LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Every parent who has a child at sleepaway camp dreads the call. This summer the call came in the evening — not because my teenage son Micah was injured or had broken one of the camp’s rules.
The call came because of his hot head.
Camp Alonim’s nurse called me with the news that his temperature had gone above 99.5. In past years, this would mean that Micah would stay a day or two in the camp infirmary — an old house converted for such use. Not this summer.
This summer: Enter the virus. Due to a nationwide outbreak of what was originally called swine flu and is now known as H1N1, Jewish camps not wanting to be hit by an epidemic-related closure are sending campers home.
Symptoms are being checked. Temperatures taken. Kids are coming home.
According to an e-mail from Alonim’s executive director, Jordanna Flores, “in accordance with the recommendations laid out by the American Camping Association and the Centers for Disease Control,” the camp was “now asking families to pick up their campers who have a fever of 99.5 or greater and/or complaining of flu-like symptoms.” (Check out the CDC’s recommendations for summer camps: www.cdc.gov/H1N1flu/camp.htm.)
“Campers must be out of camp,” the e-mail continued, “for 7 days and be fever free for 24 hours in order to return. Flu-like symptoms include: fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, body aches.”
Micah, a 16-year-old counselor in training, was going to miss a week of camp.
So, at 9 p.m. that night, I took a drive out to the camp located in the foothills of Simi Valley about an hour’s drive north of downtown Los Angeles.
Why couldn’t Micah just stay out there for a few days until this whole thing cleared like past summers, I wondered while transitioning from one freeway to another. And why seven days? He probably will feel better in a day or two. Was the Jewish camp being overly cautious?
Illness at Jewish camps is a concern that goes back to the Bible. A Torah portion that we read in the spring, Tazria, details the priestly diagnosis and treatment of a skin disease called tzara’at. If you came down with it, you first needed to be quarantined for seven days.
Of course, then they didn’t have laptops to keep you company.
Just a few miles off the freeway, Camp Alonim, though in summer hot and dusty, is an oak tree-shaded, heimishly modern outpost of American Jewish life. Even at this hour, while I was driving on the camp road I saw scenes of kids dancing, strolling, making Jewish connections.
When I arrived, there he stood, in front of the infirmary, bags at his feet. He looked OK except he was wearing one of those white paper masks.
“I’m OK, Dad,” he said, when his eyes caught my look of concern.
As we drove, he told me that “over 100 other campers had been sent home, including a few counselors-in-training like him.” (The camp’s Web site has updated this figure to 160 campers out of 414.)
“Don’t worry,” he said, “none of you will come down with it.” But then he asked, “Do you have any Purell?”
The drive took less than an hour. Other parents from areas farther away were not so lucky. Airlines do not want to transport folks with the flu, so a few parents had to make a drive of several hundred miles to pick up their kids.
We pulled into the driveway.
“Wow, swine flu at a kosher camp,” offered one of my older sons as he greeted Micah at the door.
We visited the pediatrician the next day. After examining Micah, the doctor said that he thought it was the prudent thing for the camp to be sending sick kids home.
“At this point, all we should do is fluids, Advil and rest,” the doctor suggested.
That evening was Shabbat, and Micah was feeling much better as my wife lit the candles. He was even able to join us at dinner and join in greeting the Sabbath Queen, who presumably was flu free and healthy.
Two days later, on Monday, I discovered that even though Micah was home, camp was continuing — right here.
That morning he was sleeping late when a bulging padded package from Camp Alonim arrived.
“Bring back food and Yeshiva Boys mix tapes,” the outside of the mailer mysteriously said in a handwritten scrawl.
“What’s that about?” I asked. Micah on his laptop then showed me a hyperkinetic music video of a school of ebullient “Yeshiva boys.”
“We want to try something like this at camp,” he explained.
Inside the package were two handwritten notes and a small sealed jar from Team Alonim. One of the notes read, “Camp is not the same without you. Seriously, it looks like there’s only 4 people here.”
“What’s in the jar?’ I asked.
“Apple butter,” he responded. “At camp we always eat it on Shabbat.
"Try spreading it on challah,” he suggested. “When I eat it, it’s like I’m there.”
“Any other camp communications?” I asked.
“Other sick campers have e-mailed me,” he said. “We are telling each other to get well.”
And so, even at home, camp continues.