By Lisa Handelman
Jewish tradition strongly focuses on the importance of community, on our obligation to provide food, shelter, clothing and medical care to those in need. The current global pandemic necessitates that we work collaboratively and creatively to meet new and growing needs.
At Capital Camps & Retreat Center, we focused first on the physical safety of campers and staff and thus closed traditional summer camp. We began to look for new ways to serve our community.
[email protected] was born out of the idea that our vast campus should and could be utilized during the summer of 2020, even if our conventional business of camping and traditional retreating was paused.
Listening to our camp families and the greater community, we heard the desperate need to connect in a physically safe way. “We were desperate for a getaway,” one family shared, “the ideas of meals and activities planned and the thought put into safety during the pandemic motived us to register for [email protected]” The COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic event that is taking a social-emotional toll on our community. There is a need for a change of scenery, a space that provides rest and rejuvenation, and the opportunity to enjoy being outdoors.
[email protected] is the collaborative effort of our camp and retreat teams, a full agency initiative. From daily screening and schedules that included limiting numbers at the lake and pool, to individual family archery time and private camp fires, we designed a program for family units to remain physically distant while still being part of a shared experience. Our lovely 270 acres were used in new ways as families brought bikes, their own sports equipment and fishing rods. For many, this was their first Shabbat gathering they had been able to safely attend with others since COVID-19 began.
There were lessons learned at [email protected] that can be shared with the broader community. We learned that groups can come together in a way that is respectful of each other’s space. All ages were willing to wear masks consistently, and everyone was able to politely follow reasonable health and safety protocols. We also discovered that camp is not restricted to any specific age group. We had young children, teens, young adults, parents and grandparents. We provided a space for family reunions as three generations came together because our space provided a safe way to gather. When asked to partner with an agency interested in providing this type of respite to their employees and their families, we were able to provide space for colleagues who were able to have productive, distant meetings outdoors for the first time since COVID-19.
When we started, we didn’t know how deep an impact [email protected] would have on all of us. Our year-round staff found a renewed sense of purpose as family after family shared how thankful they were for the opportunity to come to camp. Our counselors and summer leadership staff expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be together at camp. And our families shared how stress was lifted from their shoulders, how they relaxed for the first time in months and found joy in watching their children play outdoors.
We are continuing [email protected] into the fall to allow additional families a chance to step away from the every day. We are working with nonprofits and small businesses to provide space for members and colleagues to gather.
Shabbat traditionally provides a gift of rest and rejuvenation. We know that this time of pause is good for us in many ways, including socially and emotionally. We are both proud and humbled that by creating [email protected] we were able to provide families a chance to pause and heal, a chance to experience a little bit of summer camp magic.
Camp Director Lisa Handelman, of Capital Camps & Retreat Center, is a Jewish educator with more 30 years of experience working with children, teens, young adults and families.