As her 12-year-old daughter got ready for the start of day camp Monday morning, Lisa R. of Bellmore, L.I., admonished her: “I don’t want you to be running and hugging all your friends — and practice social distancing.”
Asked if she thought her daughter would follow that directive, Lisa replied, “Yes, today and tomorrow. I’m confident the staff will be reiterating it and making sure there is proper hand washing and that other hygiene precautions are taken.”
Lisa said her daughter has been to the camp, the Bernice Jacobson Day School & Camp in Old Westbury, L.I., since she was 2 and “knows everybody and they know her. It was important that after not having [in-person] school all this time to be able to socialize with children her own age and to have physical activities. And she was anxious to see her friends.”
While sleepaway camps in the state have been closed, Jewish day camps have been cautiously opening with a combination of coronavirus testing, temperature checks and activities meant to enforce social distancing. Enrollment is down, but the camps and their funders think it is important to offer children and their parents as normal a summer as they can.
The Jacobson Day School and Camp is operated by the Sid Jacobson JCC in East Hills, L.I. It is one of several JCCs on Long Island that opened their day camps on Monday. The JCC of Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale opened its day camp on Tuesday with about 50 campers ages 3 through 14. Unlike prior years, each child had to bring his own lunch.
All of the day camps conduct a health screening of campers and counselors when they arrive; the Long Island camps also do a temperature check at lunchtime. Counselors are required to wear a mask at all times, but campers must wear one only when entering and leaving camp.
The day camp openings occurred as a federal judge backed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to keep all overnight camps in the state closed. The Association of Jewish Camp Operators, which represents Orthodox camps, had filed suit last month claiming that by allowing the opening of day camps, Cuomo was favoring one group of camps over another, a potential violation of religious freedom. The association also sought a restraining order that would have allowed overnight camps to operate while the issue was litigated, but U.S. District Court Judge Glenn Suddaby in Albany said it had not made a compelling enough case.
Meanwhile, a Modern Orthodox camp in Pennsylvania delayed its opening after a counselor tested positive for the coronavirus upon arriving at Camp Seneca Lake, one of the few Jewish overnight camps to open in the Northeast.
Elsewhere, a delay in getting the results of coronavirus tests forced the Sid Jacobson JCC to prevent nearly 20 counselors from reporting for work at its three day camps this week, according to David Black, the JCC’s executive director. All counselors had been required to have a negative test within five days of the start of camp, and Black said he hired more counselors than needed in the event this might happen.
Should the governor not allow the opening of gyms, Black said there are plans to erect a tent in the parking lot for exercise classes.
Rick Lewis, CEO of the Mid-Island Y JCC and the Suffolk Y JCC, said that unlike in prior years there is no bus transportation to the camps and there are no field trips. As a result, he said, camp fees have been reduced.
UJA-Federation of New York is subsidizing the 17 camp programs at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds this summer in Wheatley Heights, L.I., and Staten Island (its camp in upstate Pearl River did not open because of health department regulations). The budget is part of the up to $6.3 million the organization is spending to support residential and day camps this summer because of the importance of camps in “Jewish identity building, Jewish education, and in terms of having positive experiences,” said Deborah Joselow, UJA-Federation’s chief planning officer.
“For some families, camp is the only Jewish experience they have,” she said. “The big secret is that it has more of an impact on counselors, who learn and lead and teach and exercise their leadership skills while testing their own beliefs and values.”
Several camp officials said they have spoken with parents who would like to enroll their children but kept them home this week because of concerns about the coronavirus. But Joselow said she believes that “if all goes well, they will send them the second week. … All of the community centers are working with parents to keep the kids safe. We all want a safe and healthy environment and understand the parents’ need for flexibility.”
Nicole Helfman, the camp director of the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack, L.I., said she has 63 campers this summer instead of the normal 200 and that although some parents “pulled out right before camp started, others registered at the last minute. Things went beautifully today. I got choked up seeing all the smiling faces on the kids as they ran around with their friends, including my own kids. Seeing the smiles today made all of the work we put into this worth it. My two kids came home saying this was an amazing day. They needed it after being on their iPad and watching TV all day. I heard one camper tell his mother that it was the best day of camp ever.”
Campers are being kept in groups of between 10 and 15 and each group will remain together for all activities throughout the summer, according to Debra Kessler, director of Summer Streeters, one of the camps at the Sid Jacobson JCC.
She said that if parents want to enroll their children now, the camp will wait to get another group together rather than add to existing groups.
Although day camps normally operate for eight weeks, Kessler said the Bernice Jacobson Day School & Camp delayed opening for one week in order to “train the counselors in sterilization and to clean everything in the rooms, which are constantly being cleaned.”
Another change this summer is that although the camps are opening their indoor pools, the number of people in the pool area will be limited and there will be no lockers or showers available.
Lewis noted that because all activities are outdoors, camp will be canceled if it rains in the morning and parents will be notified of an early pickup should it rain later in the day.
The JCCs in Manhattan did not open summer camps this week but rather launched a virtual program Monday called Summer in the Cloud, a seven-week program for children entering kindergarten through sixth grade. It is held mornings between 9:30 and noon, and there is an optional program from 4 to 5 p.m.
“The kids pick their activities for one week at a time,” explained Genna Singer, director of camps at the Marlene Meyerson JCC. “We offer eight choices per age group.”
The program, a partnership between the Meyerson JCC, the 14th Street Y and the Y of Washington Heights, is subsidized with a grant from UJA-Federation.
“We started this morning with 75 attendees and we are looking to double that number each week,” Singer said.
Among the activities are arts and crafts and learning how to make a podcast, including how to conduct interviews, storytelling, recording on Zoom and editing. There is a maximum of 10 students per activity each week.
Parents wishing to sign up have until Wednesday of the prior week to register their children.