Elle Seller of Swampscott said she cried when she learned Camp Tel Noar, like other Jewish camps in the region, would be canceled last summer due to the pandemic.
“I was planning to go to camp last year, COVID happened, and it was very upsetting to me,” said Seller, 17, a junior at Swampscott High. “I knew it was going to be canceled, it was just the hope it would be there.”
This summer, Jewish camps are making a comeback after not being able to open last year, suffering a financial hit, and losing their ability to foster a Jewish identity among their young charges.
The camps are reopening amid some pandemic restrictions, which means a quarantine period before camp, COVID testing, fewer campers to maintain social distancing, the creation of the kind of camp bubbles in which no campers and staff go in or out, and increased outdoor activities with as little masking as possible.
The Cohen Camps – Camp Tel Noar in Hampstead, N.H., Camp Tevya in Brookline, N.H., and Camp Pembroke, a girls’ camp in Pembroke – are getting set to open in a matter of days.
“This year we’re opening, we’re pretty excited about that,” said Jonathan Cohen, the third generation president of The Cohen Camps, founded by Eli and Bessie Cohen in 1935.
“Everything that we would normally offer at camp, we’ll be able to have at camp this summer,” said Amanda Charson, Camp Tel Noar’s assistant director. What campers may notice are fewer campers on site during each session, to allow for social distancing.
The camps will be reopening amid changing guidelines from state and federal public health officials.
“You know, every few days,” Cohen said, “something else changes between the state and guidelines and the CDC, so it’s all changing, but you know, we’re going to be reopening and we are going to have it as near normal as possible.”
Other Jewish overnight camps forced to close last summer – Camp Bauercrest, an overnight sports camp for boys in Amesbury, and Camp Yavneh in Northwood, N.H. – are reopening with COVID precautions in place, according to the camps’ websites.
Cohen said the plan is to keep campers in cabin groups of eight to 14, depending on their age and which camp they are attending. Campers will not need to be masked when they are with their cabin group.
Most of the staff will be vaccinated along with many older campers.
Changes include not having big groups sitting together singing. Shabbat also will be done differently to avoid having a large group crowded together. Entertainment will be in camp because there will be no field trips. Large tents will be used in place of smaller dining halls.
The number of campers will be reduced to allow for more space during any given week.
“In a normal summer when we are full, it’s over 1,200 campers in the course of the summer,” Cohen said. This year, that number will be more like 800. This year, it will also mean most campers will be coming for only one session with grades grouped together, instead of all age groups being able to attend either a first or second session or both.
The challenge when camp closed last summer was trying to keep the community together, including through some Zoom-based programming.
“The value of camp, as I like to say, is it’s face-to-face, it’s not FaceTime,” Cohen said.
Some virtual programming was held to keep the camp community connected.
“But it wasn’t the same,” Cohen said. “It’s not the same as you can get there. You don’t get that same ruach you feel when you are at camp.”
Not being able to open for the first time in 87 years also proved to be a challenge financially. More than half of what the camp collects in tuition is spent before camp starts, Cohen said.
“We gave a lot of money back in tuition refunds and some money got rolled over, but a lot of that was spent, already. It created, certainly, a financial hole for us and for, really, all camps,” Cohen said.
Cohen thanked the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and its JCamp 180 program and other donors who supported Jewish camps across the country through a matching grant.
Seller, of Swampscott, began attending Camp Tel Noar eight summers ago.
Over the past year, she took a counselor-in-training program on Zoom, allowing her to jump from camper to first-year counselor, without a summer CIT transition year.
She got experience working with kids last summer. Her mom, Heather Greenberg, serves as the director of KinderCamp at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead, which ran its day camp programs in an abbreviated way during the pandemic.
This summer, with pandemic capacity limits no longer in place, Summer at the J camp programs are running from June 28 to Aug. 27.
“Our camp is one of the only camps that ran last summer,” Greenberg said.
Last summer, with a lot of unknowns about COVID-19 swirling, campers were not allowed to use indoor classroom spaces and activities were held outdoors.
“Kids wore their masks, we wore our masks, and we did not have one case,” Greenberg said.
Thankfully, the weather cooperated.
“And we didn’t have one rain day for KinderCamp,” Greenberg said.
This summer, camping on the hill should pretty much look like what it did in 2019, though parents will not be allowed to visit during camp and the camps will not have any volunteers.
“No mask wearing outside,” Greenberg said. “We are still creating that bubble, but it’s going to feel like 2019.”
For Orli Gold, 14, of Marblehead, last summer would have been her sixth at Camp Tel Noar. She was devastated when it was canceled.
“It’s like you have a family at camp. Knowing that you can’t go see them, especially when they live far away, is really sad,” Gold said. “It was hard to not see people I was super close with.”
Orli’s mother, Amy Gold, serves as head of school at Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead, from which Orli is graduating from the eighth grade.
She said she missed the Jewish traditions at camp such as celebrating Shabbat. Except for a summer meetup at the beach, she missed her camp friends.
Now, Orli is excited to see her counselors and her camp friends again, even under some COVID restrictions.
“I’m trying to not have too many expectations, just kind of go, and have, like, the best time ever,” she said.