Returning To Webster

For Herzl Camp families, May 6, 2020, was a date that brought unwelcome — if not unexpected — news: summer camp 2020 was canceled.

Less than 4 months later, Herzl leadership confirmed that camp for 2021 was on. 

But, how? At the time, it was hard to envision what a summer camp was going to look like in 2021. Coronavirus cases in Minnesota and Wisconsin were both far from their late-2020 peak, but it certainly didn’t stop parents from signing their kids up: several hundred campers were registered in the early days of camp registration. 

Putting camp on in what we all hope will be the tail-end of the COVID-19 era, is not going to be business as usual. It’s going to require a little something extra from everyone that has a role in making Webster, Wis., the center of the universe for hundreds of Jewish kids every summer, including the families who are sending their kids to camp. 

That’s what this series is about; a deep dive into what is going to make Herzl camp tick this summer. From how campers will move around camp, to changes in staffing, to testing and contact tracing — and then some. Full disclosure: I wasn’t just interested in this as a journalistic exercise; I am the parent of a Herzl camper who was devastated at the news on that Wednesday in May last year. 

What you’re going to read in the following paragraphs and the following parts in this series is the result of hours and hours worth of interviews that the staff and industry experts were willing to give. That’s important to know, I think, because Herzl has been very transparent with their families and staff through the whole process, from monthly Zoom meetings on all the important topics that families need to know, to camp leadership scheduling phone calls whenever people have questions. 

They’ve shown their work. Will it pay off? Come back in August.

It’s impossible to look at what 2021 can be without looking back at what 2020 wasn’t. 

It wasn’t just the decision that came down on May 6. Executive Director Gary Kibort took part in nightly meetings with board members, committee members, and the camp’s medical team for seven weeks. The decision to cancel was ultimately guided by recommendations of the American Camp Association, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the camp’s Health & Safety Committee, and the State of Wisconsin.

“The medical counsel was not optimistic, and they wouldn’t be supportive if we had camp,” Kibort said. “And we rely on them for running a safe camp. When their confidence was waning just with everything that was going on in the world it made it more difficult for us (to have camp). I couldn’t go into summer without them at my back, nor would I ever do that.”

But even before those conversations were happening, Kibort had the staff working on a dual-track plan for 2020: One track for if the camp was going to happen, a separate track for it wasn’t.

“Not knowing which way it was going to go, we needed to be in position either way,” he said. “By May 6 we were as prepared to have camp as we were to not have camp.”

Kibort said that Camp Director Drea Lear had to be focused on getting camp going: making sure the staff was hired, the programming was in place, and even getting food there, just in case. 

“From both an operational perspective and from a business perspective too, if we run camp, what is it going to look like from a revenue perspective? And if we don’t run the camp, what is that going to look like?” he said. “And we really continued on that track. All the way to May.”

What’s Different?

Why is this summer different from all other summers? In other summers, buses bring campers to Webster four times, while this summer, they will only come twice — and with fewer campers. Herzl is being capped at 75 percent of the normal occupancy rate for this summer. 

“One of the things that we looked at first and foremost was the chadar (dining hall) and food service capacity,” said Camp Director Drea Lear. “We knew that we were going to have to split up camp, and we knew that we weren’t going to be able to eat all together in the chadar like we have in past years. We knew that we needed to get a sense of how many people could we feed in two different places at once?”

The length of the sessions is different than usual as well. Each of the two sessions are 25-days long, with a one-week break in between. Taste of Herzl, which is for the first-time campers, is 10-days rather than the usual seven. 

The other factor in that 75 percent number was how many people could be in “shadow camp” at one time. But first, to understand shadow camp is to understand how campers and staff are going to move around the camp.

Each cabin will be part of a pod of no more than 50 individuals, and the pod will be assigned to a specialty department — waterfront, arts, sports, etc. — where 4-to-6 different activities will be offered per department. Campers can sign up to do those activities for a period, which lasts about five days. All departments will employ mitigation strategies, doing at least two of the following three things: keeping campers masked, outdoors, and 6-feet apart. 

Lear explained that “shadow camp” will go into effect if a camper or staff member were to test positive for COVID. Rather than each camper going to their individual activities, the cabin would go together as a group to participate in activities with mitigation practices in place.

“If somebody tests positive in a cabin of 14 kids, and three or four staff, do we have the capacity then to run shadow camp for that many people?” Lear said. “And then if more of those people get sick, do we have enough isolation housing before they get picked up? That was a huge key for us.”

Family Experience Manager Dani Frissora said that the shadow camp quarantine would be for a 10-day period, per the recommended guidelines from the CDC, but that could change as CDC guidance changes. 

Out-of-town campers, which usually have buses that bring them to Webster from closer by locales — Omaha, Des Moines, St. Louis, and Kansas City — will have to fly to the Twin Cities, on non-stop flights scheduled to arrive between 9:30 and 11 a.m. CST (or as close to it as possible). There will be luggage trucks from those cities to transport duffle bags to camp. Alternatively, families can drive their campers to the Twin Cities to get the bus from Beth El.

The Business Of Camp

Kibort is known at camp for watching the weather. And he loves it.

“It’s kind of my thing,” he said. “I love watching and predicting it and watching the change. This storm, I couldn’t have predicted in a million years. Or planned for. That’s the storm that rolled in in 2020, as good a business as we were running, and as prepared we were for rainstorms, this storm was a lot bigger than that.”

For many, camp goes from the time we wave goodbye to our kids at tinted bus windows in the scorching Beth El parking lot (not knowing where they’re actually sitting), to the time we pick them up anywhere from seven days to six weeks later. But for Herzl, the other 46 to 51 weeks of the year makes all the difference between a successful summer and not.

“It’s a running joke within the field of camping: ‘Oh, what do you do the rest of the year,’” Kibort said. “I was probably busier the last two years not having camp. And figuring it all out is part of it.”

According to an op-ed written by last year’s board presidents of the Herzl Camp Association and the Herzl Camp Foundation, 90 percent of the camp’s income comes from camp tuition and donations for direct camper services. 

“So, for a full year, we have lost 90 percent of our revenue but can only cut 50 percent of our cost. That, of course, leaves Herzl with a significant gap,” Ed Hoffman and Jim Shear wrote. “We never envisioned being in financial peril after working so diligently over the years to manage our budgets while still growing and strengthening our programs and facilities.”

Kibort said in his 16 years at camp, he has had balanced budgets. But one of the secrets to surviving 2020 and being able to open in 2021 was an unusual budget plan; they created a 24-month budget.

“That put us into position to not only withstand the mess of last year but put us in a position to fund camp for 2021,” Kibort said. “Because of that, and because we were so proactive, it really helped on all levels. It helped with planning for staffing, it helped with all the facility things that we’ve changed. It helped our peace of mind.

“We didn’t know how long, and we still don’t know how long, COVID world’s gonna last. But last year at this time, we had to make at least the assumption that we were going to have [camp in] 2021 and that we would budget for more money coming in from a revenue stream that we didn’t have in 2020.”

The fundraising efforts, with assistance from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation‘s emergency camp fund and the Kadima Campaign, are resulting in major changes on the campgrounds. For starters, a large, outdoor pavilion is being built next to the chadar. That construction will happen as soon as possible, but in this part of the country, that isn’t always easy to plan for, and often presents a small window.

“Everything has to be in position so the day the frost goes out, the construction people can start working and get it done before the buses start rolling in,” Kibort said, recalling the major camp renovation of 10 years ago that had to be done over two years because of the short timetable in the spring to get work in.

The other major projects include adding 60 handwashing stations around camp, as well as improving ventilation systems in several of the camp buildings, including the chadar and the Marp (infirmary).

“Everything we decided to do for this summer, we made sure it was something that was going to be (needed) beyond 2021,” Kibort said. “The pavilion is something that we needed anyway, and we knew last fall that eating outside was going to be critical for us to have camp, and we knew in Webster it needs to be covered. And we knew the handwashing was critical. It isn’t just hand washing stations where people eat, we’re putting in handwashing stations where people play.”

Getting Outside Help

For the last five years, Herzl has been a part of the Association for Independent Jewish Camps, which Lear and Kibort both said have been invaluable in helping them and the two dozen other camps get ready for this year. 

“The camps are looking at how they can implement all this stuff on the ground,” said AIJC Executive Director Harrell Wittenstein, who acknowledged that every camp organization is a little different when it comes to location, resources, and the restrictions both can place on them. “What we’re trying to do is to pull together the appropriate experts in various subjects, including testing, public health, legal, insurance; we’re trying to bring together as many different resources that we can, to help directors and executive directors make the correct decisions.

“It’s one big puzzle that all of the camps are gonna have to put together and, including diagnostics and operational and programmatic shifts that will have to take place, it’s very different from previous years. What we’ve developed as one of the strengths of the AIJC is that we all look out for each other amongst us. And when we find something that works really well at a camp, we can deploy it across all of our camps.”

Coming up next in the series: What COVID strategies is camp employing to prepare for, and get through, the summer.

This series received 1st Place in the category Award for Excellence in Writing About Jewish Summer Camps from the American Jewish Press Association’s 41st annual Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.