Any camp director will tell you the summer of 2020 was a monumental challenge. Smaller groups of campers — some vaccinated, some not — uneasy parents, and difficult decisions that had to be made by everyone involved in making a camp year run.
But after a summer of unease with respect to COVID, one thing is clear among the three Jewish overnight camps that draw from the Twin Cities: vaccination mandates are coming — and in the case of OSRUI, already here. The Wisconsin-based Union for Reform Judaism camp announced in a Nov. 17 e-mail to camp families that all 15 of the movement’s camps are “requiring all age-eligible participants, staff, volunteers, and guests on our camp properties to be fully vaccinated, as defined by the CDC, against COVID-19,” the letter from Solly Kane and Beth Rodin, OSRUI’s director, and assistant director, respectively. “The URJ has a long history of requiring vaccinations for our community, and we believe strongly that preserving life and maintaining the health of our entire community is a core Jewish value. “
On Nov. 2, the CDC gave final approval for emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be used for children ages 5-11.
Holly Guncheon, Herzl’s interim executive director, expects that the Herzl board will consider, at the Dec. 6 meeting, the medical committee’s recommendation to mandate vaccines.
“They have decided that the emergency use portion will not be a barrier,” she said. “Part of that is understanding two things: understanding the efficacy and having time and experience; camp does not start next week, camp starts eight months from now.”
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national executive director, said their medical committee will be meeting in early December.
“I think by then, there’ll be plenty of data from kids having been vaccinated,” he said. Cohen said the camp has already teed up the idea with families that a vaccine mandate was coming.
“We sent language out to all of our camps to include in their registration materials for parents to expect that anybody who’s eligible to be vaccinated will need to be vaccinated before the summer,” Cohen said. “We just don’t want to make any across-the-board statements right now. We fully anticipate that everybody eligible for vaccinations will require it other than medical exemptions. We’re not going to be open to ideological or ‘religious exemptions.’”
Ramah is the Conservative Movement’s summer camp and the Rabbinical Assembly, the membership organization for Conservative rabbis, has passed two Teshuvot stating that Jews have an obligation to be vaccinated.
“In our interpretation, Judaism doesn’t give anybody an out for not having vaccinations,” Cohen said. “If anything, we believe it gives more of a mandate because you have to follow the health and safety protocols.”
Jacob Cytryn, the executive director of Ramah in Wisconsin, said he hadn’t heard from those who think there should be vaccine mandates and those who don’t, but also in his eight years at the camp, he couldn’t recall any family not sending their kid due to the camp’s “robust vaccine policy.”
“I’m sure there are families who are sitting at home saying, ‘Why hasn’t Ramah come out and said this is mandated?’” said Cytryn. “And there are other families who are probably saying, ‘If Ramah mandates it, I don’t know if I’m gonna send my kid.’”
Guncheon said she isn’t expecting pushback from families.
“We know the Herzl community is a highly vaccinated population,” she said. “[Families have] submitted [their] vaccination records to us for decades. We don’t have a population resistant to vaccines.”
Lessons From Last Year
After a camperless summer in 2020, all three camps were back in 2021 — even though camp didn’t look like a normal summer.
Both OSRUI and Ramah required the vaccine for staff and strongly recommended it for campers 12 and up. Herzl strongly recommended shots for both groups, although Guncheon said that only one staff member that was eligible to be vaccinated wasn’t — and that was due to a medical issue that prevented it. Both Guncheon and Solly Kane, the director of OSRUI, said the vast majority of eligible campers were vaccinated.
“The rollout of vaccines ramped up dramatically in that May/June timeframe, and at the beginning — January and February and March — it was said that quantities were limited,” Guncheon said. “So the ‘emergency use’ part of the emergency use authorization was really a deciding factor for our medical committee at the time.”
Herzl’s summer was cut short when campers had to be picked up four days prior to the session ending because of an outbreak that hit four of the five programs at camp and affected nine different cabins.
“Certainly, we’ve spent a lot of time assessing what we can know, and what we can take going forward,” Guncheon said. “We aren’t simply chalking it up to bad luck. We are looking at all of the factors” that led to the outbreak.
OSRUI made it through last summer COVID-free, and on a national level, Ramah’s overall success was documented in a CDC report released last month. The report showed that there were nine lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among 7,173 campers and staff at nine different Ramah locations.
Independent Pros and Cons
While Ramah and OSRUI are the camps of the conservative and reform movements, respectively, and have national bodies to lean on to help with — and often direct — policy, Herzl does not as it’s an independent Jewish camp.
“There are some real advantages to being hyper-local, and to be directly led by the community, by our parents, by our staff, and parents, by our alumni,” said Guncheon. “But it is more work.”
“I think being a part of a national movement has its pros and its cons. And on this type of thing, honestly, I think this is a major pro,” he said. “We’re not the only ones who are implementing that policy.”
Ramah and OSRUI also rely on medical committees, but those come from the top of their organizations — the national Ramah movement and the URJ. Each camp has local representation on the respective medical committees, but that committee ultimately makes the decision for all of the camps.
Requiring staff to be vaccinated did change some things for Kane and OSRUI. The decision was made to hire international staff to work in the kitchen rather than bring in community members from around the camp’s Oconomowoc, Wis., site.
“We wanted to have as many staff living in residence at camp as possible. So we made the decision last fall long before vaccines were available that we were going to hire international staff,” said Kane, who added the decision had nothing to do with the politicization that has come from the issue of vaccination. “We just tried to create a strong bubble around camp. Our staff was not allowed to leave at any point during the summer. So our counselors, our unit heads, our kitchen staff were all in residence for the entirety of the summer.”
With the announcement done for OSRUI and the URJ camps nationwide, Kane said that there is a sense of good things to come for next summer.
“For us, the health and wellbeing of kids is our highest priority, and I’m excited that we’re able to further ensure the health of our community in this way,” he said. “We had a lot of mitigation efforts last year that led to a COVID-free summer. I know that there are families waiting for this announcement to sign their kids up.”