With their quiet surroundings, unique traditions and opportunities for old friends to reunite, Jewish summer camps often are regarded as an escape from day-to-day life.
This year, however, in the wake of unprecedented terror attacks in both the United States and Israel, even summer camps are not immune from international concerns.
The new climate has led most American Jewish camps to step up security.
Many Jewish camps already increased security two and a half years ago, after a gunman burst into the lobby of a Los Angeles-area JCC and injured five people, including three young children.
However, security is getting considerably more attention at camps this summer. Recent revelations that the Al-Qaida terror network had plans to target American Jewish institutions likely will further increase security concerns.
“The question we’re asked every day by parents is what you’re doing about security. and what will you do if something like Sept. 11 happens,” said Harvey Finkelberg, executive director of Camp Tamarack, a community- wide Jewish camp in Michigan. “Those are things that were never asked before.”
In response, Finkelberg said, the camp has installed new gates and security cameras.
Since Sept. 11, several regional Jewish camp associations have convened special meetings on security measures, and there were workshops on the topic at the most recent convention of the North American Alliance for Jewish Youth.
Like Tamarack, many Jewish sleepaway camps have installed electronically controlled gates and have hired full- or part-time security guards to control who enters.
This winter, the Reform movement brought in Israeli security consultants to evaluate each of its camps, and as a result has invested in new gates, guards and emergency lighting.
All 12 Reform movement camps will have 24-hour security patrols.
Emergency training has been expanded, with staff going through role plays to prepare them for dealing with intruders, as well as training for dealing with “all kinds of emergencies,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of youth programs for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah network also has been upgrading security, getting “closer and closer to 24-7” guards in every camp, said Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, Ramah’s national director.
Visitors to Ramah camps now have to call ahead. The camps also have discouraged families from sending packages and mail, urging them to communicate by e-mail.
Despite increased precautions, most in the camping world acknowledge that no method is foolproof in keeping away a determined intruder, especially since most summer camps are on sprawling, wooded lots that are impossible to fully enclose in gates.
“Any camp that has a lot of acres, if someone wants to walk into the camp, they can,” Finkelberg said. “But we want to limit the amount of people that come in that aren’t authorized.”
While wanting to reassure skittish parents that security measures are in place, camp directors say they are nervous that talking too much about it will give the impression that camps are dangerous.
In fact, they say, the opposite is true.
“In general, most camps feel they are relatively less at risk compared to a lot of other places,” said Rabbi Ramie Arian, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Camping.
“If you’re a terrorist you’re probably more likely to target an urban area than a small camp in the middle of nowhere, which is where the overnight camps mostly are.”
But the likelihood of terrorism, Arian noted, is considerably lower than that of more mundane security concerns, such as health and weather emergencies.
“In the sleepaway camp world, in general the assessment is that you probably have a significantly greater risk of kidnapping of children by non-custodial parents than you do from terrorist activities,” Arian said.
Finkelberg said he is trying to reassure nervous parents, telling them that even in the event of a terror attack somewhere in the United States, they should let their children stay at camp.
“The safest place your child can be is at camp,” he said.