The Home of Happiness Was Happy Once Again

Tags: Federation, Teens, Kids, Young Adults

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April 30, 2020, the Mandel Jewish Community Center (MJCC) made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Camp Wise summer due to the worsening COVID–19 pandemic.

“I remember it exactly. I called one of my camp friends and we just cried,” said Shayna Caruso, who was a Camp Wise camper and Shaker Heights High School student when camp was canceled that summer. “Camp is a source of comfort for all of us – we’re able to ’reset’ after the school year, be with our friends, and be ourselves in the place that we love.”

That’s why when Camp Wise returned in 2021, a collective sigh of relief was heard across the community. “We were so excited. It was extremely important to be able to have camp again,” said Amy Kalk, LISW–S, community care manager for Camp Wise. “After the year we had, we all needed a place where our children could go and be kids again.”

The first step of planning a safe and fun summer was putting in place the necessary safety protocol. MJCC, a Jewish Federation of Cleveland beneficiary agency, worked closely with other camping colleagues, the American Camp Association, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and medical professionals from University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic to take a multilayered approach to keep camp COVID free. And their efforts paid off as there were zero COVID–positive cases throughout the 2021 camping season.

“Isolating and contact tracing allowed us to go into camp knowing that our community was starting healthy,” said Rachel Felber, outgoing director of Camp Wise. “We created a bubble to limit opportunities for COVID to enter our campus and we were successful. We can’t thank everyone enough who had a part in that – from the parents, campers, and staff. We couldn’t have made that a reality without everyone giving it 100%.”

“Camp Wise is so much bigger than 13164 Taylor Wells Road in Chardon. It’s beyond that space – it’s part of our community.” –Rabbi Shana Nyer

Throughout the past two years, the Federation also worked closely the MJCC to support Camp Wise with the necessary financial resources and access to experts to support campers and staff on many levels. “The Federation was instrumental in providing us with the ability to compensate our staff for the job that they did for the summer,” said Kalk. “For our staff to see that from the Federation, and in turn from our community, made a big difference. We appreciate and value how we all fit together to make this community stronger.”

As important as the prevention of COVID became, Camp Wise’s strength in supporting the staff and campers’ social–emotional behavior and mental health became even more critical. “Being physically and socially isolated during COVID, it was critical that camp became an environment where you can have that support and re–develop how you operate as a social being,” Felber added.

“Camp leadership did everything they could to prepare for the mental health struggles of the campers and the staff. No one knew what that was going to be like,” said Rabbi Shana Nyer, Camp Wise Judaic educator & rabbi. “We had to re–learn how to interact with people face–to–face. And while COVID forced us to put a focus on mental health last year, we all realized it’s important to have moving forward.”

Research shows that when children return home from Jewish summer camp they have a deepened connection to Jewish life and culture and have developed new friendships that will last a lifetime. These connections – to both people and community – are transformational.

“I think I took camp for granted for a long time,” said Caruso. “Coming back in 2021, I realized how much camp has done for me and for so many others. I just can’t imagine what kind of person I’d be without Camp Wise and I thank everyone involved for making it happen.”

For more information on how Jewish overnight summer camp makes an impact in our community, contact Melanie Halvorson at mhalvorson@jewishcleveland.org or 216–593–2868.

Learn More: Federation, Teens, Kids, Young Adults