Jewish summer camps are reopening to host Houston victims

August 29, 2017
An elderly man is carried after being rescued from the flood waters of tropical storm Harvey in east Houston, Texas, on Aug. 28. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Three weeks ago, Lauren Laderman left Camp Young Judaea-Texas after serving as the unit head for 14-year-olds this summer.

Then Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, and Laderman was back at camp, this time preparing the cabins for evacuees in need of a place to live.

On Tuesday, families began moving into the 180-acre facility outside of Austin.

“I want to keep the families in high hopes, knowing that they’re going to go back to Houston and [have to] figure things out,” said Laderman, 23, a recent college graduate who grew up in Houston. “But we can give them a few days of relaxation knowing they’ll have somewhere to sleep and good food.”

As Tropical Storm Harvey continues to barrage the Texas coast — deluging the Houston area, destroying property and filling convention centers with evacuees — Jewish summer camps are mobilizing to aid families by sheltering them or supervising their children.

Ten people have died as a result of the storm, a number expected to rise, and more than 3,000 have had to be rescued.

Young Judaea emailed parents and alumni on Monday evening, three days into the storm, opening its doors to families that have evacuated Houston, about a three-hour drive away. Ten families are expected to arrive starting Tuesday, and more are anticipated once families are able to leave the flooded city, where the roads are closed.

“We don’t have a lot of money but we have a great staff, so we said, ‘Let’s open it up,’” said camp director Frank Silberlicht, who had evacuated his Houston home this week after living two days without power. “For people to have some kind of normalcy, that’s what camp provides.”

Campers at Camp Young Judaea-Texas prior to Hurricane Harvey. The camp has opened its doors to evacuees from Houston, promising food, shelter and activities for kids. (Courtesy of Young Judaea-Texas)

Greene Family Camp, a Reform overnight camp north of Austin, also offered space for families to stay. But staff realized that families would be better served by an impromptu day camp for kids in Houston, freeing up their parents to go back home and survey property damage. As of Tuesday afternoon, the camp was looking for space at dry Jewish institutions in the area and aiming to open Thursday.

The camp is also providing canned goods and clothes to those in need, and a few families have taken shelter at the overnight camp, where there is staff to care for them.

“We’re going to do everything we can to support them emotionally as well as physically, keep them occupied and try to take their minds off of what’s going on,” said Loui Dobin, the Greene Family Camp’s executive director.

In both cases, the camps hope to re-create the fun, relaxed atmosphere they provide each summer. Dobin expects a couple hundred kids to attend the day camp once it opens, where they will receive meals and do activities like relay races or movie time. He hopes to arrange a pickup point for families so they don’t all have to figure out how to maneuver to the camp.

Young Judaea will house families in private guest rooms that usually serve as space for retreats or conventions. The camp has bed linens, towels and about a week of food for 100 people — it’s far enough from the flooding to buy more. In addition to beds, the camp is providing the families three meals a day and snacks.

Camp staff has also been meeting families’ special requests, from portable cribs to a few sets of dry clothing, and is planning to open a business center with computers and an internet connection. When families are not eating or sleeping, counselors like Laderman will put on programing for kids and adults, from sports and trivia games to swimming and — given the right instructor — a ropes course.

“Families will be there, but they can come and go,” Silberlicht said. “People there, they want to participate. So people can help set the table, clear the tables, help in the kitchen. People want to feel useful as well.”

Jewish institutions have been damaged by the flooding, and the Houston Jewish federation estimated that the vast majority of local Jews live in affected areas. The federation is raising relief funds and coordinating Jewish service agencies.

Meanwhile, Chabad is importing certain kosher foods that have become scarce due to the flooding and IsraAid, an Israeli relief agency, is preparing teams to deploy to the area. A few families have taken shelter at the Robert M. Beren Academy Orthodox Jewish day school.

Both the Greene and Young Judaea camps have sheltered families in previous floods and storms, and expect to remain open at least until Sept. 5, the earliest date that Houston schools may reopen — school was slated to begin Aug. 28. Neither camp knows how many people will need help, but they hope to provide safe haven, physically and emotionally, at least for a few days.

“It was hard for us to watch it from afar, so now we can be proactive and help families,” said Julia Paeglis, the director of year-round programs for Young Judaea-Texas. “We want to provide a relief and escape a little bit before they have to go back and deal with their houses.”

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