The end of December is rapidly approaching. I know this because Hannukah and Thanksgiving are in the rearview mirror and “Sylvester” (the Israeli moniker for the non-High-Holiday new year) is rapidly approaching. With it comes the anniversary of my first retirement. But as luck would have it, my first retirement was not my last retirement.
This past April, the URJ Director of Camping, Ruben Arquilevich, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – the chance to plan and coordinate the URJ Camp path through COVID for the summer of 2021. With all our camps’ summers on the line, it seemed like a great opportunity to once again work with all my colleagues and take on a task with them that could possibly make a real difference. That group effort is what really inspired me to pen this post.
COVID efforts began with GFC alumni David Berkman and Melissa Frey. Both began the process back in January that prepared us for the season. Their early work included the recruitment of a five-physician Medical Advisory Team that worked throughout the year, through the summer, and whose efforts continue in preparation for Summer 2022. It didn’t hurt to have lab and testing expert (and wife) Sheila Dobin PhD as an additional consultant. The entire URJ C-Suite, including chief operating officer, chief executive officer, and the director and associate director of camping were intimately involved as were other URJ departments. This was truly an all-hands-on-deck effort.
My biggest praise and highest accolades go to the boots on the ground: the camp directors and their staffs who not only kept our kids healthy but gave them the summer for which they had been so acutely aching. This summer our staff had three distinct goals. They had to remediate some of the challenges resulting from months isolated at home. They had to provide a spectacular summer for both their campers and their colleagues. They had to do all of this while enforcing and modeling COVID-mitigation measures. And they had to do all of that without ever leaving camp for a break.
I was amazed once again at how different the camps are from each other, but how similar they are in their high standards of care and support. The medical staff members in each of our camps, doctors, nurses, and administrators, had unusually outsized roles this summer. They not only helped manage our COVID protocols but had to also deal with the routine health needs of their camp.
Much of what drove my summer thinking was rooted at Greene and I “used” GFC as a lab for the processes that we eventually implemented across the URJ camping system. Rabbi Erin Mason and her entire team were very patient with me as I experimented on them. I had the opportunity to be at Greene’s Opening Day, and then those at Eisner, Crane Lake, and SciTech in Massachusetts, as well. Sheila and I accompanied our Garin Greene campers to Israel and spent a week there, gaining a lot of insight on how our Israel staff was operating and providing some information about what we were learning state-side.
Just as our camp summers were in full swing, the Delta variant appeared and forced us to change some of our procedures to allow for a much for transmissible disease. It had a major impact on how we operated.
Through it all, the URJ Camp directors and their staff counselors and specialists rolled with the punches, were creative with the ways that they handled their inevitable challenges and brought us through to the finish line in good health – or at least free of COVID.
You read that right – “free of COVID”. We had not one single outbreak in any of our camps or programs this past summer. We identified several cases through our screening and surveillance testing, keeping them from our camp populations, and we had no active cases.
Our success was due to not only the hard work and creativity of the staff and management, but the patience and trust of our campers and their parents. We utilized pre-camp testing and in-camp testing, masks, social distancing, physical changes to buildings, activity and schedule adaptions, and creating a community in a bubble (as much as possible). We mandated vaccinations for all staff and strongly encouraged it for eligible campers. Some camps had units with close to 100% vaccination rates.
With all our planning and mitigation efforts and with everyone following the science and working together, we got what we wanted – a summer free of COVID. I am sure that there is a lesson to be learned there for the country writ large. Thanks to all of you for all your help and support making this happen.
So now it is now time to re-retire. Happy New Year!