by Faigie Holt
In just a few weeks, tens of thousands of kids will be on the move, leaving home for Jewish overnight camps. This year though they’ll be doing so under the specter of heightened security concerns as anti-Semitism is at a near-record high nationwide and it has been just half a year since two deadly synagogue shootings.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents for 2018, 1,879 attacks were committed against Jews and Jewish institutions across the country last year, including the attack at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 Jewish worshipers were murdered when a gunman entered the building during Shabbat services.
Six months later, in April 2019, a 60-year-old woman was murdered when a gunman opened fire inside Chabad of Poway outside San Diego on the last day of Passover, also during Shabbat-morning services.
These incidents have put security at the forefront for camp directors, security officials and parents alike.
“Parents should be asking their children’s camp how they are addressing safety and security. What are the policies and procedures they have put in place? What physical security do they have at the camp? How are they training their staff? The counselors? The campers?” said security expert Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, which was founded in 2004 auspices of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“If you go on a cruise, you do a safety drill. The same thing on an airplane. And more and more we are seeing rabbis, when they start services, to remind people where the emergency exits are. These are questions parents have a responsibility to ask and institutions should expect to have a strong answer to.”
Traditionally, camps relied on security booths, a guard at the gate, maybe security cameras and other measures. Upgrading security on a large scale can be costly, and so many camps face the same challenges that synagogues and day schools are facing: funding, and often, a lack of it.
That was the message that several camp directors gave to New York Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein just a few weeks after he took up his post as the Democratic assemblyman representing the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of Midwood and Boro Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. Eichenstein sprang into action, spearheading legislation that would allow sleep away camps in New York to apply for a share of the $25 million in grants available to nonpublic schools, day-care centers and cultural museums for security measures as part of the Securing Communities Against Hate Crimes Grant Program.
“While we are focused on houses of worship and schools, which definitely need additional security funding, we also need this,” Eichenstein said in an interview with JNS. “Some of these camps have hundreds, maybe thousands of kids on campus.
“There is a pattern of hate—a pattern of anti-Semitism nationwide right now, unfortunately—so why not be proactive?” he said. “Are we really waiting for something to happen? I mean look what’s happening; we had the second shul shooting in six months,” alluding to events in Poway on April 27.
He added that as it relates to schools, this allocation, which was approved, should not be seen in any political context. “This is not about funding religious institutions,” said Eichenstein. “It’s about keeping people safe when they are exercising their constitutional right to worship.”
‘A skill set of tools’
Teach NY, a nonpartisan organization advocating for equitable funding in New York for nonpublic schools, including for security funding, was among the organizations that championed for the passage of Eichenstein’s legislation.
“The idea of protecting kids year-round really spoke to us and really spoke to our larger mission of fighting and advocating for children. For us, this was a natural extension of that mission,” said Maury Litwack, director of Teach NY, which is affiliated with the Orthodox Union. “We’ve been receiving calls on this since the program was announced. Camp directors are very excited because just like with day schools, they want to be able to provide more security for the kids.”
Though there hasn’t been an attack on Jewish camp, one of the deadliest attacks by a lone gunman occurred in July 2011 at a summer camp in Norway. Some 70 teens were murdered in the attack on Utoya Island.
Providing training for what to do in situations where there’s an active shooter or other emergency situation is critical not just for the staffers at camp, but for the campers themselves.
“There’s always an age appropriate way to train someone to address a situation and react,” said Masters. “It will be different for a 10- or 14-year-old, but the underlining objective is to flee and get to safety. … We have an obligation to provide a skill set of tools to the professionals who work in the camp, a skill set to the counselors and a skill set for the campers,” so everyone knows what to do.
‘The quality of preparedness’
With security concerns about terrorism or a lone gunman foremost in people’s minds, experts say that preparation and training also has to address disasters of another kind: natural disasters.
“Both issues are brought up constantly, and we continue to be involved and to make sure that our staff is training, and we’re [always] bringing in new voices, new consultants and new safety training techniques,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Initiative, which runs nine overnight camps in the United States and one in Canada. “All of our camps have engaged new security consultants to walk the grounds and analyze where there are strengths and weaknesses.”
In recent years, several Ramah camps have faced challenging emergency situations. Two years ago, an electrical fire at Ramah in the Rockies necessitated an evacuation of staff and campers in the middle of the night. “While we lost the building, it demonstrated to all of us that director Eliav Bock and his staff’s preparedness and almost obsession with safety procedures made a difference,” said Cohen.
Similarly, when the town that houses Ramah New England was under a tornado warning, the kids and staffers rode out the danger in secure places. “It’s not just about the safety,” stressed Cohen, “it’s about the quality of preparedness — in this case, having snacks and drinks available and staffers who can engage the kids in an emergency.”
According to SCN’s Masters, one important step that all camps can take is to build relationships with local emergency officials — fire, police, the sheriff’s department and more — as that can make the difference should the need for emergency aid arise.
For instance, he explained, if the first time a sheriff’s deputy comes onto camp grounds is during an emergency, it may take that person a few minutes to look around and get acclimated. If, however, local law enforcement is familiar with the layout, that can save precious time in an emergency.
That’s something Ramah camps have taken to heart. “We’ve made a big emphasis on improving relationships with local police departments, and we’ve welcomed the local fire department and sheriff’s departments. These are really nice relationships that help out in myriad ways. It’s not just about emergencies, but about good community relationships.”
Ramah has even rolled out the welcome mat to firefighters like those who fought the devastating Thomas Fire in Ventura County. The fire, in December 2017, came perilously close to the Camp Ramah in Ojai, and that’s where fire officials decided to make their stand against the blaze. “They moved into our camp, had meals in our dining hall and heroically saved our camp from destruction.”
Across the country, Camp Ramah Dorom in Georgia hosted hundreds of weary firefighters in 2017 who were battling a nearby fire. Unlike in Ojai, however, the fire was not a threat to the camp itself.
At the end of the day, say security officials like Masters, emergency preparations cannot be left to the last minute, and must be ongoing and evolving.
“Just like we plan for security at houses of worship and schools,” he noted, “we have to do that for camps.”