Restrictions Bring Program Challenges, But Creativity Too

This is the third article in the Returning to Webster series, detailing how Herzl Camp gets back up and running for the summer of 2021. To catch up: Part 1 | Part 2.  

While the start of Herzl Camp is still two months away, the planning for the activities and how to program a summer hasn’t stopped — and will run right up until the campers come. While this isn’t new per se, programming for a pandemic is a constant learning curve. 

“Initially, it was important for us to you know, figure out what are those things that everyone is expecting; the big Herzl staples like Bikkurim (color wars) and some of our out-of-camp trips,” said Hannah Gilfix, who will be Herzl’s tzrif (cabin) life coordinator with Hayley Wizig. “We’re not sure if we’ll be able to do or not, but if we can’t, what does it look like to give them an experience within camp, even if it’s different?”

Camp leadership’s honest accounting with the changes this summer is also rubbing off on staff. 

“I don’t want there to be a negative light with the restrictions that we have and the changes that are getting made,” said Demi Fine, a freshman at Kansas University who chairs the Herzl Staff Advisory Committee’s programming committee. “After being on the programming committee, and also attending some other planning meetings for the summer, it’s going to be very different from what people know.”

Dani Frissora, Herzl’s family experience manager and COVID planning guru, said that programming and COVID planning go hand-in-hand. The first and third Wednesday of each month is a meeting with the medical advisory team. The second and fourth Wednesday is when the seasonal staff — counselors and program directors — work on program pieces. Frissora said the staff is doing the majority of the planning, but with her guidance.

“They know the drill,” Frissora said. “They know what can and can’t be done. They’ll present to me what they think, what their ideas are, and [I] check off and ask questions. We really work together on making it a safe environment, but still have the magical parts of it. 

“Our seasonal staff is so creative, and they’re able to come up with all of these awesome traditions and ways of doing it while still being COVID-safe.”

Frissora said that the Wednesday Zoom calls with staff have anywhere from 15 to 35 people on the call, from the vatikim (professional staff leaders) and hanhallah (supervisory staff) to the Ozrim in the staff-in-training program.

“The outlook that they have on creating these new traditions, there’s actually some really cool stuff that’s gonna come out of it,” Frissora said. “Just to see the participation that we’ve had throughout the year, with our planning meetings and on Zoom: they’re in. They’re ready for it. And it’s really cool to see. 

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a Maine-based pediatrician who is also the medical director of Camp Winnebago, one of the handful of overnight camps in Maine that ran last summer, authored a paper published by the CDC about how they were able to make that happen — part of which was because of programming alterations.

“Did we have our full-camp, Brown vs. Green patrol game, which is essentially a huge Pig Pile? No, we didn’t do that,” she said. “But the fact of the matter was that the kids were so happy. The traditions that we thought they needed, or that many people think that kids need, they were just thrilled to be together.”

Fine is taking that approach but is concerned about the reservations that some of her peers may have. 

“A lot of my friends who have been going since Taste (of Herzl), they want their traditions to be the same. And when things change, they don’t know how to deal with it,” Fine said. “I just never really caught on to that. As a person, I’m okay with change. But I’m most worried about my peers taking things negatively and not enjoying the summer…I don’t want it to be reflected on the campers.”

Gilfix, who in the fall will become Herzl’s program manager, said that a lot of work has been put in to make the camp experience feel similar to any other year.

“Cookouts actually are really easy because it’s just outside in the field,” she said. “But things like Shabbat, we know song session is really important to do all together. So how can we do it, even if it has to be outside or with masks on so that feels more important than doing it in the Chadar (separated by age group).”

The day-to-day activities are going to look different but will adhere as close to as possible to what campers expect to see.

“We’re finding ways to make it happen,” Gilfix said. “The same way a lot of our chugim (activities) are going to move outside; Zumba we’ve always done inside, but there’s no reason it can’t happen outside because if our campers are outside, they don’t have to wear masks, even if they’re with their distanced with people in other pods.”

Expanding Ages

In a typical summer, the final summer for campers at Herzl is the B’yachad program for those going into 10th grade. The year before B’yachad is Kadimah — going into 9th grade — who have the Kadimah Wall and Kadimah play to look forward to. For the rising seniors in high school, there is the Ozo program, which comes with its own mystique, while the summer between B’yachad and Ozo, juniors-to-be often do an Israel trip.

All of those groups lost important summers, and there is no way to get them back, but the planning for the summer of 2021 has tried to make up for some of that. There is an option for 11th graders for both the Aleph and Bet Sessions in a program yet-to-be-named, which gives them the option to take an Israel trip in the other half if they so choose. Ninth graders have the option for Aleph and 10th graders for Bet. 

This year’s Ozrim, who lost out on their Israel trip, can opt to work for the first or second half of the summer to accommodate an Israel trip, or work the whole summer.

“It’s different than in the past,” Gilfix said. “It’s really like three sessions” for the Ozrim.

According to Herzl’s COVID-19 Working Document, Kadimah and B’yachad will each be their own Pod, traveling to activities and eat meals together as they would in the past. They will have the opportunity to interact with other Pods, so long as they follow the mitigation strategies camp has in place. 

Things won’t be normal — but it’ll be as close as circumstances are going to allow.

“As much as we do with programming, the same way a lot comes from staff in any summer, a lot will come from their own cabin experience,” Gilfix said. “For camp to feel like camp, aside from whatever the programming looks like, [is] for them to have the space to be with friends and be with their counselors and not their parents — maybe for the first time in 18 months — and to have that experience where they can feel like a camper.

Coming up next in the series: How to empower staff when they can’t leave the bubble. 

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.