Kids head to camp from home with more on their minds, post-Oct. 7
Kids at summer camp. Credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“We recognize this summer will be unlike any other, even as many are looking for a sense of normalcy and opportunities to have fun,” says Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

By Faygie Holt
June 21, 2024

With the school year ended and the camp season beginning, parents throughout the United States will start logging onto social media or email accounts to see photos of their children splashing in a pool, performing in a play, hitting a home run, sitting by a campfire—all the key moments of life at summer camp.

The images are a stark contrast to a social-media post by the group Bring Them Home, featuring a photo of a young Omer Neutra standing beside his bunk at Camp Young Judea Sprout Lake in New York’s Hudson Valley. “Omer deserves to be back home in America enjoying his summer, not in a tunnel in Gaza being terrorized by Hamas,” says the post about the 22-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., who is among the estimated 120 people still being held captive by the terror group nine months after the infiltration of Israel’s southern border on Oct. 7 and the assault on Jewish communities there.

The two posts are a reminder of the deep duality facing Jews in the aftermath of that Black Shabbat and Israel’s ensuing war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which unleashed a wave of antisemitism around the world. Through that lens, this year’s summer camp experience is unlike any other, and one that has led to changes and rethinking of programs, staff and campers in terms of emotional needs and physical security.

“From counselors and campers to professionals and alumni, all our camp communities are continuing to process the heartbreak, trauma and grief of the horrific attacks of Oct. 7,” says Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “We recognize this summer will be unlike any other, even as many are looking for a sense of normalcy and opportunities to have fun.”

Fingerman estimates that 180,000 children, teens and young adults will take part in one of the 300-plus camps that are in the foundation’s network of Jewish day and overnight camps this year, a number that exceeds pre-pandemic enrollment.

“The rise in antisemitism around the world weighs heavily on me. It makes what Jewish camps do for our children as important as ever: building Jewish identity and community,” said Jonathan Cohen, president of the Cohen Camps, which includes three overnight camps and two teen experiences.

To say that kids need time to destress and enjoy being young this year is an understatement, according to Jeffrey Lichtman, clinical psychologist and director of Student Mental Health Services at Touro University.

“In a time when the Jewish community, adults and children alike, is experiencing an enormous increase in antisemitism—the largest since the Holocaust—the potential impact of camp becomes even greater and more necessary,” he says. “Camp provides an opportunity to get away from social media, the news, the parental/familial and communal conversations, and the police in synagogue parking lots,” given the increased security around many Jewish institutions.

The whole environment, continues Lichtman, accentuates “the positives of Jewish identity, community and peoplehood, and of Jewish religious and spiritual life, all in a more spirited and experiential manner.”

Fingerman agrees: “More than ever, young Jews need this summer to disconnect, discuss, heal, feel a sense of belonging and have fun.”

Yet providing for the needs of campers and staff—some of whom are shlichim (“emissaries”) from Israel—presents a daunting challenge.

“Since the horrors of Oct. 7 and the subsequent rise of antisemitic activity in North America, FJC has been working to ensure that the 300-plus Jewish camps in our network have the resources, tools and guidance necessary to address the critical challenges of their communities for this coming summer,” Fingerman says.

Kids at summer camp. Credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp.

‘It really hit home here’

To that end, FJC conducted a survey earlier this year looking at the most urgent needs facing Jewish camps this summer. They are broken down into several categories, with two of the main needs being increased security and “MESSH”—mental, emotional, social and spiritual health.

Finding ways to talk about what is happening in Israel isn’t always easy for adults let alone for kids. For that reason, the Union of Reform Judaism, which runs a network of 14 camps with an estimated 10,000 people involved in their immersive summer experiences, will be utilizing a relatively new program from the URJ called “Talk for a Change” to “facilitate meaningful engagement across lines of difference as we face the opportunities and challenges before us,” says Ruben Arquilevich, URJ’s vice president of camps and immersives.

At Herzl Camp in Wisconsin, almost everything is related to Israel. Founded in 1946, the camp grew up with the State of Israel, a photo of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir greets campers as they enter the grounds, and every morning they greeted with Boker Tov Machane Herzl (“Good morning, Camp Herzl”).

Like many other camps, they also welcome shlichim and campers from Israel every year. One of their counselors and a former camper, Netta Epstein, 21, was killed by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on Oct. 7. Epstein was hiding in a safe room with his fiancée, Irene Shavit. When terrorists threw a grenade into the room, he jumped on it, saving her life.

“It really hit home here,” says the camp’s executive director, Tommy Hoffman.

American-born Omer Neutra, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces and a former camper at Camp Young Judea Sprout Lake in New York’s Hudson Valley, is believed to be a hostage in the Gaza Strip. Credit: Courtesy of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

According to Danya Kornblum, Herzl’s director of camp and culture, many people who applied to work at camp this summer all said the same thing “I want to be at camp and be with my Jewish friends. A lot of them are feeling disconnected at school and longing for camp, and being surrounded by their ‘camp people,’ whether they are best friends or just like-minded people with whom they can feel free to be proud to be Jews and not worry about their safety.

“We always talk about how we do a great job at camp providing a space for campers and staff to just be Jewish,” she continues. “This summer, we are focused on providing skills and tools to teach staff and campers how to feel proud to be Jewish outside of camp.”

‘Rest, reflect, explore’

The record rise of antisemitism has camps rethinking certain precautions as well. One is increased security, including physical additions such as fencing and cameras, and hiring security personnel. FJC noted that the average funding shortfall for upgrades to camps within its network was $40,000 for day camps and $75,000 for overnight camps, amounting to $18 million across their entire camp network.

In May, FJC and the Secure Community Network—the security arm of the organized Jewish community—launched the “Camp Security Initiative” to make needed improvements at Jewish camps.

The Camp Security Initiative is being overseen by Jim Tarasca, who spent 25 years in the Federal Bureau of Investigations, where he was a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit Field Office, the assistant special agent in charge of the counterterrorism division of the New York Field Office and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. His position was made possible due to a challenge grant from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

“Amidst this year’s unprecedented threat environment, SCN and FJC are emphasizing greater preparedness for administrators, counselors and campers through an updated, targeted camp training curriculum for leadership, staff and campers while bolstering the physical security of rural and urban camp facilities,” said SCN national director and CEO Michael Masters. “The program has also already secured $2.1 million in federal grants to enhance physical security for camps, which often require unique tools given the size and location of camps. This proactive, protective shield for camps will continue to expand as the initiative grows and develops.”

Between these upgrades and new resources to help children and staff engage in difficult conversations, not to mention the typical goings-on of the regular summer season, Fingerman believes that Jewish camps are ready to offer kids a memorable time away from home, whether during the day or overnight.

As he says, “We’re confident that camps are entering the next few months with the resources to help their communities rest, reflect and explore—whether those young people need to process their thoughts in community, disconnect and take a break from politics or anything in between.”

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