Jewish summer camps planning for a safe, successful summer

By Angelica Haggert

Ten for two. 

If you know what this means you are likely a “camp person” and understand that you spend 10 months of the year, dreaming about the two months you get to spend at Jewish residential camp. Last May, when the government announced that sleep away camps would not be allowed to run, Camp B’nai Bnai of Ottawa, like many others changed the slogan to 22 for two: 22 months dreaming and planning for what is hoped will be an idyllic two months; July and August 2021. 

If you went to summer camp as a child, you know the memories you made have lasted a lifetime and immediately appreciate this slogan. 

Last summer, day camps were permitted to continue — at the last minute and with reduced capacities — while residential overnight camps couldn’t proceed. 

At Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa, director Cindy Benedek said the government’s decision was particularly painful as it. was supposed to be CBB’s 85th year of camp.

Like many people, Benedek was “born and raised” in a camp setting. From attending as a child, through a counsellor-in-training program and then ultimately to spending summers making camp magic happen for other kids — camp experiences tend to form who you become and what you choose to do with your life. There’s a series of huge life moments that camp brings you that CBB kids didn’t get to experience last summer. 

“I have three children and for my oldest, it was supposed to be her first time being a staff member,” said Benedek. “My middle child was supposed to be a CIT, one of the best summers you have at camp. We lost a lot of milestone moments. We had this moment as a family mourning the loss of the summer.”

Devora Caytak, with Camp Gan Israel said being able to ultimately hold some form of camp last summer was a shock. 

“We didn’t know if we’d be able to have camp and we found out in June that we could have camp,” said Caytak. For those who have ever been involved in camp planning or even registered a child for a summer camp session, you’d know that camps registration usually opens late-winter, with planning beginning for the next summer as soon as summer ends. 

“We were thinking ‘Should we, should we not,’ and finally we decided we would have it and follow the government protocol — staff had to wear masks and social distance … when parents dropped off their kids, we met them at the entrance and screened them and took their temperature and accepted them into camp.”

At the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, the doors closed mid-March and didn’t open again for four months, until mid-July. 

“We opened solely at that point to operate a modified day camp program,” said SJCC president and COO Barry Sohn.

Pre-pandemic the SJCC camp would have 700-800 children registered, with 400 kids on site in camp programs any given week.  

“At capacity with our reduced capacity, we were accommodating 200 children on site — roughly half of what we could do before the pandemic,” said Sohn.

Because the announcement for day camps to run was so last minute, Caytak at Camp Gan Israel only ended up with about 20 kids registered — but the staff worked hard to make it both fun and safe for everyone on site.

“Those kids that came, every morning they had a big smile on their face and they were so happy to be at camp. Kids need to be around other kids,” said Caytak. “Everybody was really careful and I think the parents really wanted their kids to be at camp. I was so afraid if someone contracted the virus we’d have to close down — and it didn’t happen.” 

There were also no COVID scares at SJCC and they plan to capitalize on their success for summer 2021.

“People are hungry to have things to do for their children. This has been a nightmare year in terms of parents with young children,” said Sohn. “We were very successful last summer, our screenings and our staff and managing the pandemic — everyone was very aware of the protocols established. We intend to do all that again this summer. We do not anticipate that there will be any lessening of the protocols. We know based on what we did last summer what we’re doing already for this summer.”

At CBB, they’ve now had a full year to plan as much as possible for the ever-changing conditions of the pandemic. 

“We expect that there will be protocols like a closed bubble, so we’ve decided to plan for that,” said Benedek. CBB will test kids on arrival and keep them in small cohorts for a yet-to-be-determined time period before opening up programming to a wider group.”  

Ontario and Quebec camp associations are already lobbying their provincial governments to acknowledge the importance of residential camps and their impacts on kids’ mental health.  All camps actively work on their COVID protocols to ensure the experience is safe and positive.

“Camp is a very dynamic experience, both for your Jewish identity but also development and socialization for children at all ages,” said SJCC’s Sohn. “Without  camp, there’s a definite void.”

Hopefully that void will be filled for kids of all ages in a Jewish camp setting this summer.  It is clear that Ottawa camps are well prepared, eager and optimistic.

Visit each camp’s website to learn more about how they’re planning for summer 2021:

Soloway JCC Camps
Camp B'Nai Brith of Ottawa
Camp Gan Israel


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