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Jewish Camps Ready to Support Camper Mental Health

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Jewish Camp Initiative

Jewish Camps Ready to Support Camper Mental Health
by Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, Jewish Camp Initiative Manager

The coming summer is a critical moment for addressing child and adolescent mental health. After nearly a year of living with uncertainty, fear, and separation, many kids are exhibiting signs of anxiety and depression. The safe return to summer camp for 2021 requires planning not only for physical health and safety, but also for campers’ mental health. While kids can’t wait to reconnect in person, without screens, we also know that the pandemic has had a deep impact on their mental health.

Camps across the country are prioritizing having trained mental health providers on their campuses this summer to support the as yet unknown needs of campers. “We are experiencing a world-wide shared trauma experience,” Jill Goldstein Smith, Senior Program Manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp reminds us. “Camp provides a bubble of sorts, but it is also a safe space to be vulnerable – which is where the growth happens.”

Professionals at our Jewish camps, both day and overnight, know how much kids need and want to be back at camp with their peers, and are ready to meet them where they are. Yet in order to do so, they need partnership and input from parents. Danielle Steinhart, LCSW, Director of Camper Care at URJ Camp Coleman says, “When parents provide complete information about their child, it helps us do our job better. Parents know their child’s strengths and challenges better than we do when they initially arrive at camp. Camp staff can set them up for their greatest success when we have this insight. This partnership is critical for each child’s positive camp experience.”

Adapting Camp Culture

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Jewish Camp Initiative

Atlanta’s Jewish day camps have had months of experience perfecting fun, safe, and engaging programs for kids during COVID-19. Now, In the City Camps and MJCCA Camps are using everything they’ve learned about combining fun and safety to plan memorable summer experiences in 2021 — both virtually and in person.  

In the City Camps pivoted to virtual Jewish family programming right away in March, as schools closed and families began quarantining.  Last summer they moved into both virtual camp and in-person camp at The Weber School. For summer 2021 In the City Camp will host inperson camps at Chabad on the BeltLine for three weeks in June, and at The Weber School for four weeks in July. Virtual camp will also be an option. Registration begins in January 

MJCCA Day Camps also pivoted immediately to meet the needs of families, offering daily virtual programming that included arts & crafts, cooking, sing-a-longs, STEM projects, and more. For the first four weeks of summer, MJCCA Day Camps hosted virtual camps and then pivoted again to offer in-person camp. Director Jodi Sonenshine said, “When we realized the pandemic was not going to be short lived, we reviewed all public health guidelines and planned a safe in-person camp that still had all the magic, fun, friends, and adventure of summer. We reimagined the entire day, from temperature checks in the morning, to small groups, no mixing between groups, masks indoors, and more. Campers were outside as much as possible enjoying our pools, lake, bumper boats, fields, ropes course, and more on our 52-acre campus. Our campers had the best summer and their parents were so thankful.”    

Both programs have developed their own unique formulas for a winning camp culture.  

“2021 will be In the City Camp’s 10thanniversary year,” said spokesperson Tali Benjamin. “We’ve perfected a program that puts the best parts of overnight camp into an intentionally Jewish day camp package. We are uniquely based on Jewish values, connection to Israel, and Hebrew language in a kidfriendly way. We continue to help kids build self-confidence through choices, so they discover what they are good at, and try new things too.”

As a result, In the City Camps has built a large community of families that loves doing Jewish things together all year long. They meet virtually for Shabbat, Hanukkah candle-lighting, and havdalah. Even summer staff members who are away at college sometimes join in! You can get a taste of In the City Camps and meet some of their lead staff, at their free virtual pop-ups held twice a month. Information here. 

The MJCCA also leveraged its strengths. When many schools announced a virtual start, the MJCCA reimagined their Club-J afterschool program as Club-J Your Way. They took the proven framework and protocols of in-person day camp and created Club-J Your Way — a full day, or school day program with an after-school option. Kids are in small groups, in dedicated spaces, wearing masks, while their virtual learning is facilitated. They get to enjoy amazing activities during learning breaks and when the school day is over. 

“Club-J Your Way kids appreciate the structure of our school-like atmosphere and also love being able to enjoy camp activities all year long,” Jodi Sonenshine says. “Parents tell us how thankful they are to have a safe, engaging place for their kids so they can be back to work.”

MJCCA Day Camps is gearing up for Summer 2021 and will offer campers CIA Summer Days @ the J, Sports, Performing Arts, Theme, and Teen camp options. MJCCA Day Camps Summer 2021 registration begins January 10 at 10am. Club J Your Way registration is ongoing. 

2021 Overnight Camp Registrations Are Surging

By Jewish Camp Initiative

Atlanta families whose kids couldn’t attend overnight camp last summer due to the pandemic are overjoyed that the 2021 camp season is a “go.” Enrollment in our five regional camps is surging, and as members of the American Camping Association (ACA) they’ve all been carefully following ACA guidelines to create a safe experience this summer. Our camps are expanding their outdoor spaces for a wide range of activities, and many will have COVID-19 testing programs in place for campers. Camp may feel a little different with new safety measures in place, but it will still be a magical Jewish experience for our kids.

Scholarship assistance for summer 2021 is also available. Melissa Scholten Guttierez, Federation’s Jewish Camp Initiative Manager said, “While Federation has been offering financial aid and first-time incentive grants since 2013, this year we know that the need will be greater than ever before. Our community to the plate to ensure there is enough funding for scholarships for all the families for whom finances are a deterrent to their children’s attendance at Jewish overnight camp.” Learn more about financial assistance here.

In order to make this happen we rely on community support. A fundraiser to support Jewish overnight camp is launching this week. If you are able to share your love of Jewish camp so that others can have the experience, donate here.

As we live through the pandemic, we’ve learned that our “pods” of friends and family are hugely important. It will be the same at camp where the bunk becomes the new “pod.” Camps across the country have become true innovators as they adapt best safety practices for campers and counselors to their programs. The recent virtual Camp Fair, created for families in the southeast region, is another example of how camps are rolling with the realities of COVID-19.

Jim Mittenthal, Director of Camp Barney Medintz, reports that enrollment opened in mid-October for the 2021 summer season. “We are so honored to have received an exceedingly strong response from both returning and new Camp Barney families every day since!  Many sessions and age groups are rapidly reaching capacity, well ahead of our expectations and projections. After so many months of uncertainty and disruption for all of us, there is clearly a desire for children and families to disconnect from devices and reconnect in person with other kids and our staff and experience an intimate, meaningful, and exhilarating experience we’re designing for next summer.”

Danny Hertz, Director of URJ 6 Points Sports Academy said, “Children have been impacted so much in 2020, and the need for overnight camping has never been greater for summer 2021. It is so powerful to see the families from Atlanta excited about and supporting camp for this upcoming summer. We are grateful to Federation and the entire Atlanta Jewish community. Thank you!”

Our camps can’t wait to welcome you and Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez is happy to help you pick the right camp.

Support Our Commitment to Camping

By Jewish Camp Initiative

Although each of Federation’s five regional residential camp partners (Camp Barney Medintz, Camp Judaea, Camp Ramah Darom, URJ Camp Coleman, and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy in NC) made the decision to close to physical programming this summer, they’ve all been working hard to provide virtual programming, sustain connections with campers, and plan for the future.

Even with these closings, a small number of camps whose campers received Federation scholarships made the choice to open. A total of 24 campers at 10 camps across the country, received $39,213 in scholarship support. While this is a mere 4% of our planned awards for the year, we are grateful that we were able to support these campers.

Like the camps, we’ve used this time to craft a new scholarship initiative for families at our regional overnight camps that closed. Families can now roll their scholarships over into summer 2021, provided they also make a commitment to re-enroll/roll forward their tuition. This allows families to feel confident about their financial ability to send their children to camp in 2021. It also provides the camp with an advance on funding which is helpful for their current financial strains.

Camp professionals around the country are immersed in discussions about the future of Jewish camp, the role of Federations, how to build virtual communities, family camp, and more. We’re proud that Atlanta is a leader in the camp conversation.  As summer nears its official end, we are thinking hard about how to support our regional camps in a new world of recruitment without travel, and how to reach families who will need to apply for financial aid for the first time ever for next summer.

How Friendship Circle Inspired Me

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Jewish Abilities Alliance, Jewish Camp Initiative, JEWISH JOURNEYS, People in Need

By Daniel Stern

I was still a freshman at The Weber School when my older sisters suggested it was time I took part in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). It was at this point that I decided to volunteer with Friendship Circle’s “Buddies at Home” program. I signed up and became a buddy to a young adult with special needs named Mike. Mike and I met nearly weekly, as our schedules permitted, and we had so much fun hanging out, playing sports together, going to the dog park, having lunch, and things like that. It was a great relationship.

By the time I was a sophomore, I began to think about creating a one-week summer day camp for people with disabilities modeled on Friendship Circle, where every camper has a “buddy.” I was really pumped to do it, but I did not have a plan set in stone. My mom said, “Go for it, but, remember, this is your project, not mine.” I went to the Sandy Springs Tennis Center and asked them if they’d donate a couple of tennis courts, and they said OK. I was excited to launch what I was then calling “Serve it Up” Summer Camp, but pretty soon it dawned on me that I needed a little backup. I wanted it to be a free camp to encourage all who wanted to participate to attend. I knew I needed to raise money and I knew I needed my friends to help pull this off. I launched a Go-Fund-Me campaign online that raised over $1,000 for us to get started.

I worked with Rickelle New, the Director of Friendship Circle, and I created the tennis program and she created the arts and crafts program. We developed a flyer and reached out to all of the families that had participated in Friendship Circle activities. Recruiting my friends to become buddies for our campers was the next challenge, but eventually more than 20 of my friends signed up to volunteer. It was a great success to be outside playing tennis with our special friends. So, the following summer, I was excited to create another camp. We decided to move the camp indoors to the gym at Atlanta Jewish Academy, so those who did not want to be outside all day could also participate. That summer, we played many sports in addition to tennis and still included arts and crafts. Many of our campers with special needs even had two buddies! I learned that many people with disabilities have other health issues. They can’t take the heat and need the comfort of air conditioning.

I really thought I was doing this for kids with special needs. But, when the parents of these kids came up to me and told me how much they valued the camp, it felt so good. I realized that not only did the kids benefit, but their entire families benefited from what we had created. So did my volunteers. Now, as a freshman at Vanderbilt University, with the benefit of hindsight and a little maturity, I can see I was also doing it because of the values I learned in my family, at school, and through Friendship Circle. When you help others and build real relationships, you are doing the work of tikkun olam.

Camp Szarvas


They’ll Never Take Being Jewish for Granted After Camp Szarvas

Gefen Beldie, who is a junior this year at Atlanta Jewish Academy, has spent most of her life in Israel and in the security of her Toco Hills community, where there are six synagogues within a mile of her house and where being Jewish is as easy as breathing.  Gefen never imagined the kinds of conversations she’d have as one of 19 U.S. teenagers accepted to attend Camp Szarvas, an international Jewish summer camp run by the JDC in Hungary and supported by Federation. Campers attend Szarvas from all over the world and for most of them it’s the most Jewish experience they’ve ever had.

“At Szarvas I found myself getting into intense conversations about identity, and I was up for it. I became friendly with a Czech girl who had very little exposure to Judaism. There are only two kosher restaurants in her whole country and her parents were actually reluctant to reveal their Jewish identity to her.  I could see that it was powerful for her to have an opportunity to live in a community of Jews for the first time in her life.”

For Shani Shapiro, one of this year’s Shinshinim from Zichron Yaakov, Israel, the experience of attending Camp Szarvas several years ago motivated her to apply for the Shinshinim program. At camp, where so many kids were getting their first taste of Judaism, she began introducing herself by saying, “Hi, I’m Shani, I’m Jewish.” Shani told of meeting a girl from Turkey who was sent to Szarvas by her parents. “She didn’t even know she was Jewish until she called them up and asked, ‘Why are things written in Hebrew here?’ This girl was shocked to learn about her identity. In Turkey it’s dangerous to be Jewish, she was literally starting from scratch.”

By contrast, Shani met kids from Moldova, a tiny country between Romania and Ukraine, who were strong in their Judaism and proud of it. That made an impression on her, too. “No one needs to tell me I am Jewish, but now I appreciate that some kids are afraid. I always dreamed of doing something bigger outside of Israel after high school,” Shani said. “Being part of Shinshinim Atlanta is opening my eyes to the American way of being Jewish.”