Camp: Security first: fun and adventure in a safe setting


Chicagoan Christie Tate isn’t one to be easily cowed.

A lawyer and writer, Tate lives with her husband and two kids on the city’s South Side, which has seen a surge in violent crime over the past year. Last year, her kids got a day off from school because of an active shooter threat. Over the summer, someone was murdered in her alley.

But while Tate doesn’t want to change her lifestyle out of fear, the recent spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country gave her pause as she considered whether to send her kids back to a JCC camp this summer.

“I don’t believe that we should go running and alter our lives and our summer plans because of threats,” Tate said. “But then, when I was doing my research, I saw the pictures of the kids standing on the sidewalk during a bomb threat, having been evacuated — it just became more real. I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I was swayed by that, which is probably a problem.”

Despite the wave of recent threats against Jewish institutions, coupled with a surge in anti-Semitic activity in recent months, no one has been seriously injured by a security breach at an American Jewish summer camp. The worst incident many camp leaders could remember was in 2012, when a group of intruders drove through a religious camp in Pennsylvania yelling anti-Semitic slurs and damaging property.

But many Jewish camp leaders aren’t taking any chances.

“The foundation of our success is all about the sacred trust that exists between our parents, our campers and our communities and our camps,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, which operates 16 summer camps across the country. “Parents have to have confidence that the people and place to where they’re going to send their children, in whom they’re going to entrust their children, has as their highest priority their child’s welfare.”

As with many Jewish summer camps, the Reform movement’s security efforts were beefed up significantly  after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The movement launched a security manual for their camps, created specific job requirements for camp safety personnel and established protocols for responding to a range of threats. It also retained the services of an Israeli security firm, which recommended security improvements from entrance gates to lighting and video surveillance. The camp’s security protocols are reviewed and updated annually.

Many involved in security at Jewish camps say that training and advance preparation are key — perhaps even more important than guards or barriers, both of which are increasingly common.

Among the preparedness steps camps are taking: the development of protocols that determine who does what in the event of an emergency. Preseason security training for camp staff has become commonplace. Camp leaders also are strengthening their relationships with local law enforcement, and many law enforcement agencies conduct annual site visits to familiarize themselves with the camp environment and provide advice.

“In the end, it’s all about training,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Training itself builds awareness. You can never train enough. By continuing to train, you’re building that sort of level of awareness.”

Security at summer camps presents a number of unique challenges not faced by urban Jewish institutions, which typically have a defined perimeter and controlled access points. Camps are open, their borders often marked by little more than a tree line, and everyone involved in their security acknowledges the need to strike a balance between safety and preserving the sense of freedom and openness emblematic of the camping experience.

They also have to contend with an evolving security climate. While radical Muslims presented the foremost security challenge in the wake of 9/11, that is no longer the case. Many camp leaders noted the case of Anders Breivik, who gunned down 69 Norwegians at a summer camp on the island of Utoya in 2011, as well as the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in 2012.

“My concern is not just from jihadists anymore,” said Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, the organized American Jewish community’s security arm. “We’re starting to see a real uptick from the white supremacist side of the house right now. Some of these people are calling for death to the Jews. It’s pretty serious.”

Goldenberg stressed that he knows of no specific threats against Jewish camps and would not hesitate to send his own grandchildren to one, a sentiment shared by many other Jewish camp directors. And while most directors contacted for this story were hard-pressed to name a single serious security breach at a Jewish summer camp, a handful of recent incidents have raised the alarm.

In the summer of 2012, several intruders drove through Camp Bonim, a religious boys camp in rural Pennsylvania, according to local police who later arrested five suspects. In 2015, it was Camp Agudah Midwest, a religious camp in Michigan, where two vandals spray-painted a swastika and damaged a building, according to The Associated Press. That incident came two weeks after an attack at upstate New York’s Camp Karlin Stolin, in which three teenagers threw bottles and coins at campers and staff.

Officials at all three camps declined a request for comment. But security experts say the incidents only serve to highlight the dangerous level of unpreparedness at some Jewish summer camps.

“If anything, the risk has continued to rise,” said Joshua Gleis, a security consultant who works extensively with Jewish institutions. “I do think that camps certainly need to continue to button up security as you see schools, houses of worship, community centers doing right now. Many camps are not taking the actions that I think they should. While many have been improving, I know many camps that have still not changed their security structure significantly.”

Camp Seneca Lake in Honesdale, Pa., isn’t one of them. On the advice of the State Police, camp owner Irv Bader now has guards check all trucks entering the camp for deliveries. The camp has also hired 24-hour armed security — “not rent-a-cops,” Bader said — and installed a network of security cameras that are monitored around the clock. At night, the camp is illuminated with high-wattage lighting.

“It looks like daylight in the camp,” Bader said.

“I do it because it’s necessary,” he said of his security precautions. “The world is crazy today. And you’ve got too many crazies around. It’s a deterrent.”

Despite the heightened sensitivity, many camp directors say the most common threat to the well-being of campers comes not from violent attack, but from the weather.

Jamie Simon, the director of Camp Tawonga in Northern California, said she is far more concerned about an earthquake than an intruder. (In July 2013, her camp was hit by tragedy when a counselor died after a tree fell on her.) Still, the camp installed a video camera last year at its front gate so it can screen visitors remotely.

Camp Tamarack in Michigan is taking the camera tool even further. New technologies enable surveillance systems to learn about normal movement in an area and send an alert when it detects something anomalous.

For a camp like Tamarack, that sort of assistance is invaluable. The facility is among the largest Jewish residential camps in the country, covering more than 1,000 acres and 400 structures.

“It’s a force multiplier,” said Gary Sikorski, the director of communitywide security for the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. “You can monitor areas that would be almost impossible to monitor with an individual.

A counselor at Simi Valley’s Camp Alonim sits with some of her campers. Photo courtesy of Camp Alonim

So, you want to be a camp counselor


While some Jewish sleepaway camps start accepting staff applications as early as September for the following summer, most camps are still looking to fill at least a few spots as late as April.

So, if you’re a high school senior or older, it’s not too late to apply. Some camps also hire high school seniors-to-be.

More-established camps tend to hire their own camp graduates in high numbers, but most value new hires as well, for their fresh ideas.

The Journal contacted a handful of directors of Jewish residential camps throughout California to find out what they are looking for in camp counselors, whether bunk counselors who spend the day with a group of kids or specialists who run a specific activity. Here are five key characteristics.

You want to work with kids

Dan Baer, director of Camp Mountain Chai in Angelus Oaks, said a desire to work with kids is a must. After all, counselors are often with them all day, and many sleep in the kids’ cabin at night.

Beyond liking kids, counselor candidates with childcare experience have an advantage, and it doesn’t need to be anything formal. Maybe the candidate has baby-sat, Baer said, or taken care of nieces and nephews, worked as a day camp counselor or lifeguard. Perhaps they are involved in community theater and often work with the youngest actors.

That said, Baer and other camp directors recognize how demanding high school and college is. Taking advanced-placement classes and playing in the school jazz band or similar activities might not leave time for much else. So long as the passion for working with kids is there, that’s sufficient.

“Regardless of your specialization at a camp, your main role is to be a counselor and take care of kids,” said Mara Berde, associate director of JCC Maccabi Sports Camp outside San Francisco. “Counselors are serving as parents, older siblings, role models. They are supervising kids all day long.”

You are willing to learn

Young adults should not be discouraged if they lack expertise in a traditional camp activity such as archery or arts and crafts.

“For positions that depend on a certain skill set, applicants that have those skills have an advantage — for example, lifeguards or horse wranglers,” said Josh Levine, executive director of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley. But “for a number of positions, we can train our staff before they get to camp in the summer. If they don’t have an archery certification from a governing body, we can train them and get them certified.”

Being open to a position you hadn’t originally considered might land you a job.

You’re in it for the right

reasons

Although the idea of spending summer in the great outdoors with a bunch of other collegians might sound like terrific fun, being a camp counselor is demanding work, said Dalit Shlapobersky of Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa near Big Bear.

Ariella Moss Peterseil, associate director of Camp Ramah in California in Ojai, added, “I always say, Jewish summer camp and the Israeli army are the only two places where, as an 18-year-old, you are given the lives of people in your hands.”

Not only does camp staff need to take its responsibility seriously, members need to understand “what an amazing opportunity they have to impact, because they are 24/7 role models,” she added.

“It’s totally legit: You want to be with your friends. But be ready for the additional step. We always say it’s about creating new memories for these kids and not about reliving your memories.”

You have empathy

For their interviews, candidates should anticipate questions about various scenarios. For example, what if a camper seems withdrawn? Or maybe a kid in your cabin isn’t showering — what would you do?

“It’s less about, ‘Do they have the right or wrong answer?’ and more about their approach,” Berde said. “Are they coming to their answer from a caring place?

“A lot of kids are coming to camp for the very first time,” she added. So there might be a sixth- or seventh-grader who has never been away from home and other campers who are on their third or fourth year. Berde said she wants staff members who are “able to empathize with kids in that situation.”

You connect with kids — no matter your personality type  

Although many may hold to the image of a kooky camp counselor onstage in some ridiculous camp skit dressed in an equally ridiculous costume, all camp counselors need not be extroverts.

“We hire a wide variety of personalities to match the wide variety of our campers,” Baer said. “That includes shy and goofy and loud and quiet and all of it. It’s our job to make sure we have a balance.”

Camp directors recognize the strengths that more introverted candidates might bring to the position. Yes, they need to be able to hold a conversation. But, Berde said, sometimes the more reserved candidates are the most thoughtful and end up as “silent leaders.” Berde calls them “the glue.”

Often, she added, these are the staff members with whom campers connect on a deeper level.