An author once wrote that everything magical happens between the months of June and August. Generations of campers at UJA-funded Jewish overnight camps would agree, including those at Camp Ramah in Canada. Since 1960, more than 15,000 young people have grown in their Jewish identity at Ramah, many of whom have gone on to become leaders shaping our community. Environics’ 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada found that almost six in ten Canadian Jews attended an overnight summer camp with Jewish content. That’s why the pandemic’s effects on summer camp were among the crisis’ greatest threats to Jewish life. According to the Canadian Camping Association, at the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 had the potential of financially annihilating 1,000 Canadian summer camps by December 2021.7 These threats kept Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell awake at night. Jordan is the Director of Camp Ramah—the first Camp Ramah leader forced to shut the camp’s doors in 2020, for the first time in half a century.
“It was very scary,” says Jordan. “It’s a year-round operation that relies on two months for annual revenue. If we can’t run in the summer, how can we sustain this?”
This was the question at the heart of Camp Ramah’s future—a question of survival. But you don’t transform 15,000 lives without making some friends along the way. When Camp Ramah reached out for help, in Jordan’s words, “Our people showed up and responded to the call… it was powerful to see how we weren’t alone.”
In 2020, staff engaged campers with made-for-home programming. As a camp parent himself, Jordan watched his daughter sprint around their home that summer, grabbing items as part of a scavenger hunt. Jordan puts it best: “It was all so camp.”
In the lead up to summer 2021, the possibility of camp reopening was close. Yet Camp Ramah’s situation remained uncertain. Jordan’s team worked closely with lay leaders to plan various scenarios and coordinate extensively with Camp Ramah’s medical community. In all this, Camp Ramah leaned on community institutions like UJA.
“It was not a foregone conclusion that we would survive this,” says Jordan. Why? Families facing serious financial hardship because of the pandemic might choose to keep their kids out of camp. Lower enrolment would have jeopardized the camp’s future. UJA’s investment in significant scholarship dollars during the 2021 and 2022 camping seasons allowed families impacted by the pandemic to continue sending their kids to camp, while meaningfully uplifting our partner camps during a time of enormous financial instability. This kept many kids engaged in the life of our community, despite the crisis.
This builds upon significant funds that UJA provided from the 2020 Emergency Campaign to various partner camps, including Camp Ramah, enabling them to extend financial relief to camper families impacted by the pandemic for the 2021/2022 camping seasons.
When campers arrived in July 2021 at Ramah—after two weeks of mandatory quarantine—they formed social bubbles by cabin for an additional two weeks. After a month of these measures, Camp Ramah was officially one social bubble. “I’ll never forget watching old friends who had been in different cohorts run together and hug, sitting together in our dining hall, singing Happy Birthday—it was amazing,” says Jordan. Summer camp was saved.
Three campers in that bubble were Michelle’s children: Daniel, Sam, and Emma. For Michelle, the Jewish summer camp experience has always been a must-have for raising kids. “At camp, you learn complete independence, and you develop a sense of confidence,” she says. “It’s so important. They learn how to advocate for themselves, how to make new friends. It’s an incomparable experience.”
Camp is always incredible, but in 2021, parents and their children never appreciated camp more. Michelle puts it bluntly: “After all my kids have been through this year, camp was the brightest spot of the year. If they weren’t able to go, I’d have been devastated.”
Camp Ramah, and all other UJA-affiliated summer camps, got through this crisis in part because of your gift. “We’re coming out of this crisis stronger than ever, with more clarity about the importance and transformational power of summer camp,” says Jordan.
7 Canadian Camping Association