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Jewish camps review safety measures in wake of Ramah tragedy

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Lake safety training is a regular focus during staff week at Union for Reform Judaism Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Mass. (Union for Reform Judaism)

Lake safety training is a regular focus during staff week at Union for Reform Judaism Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Mass. (Union for Reform Judaism)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — It’s the nightmare of every parent — and every teacher, youth leader and camp director.

When a child dies in an accident while in someone else’s care, the agonizing questions begin: Could we have done anything different? Were all the proper procedures followed? And above all, how can we keep children safe while still ensuring that they have a fun and meaningful summer?

The Jewish camping community is asking such questions with the death of Andrew Silvershein, 16, of Davie, Fla., who drowned June 19 on a whitewater rafting trip during his first week at Ramah Darom, a Conservative movement summer camp in northern Georgia.

“For all of us in the business, this is the No. 1 thing on our mind,” said Len Robinson, executive director of the New Jersey Y Camps. “At the end of the summer, when the last child is delivered home to their parents, you feel the weight of the world lifted from your shoulders. Unfortunately, things happen.”

Everything was done correctly in this case, camp professionals say: A trained guide was in every raft, and every child was wearing a life jacket and helmet.

The current was strong, the raft overturned and Silvershein was wedged under a rock. He was pulled out, but it was too late. He was buried three days later.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Andrew’s family and friends, and with the Ramah Darom community,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “It’s clear that camps are tremendously safe places. This was just a senseless and tragic accident.”

Nevertheless, Jewish camp directors have been reviewing their safety measures.

Rabbi Paul Resnick, the longtime director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, said his staff immediately began re-checking the camp’s standards to make sure that they comply with the regulations of the American Camping Association, as well as of the New York Board of Health. And this summer’s programming does not include whitewater rafting.

“We certainly believe in outdoor adventure, and although there is always some risk, we believe we have a very well-trained staff, use reliable trip providers and that we are following all safety protocols,” Resnick said, adding that he also offers his sympathy and support to the Ramah Darom community.

Many camps had not started their seasons and were still running training weeks for counselors and other staff when the Darom tragedy occurred. Safety, which is always stressed, camp directors say, was underlined yet again.

Although many families of Ramah Darom campers were in touch right after the accident, some asking about particular safety protocols, Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, says that none withdrew their children or canceled their registration.

National Ramah is the umbrella organization for eight overnight camps, three day camps and Ramah Israel programs.

Directors of other Jewish camps say the number of calls from parents concerned about the safety of their children has not increased. Those calls come anyway, they say.

“Parents are more involved in asking questions today,” said Robinson, who has been in the Jewish camping business for 45 years. “Industry standards have remained at the same high level since the 1970s. It’s the parents’ concerns that have changed.”

Some practical changes have been made in the past few decades, he says. Diving boards were taken out of camp pools, for example, for fear of accidents. Campers now wear life jackets, not just life belts, while water skiing. And lifesaving and rescue techniques are constantly being upgraded as knowledge increases.

Even the materials used in some equipment is different. Life jackets used to be filled with a material that became unusable if waterlogged, Robinson says. The newer jackets are more resistant, and buckle easier and more securely.

“We have better and stronger materials today, some from the space program,” he said, mentioning nylon as one NASA-developed material now in wide use.

Paul Reichenbach, the director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, says the union has made nearly $750,000 worth of security upgrades to its camps over the past decade. URJ camps have new fences and 24-hour guards, and have installed gates and security lights. An Israeli security firm runs training sessions for its camp directors and staff every summer to teach them how to evacuate buildings and look for a missing child, as well as other emergency tactics.

“We have never had a serious incursion, but it’s what we do for the health and security of our children,” he said.

The URJ isn’t alone, Reichenbach stresses.

“Lots of camps have significantly upgraded their security,” he said. “Things have changed. It’s part of our commitment to families and to ourselves.”

Still, he says, children are killed virtually every summer, whether in Jewish or non-Jewish programs. In 2002, a six-year-old girl drowned at a JCC summer camp in northern California. In 2009, a 14-year-old girl was killed at a JCC camp in Pennsylvania when a tree fell on her tent.

“It’s the reality we live in,” Reichenbach said. “We have active programs. It doesn’t mean you stop swimming. After a tragedy you redouble your protocols and ask yourself the tough questions: Are we doing everything we can?”

Ramah Darom has “incredibly high standards,” Reichenbach noted, and they work with “an excellent company” to ensure that they get the best safety training and preparation.

Transparency is key, say those interviewed. Parents want to know the risks, how safety will be ensured and how emergencies will be handled.

Immediately after the Silvershein tragedy, Ramah Darom staff alerted the families of the other campers by e-mail and phone. Grief counselors were called in to supplement the camp’s rabbis and social workers as part of an ongoing healing process.

Fingerman says he is “tremendously impressed” with how Ramah Darom has been handling the tragedy, and with how the rest of the camping world has reached out to the camp.

More than 800 mourners attended the funeral, he notes, and many of them hugged the camp director and board chair to show support, even as they were trying to support the grieving family.

Instead of turning away from the camp, the Silversheins have created a scholarship fund in Andrew’s memory, so other Jewish children can attend camp. And their daughter, Andrew’s younger sister, is expected to return to Ramah Darom after the shiva, or week of mourning.

“The family stated how important camp was in his life,” Fingerman said. “They said he’d never want this tragedy to destroy the joy other kids could have at camp.”

(Julie Wiener of The New York Jewish Week contributed to this report.)

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