Summer Camps Look to Online Alternatives

Campers at Camp Havaya, 2019. Courtesy of Camp Havaya.

The scent of roasting barbecue and s’mores. The feel of sand or grass between one’s toes during a volleyball game. The hooting and hollering of a lively, raucous color war, or the recitation of a corny yet comforting summer camp anthem.

These are just a few of the things that many of Baltimore’s children will not be able to enjoy in person this year. As COVID-19 remains an ever-present threat, many summer camps frequented by Baltimore’s Jewish community are planning to keep their doors closed, while offering online activities to help keep children’s hands a bit less idle.

“Our summer will look completely different from any summer prior,” said Marty Rochlin, director of Camp Airy for Boys in Thurmont, speaking on behalf of both Camp Airy and its sister camp, Camp Louise for Girls, located in Cascade.

The camps announced May 27 that they would not be opening for the summer.

“We are working now to figure out a way to engage our campers and staff over the summer, virtually,” Rochlin continued, “knowing that it is impossible to replicate camp online, because camp is … the opposite of social distancing.”

Campers from Camps Airy and Louise at Camp Airy, 2019. Courtesy of Camps Airy & Louise.

Summer camps frequented by the local community that are planning to keep their physical doors closed this year also include Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in Street, Camp Ramah in the Poconos in Lakewood, Pa.; Camp Havaya in South Sterling, Pa., and Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pa. All of these have indicated that they either will be offering some type of online programming, or are exploring the option of doing so.

“We’re gonna be offering a five week summer program that’s open to kids who are already registered for our overnight program,” said Talia Rodwin, assistant director of Habonim Dror Camp Moshava. Taking place over Zoom, the programming would likely be two to four hours a week, Rodwin estimated, and would entail “community time, celebrating Shabbat together, and also learning blocks where [the children] continue learning about social justice, Judaism, Jewish community, and things like that.”

“Our virtual programming is all community focused,” said Lisa Handelman, camp director at Capital Camps. “We’ve done a couple of meetings with our campers and with our parents asking what they want most now that there’s not gonna be traditional camp. And what we hear again and again is kids connecting to kids, and kids connecting with counselors, and all those community connections.”

Campers at Camp Havaya, 2019. Courtesy of Camp Havaya.

Handelman said that while the magic of camp can’t truly be captured by Zoom, the program will work to maintain the connections that campers and counselors have with one another.

One issue that needs to be monitored during this process is so-called “Zoom fatigue,” according to Rabbi Joel Seltzer, executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. “I have a real concern that after three months of virtual schooling, the answer to giving kids social connections in the summer also being on that same platform worries me a bit,” Seltzer said. “I do think that there are kids and adults who at this point are growing a little bit tired [of those kinds of] experiences.”

As such, Seltzer views Ramah’s online programming less as a way of providing the perfect camp experience, and more as a way of maintaining a flourishing and connected community that could still gather together during future summers.

Campers at Camp Havaya, 2019. Courtesy of Camp Havaya.

For parents who have already paid the expense of reserving a spot for their child at a summer camp that will not be opening, a number of options are available. Camp Havaya, for instance, is offering refunds to families, according to Camp Director Sheira Director-Nowack. Alternatively, families at Havaya also have the option of rolling what they paid over to next year, or leaving it with Havaya as a donation.

Regarding the cost of the online programs, many are expected to be free of charge, including for Camps Airy and Louise and Habonim Dror Camp Moshava. “Camps are figuring out whether there can be a revenue stream attached to [virtual programming],” said Seltzer, “but there are significant challenges to that model as well.”

A few camps are still considering the possibility of organizing some in-person events over the summer, depending on the situation. This includes the JCC of Greater Baltimore. In addition, Capital Camps is brainstorming ideas for gatherings in informal settings at outside locations, or for allowing family units to use their cabins while maintaining social distance from non-family members, according to Handelman.

“This has been hardest on our nation’s children and our local children, and if we can figure out a way to get them out of their houses, even if it’s out of their houses with their family in a small group, we want to try to figure that out,” Handelman said. “We definitely are motivated by: What does our community need? How can we help repair the social/emotional health? Because I think that’s been a real devastating impact of COVID, is that social/emotional health of our kids in our community.”

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