What Does Summer Mean?
I remember how the last weeks of the school year felt with absolute acuity: the days lengthening, making time slow down, the inability to focus as final tests and papers were handed to teachers, the itch of the first mosquito bites like a physical reminder that summer was coming. I was a summer camp kid through and through. When I was little, I went to a JCC day camp in Baltimore called the Loft, and, then when I was twelve I started at Camp Yavneh, a Klal Yisrael sleepaway camp in New Hampshire. After seven summers as a camper, I spent another five on staff; this undoubtedly inspired my passion for Jewish summer experiences, and ultimately led me to my work on FindYourSummer.org. These summer experiences were my all. I lived through the school year waiting to get to camp, ten months for two.
This year, those last few magical days of school are gone, transformed into weeks of Zoom classes and worry, as parents and students watch summer program after summer program cancel their on-site plans as the long term reality of this global pandemic becomes increasingly clear. I cannot imagine the loss that teens must feel as the summer they had longed for, hoping for some return to normalcy, feels more and more like an impossible dream. The campers are the ones who will feel this the most, but this loss is far-reaching and personal: my sister is unable to return to Yavneh for her first summer as a Rosh Aydah; my own campers from my five years of staff unable to experience their first summer as counselors; I had planned to visit my old campers with my fellow staff members, and that too must be pushed off.
The truth of our situation is that this summer is going to look different from how any previous summer has looked, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up on it. What do summer programs provide that is so special? Why do so many teens wait all year to attend summer programs? Of course camps offer excellent programming, build leadership skills, and strengthen Jewish identity, but ultimately, what those song competitions, Shabbat traditions, and color wars build is community. The shared experiences of a summer program build community in a way that nothing else can.
We face a time when the world feels difficult to confront, and there’s no sense of when times will be easier. It is during these dark and difficult times that we need to hold onto our sacred communities more than ever before. This is so hard to do when we must be isolated by necessity, but it just gives us all the more reason to fight to be together. Since the end of March, my aydah, my unit, from camp has had regular pre-Shabbat Zoom meetings to check in with each other and wish each other a Shabbat shalom. The staff that I worked with my last summer at camp has started to have Zoom calls, too (pictured above). Many people who have not been regular figures in my life for years have started to repopulate it because we are seeking the communities that bring us the most comfort and strength.
For now, all we can do is know and trust that programming is coming; the summer space has been at the forefront of creative, experimental, and wonderful programs for years. Coronavirus won’t stop that energy and you can expect summer programs to continue announcing their plans to go virtual over the next few weeks. This will be a summer of innovation, with brand new models for what summer programming can look like. You can stay tuned into programs’ decisions via FindYourSummer.org, which will have regular updates with programs’ plans as well as other virtual opportunities. So, I urge you to take advantage of virtual summer offerings, to organize weekly calls with your camp friends, to write letters, and have Zoom talent shows, and host movie nights. We need it now more than ever. It is only through coming together, in whatever ways possible, that we will be able to create the community that we need to rebuild and reclaim our summer.
Josh Schwartz is a Project Associate for the New York Teen Initiative at The Jewish Education Project. He was a staff member at Camp Yavneh for 5 years and was Rosh Aydah (unit head) of Camp Yavneh’s summer leadership program, Kerem in summer 2018.