John Ruskay, my incredible predecessor, attributes his lifelong commitment to our community to a transformational summer at Camp Ramah in Nyack. In his words, “The experience of those first Shabbatot seared my soul.”
That’s why for so many months now UJA’s been concerned about what the summer camp season would look like in 2020. As with everything coronavirus related, there were a slew of uncertainties. Tens of thousands of children were unsure if they could attend camp. Parents were in child care limbo. Camps couldn’t begin the hiring, training, and other regular functions gearing up for summer.
So, we started planning. For every scenario.
All that preparation meant that early this month when Governor Cuomo gave the green light for summer day camps to open on June 29 (with safety restrictions in place), UJA and our partners were ready.
Back in April, we decided to provide our Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds rent-free to any of the 15 JCC camps and other organizations that opened at HKC this summer, absorbing the full cost of running and maintaining the 500+ acres of property ourselves. With parents still hesitating to sign children up and social distancing rules necessitating smaller camp groups, many camps are at 50% capacity, significantly impacting revenue. Not having to pay any rent — a total savings of approximately $3 million for those JCCs operating this summer at HKC — allows the JCCs to deploy those resources for other critical uses.
And camp isn’t just for younger children. For teens and young adults who work as counselors, it provides much-needed income and a way to gain valuable leadership skills. Typically, many camp counselors are paid through New York City’s Summer Youth Employment program. But the city cut the program this year, leaving several agencies, including our partner JCCs, with no budget to hire these teens as counselors. UJA is helping fill a piece of that gap, providing over $300,000 to JCCs so they can hire counselors.
As another way to keep teens and young adults engaged this summer, we’re working with Repair the World to develop two local community service programs, one for teens, and one for 18- to 29- year-olds, as part of a National Jewish Service Alliance.
And for the thousands of children who won’t be going to camp in person, we’re granting $200,000 to support Summer in the Cloud, a virtual camp platform that will, for the first time, bring together 21 local JCCs under one umbrella, giving campers and families across the region a way to stay engaged.
Unlike day camps, the residential summer camps in our network didn’t get the go-ahead to open, which means many are facing serious financial difficulties. We’re offering more than $2 million to match any funds raised by these camps to help ensure they can open next summer.
In early winter, when most parents started signing up their children for camp, none of us could have imagined just how grateful we’d be for any form of camp season — truncated and different as it may be. We didn’t imagine that many children would be singing their camp songs at computer screens. But we knew then — and still know now — that Jewish summer camps are critical to our Jewish future. And we’re committed to ensuring they’ll always be there as a starting point for so many Jewish journeys.
Who knows — maybe because of our investments today, the next John Ruskay will attend camp this summer or next, and one day lead our Jewish community into the future.
P.S. To learn about other virtual summer opportunities, check out FindYourSummer.org, a website funded jointly by UJA-Federation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, and operated by the Jewish Education Project.