve lost a lot.”

Young Judaea, which has 1,800 campers over the summer, is offering online programs over the six weeks that camp would have been in session.

“With our virtual programming we can’t replace camp, but there’s still things we can do that call on that love for camp,” Kachuck said. “A lot of it is bringing that camp spirit and enthusiasm.”

Visit Camp Northland B’nai Brith here.