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Staying On The Playing Field | Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America

The unhappy news arrived late yesterday afternoon that a federal judge had denied a motion to prohibit Governor Andrew Cuomo from closing down overnight camps across New York State, thereby putting the proverbial nail in the coffin on this summer’s overnight camping season in New York.

While it is true that some of the overnight camps have relocated to other states, and that some others have recreated themselves as day camps, the bottom line remains that hundreds- if not thousands -of children whose parents were counting on having them spend the next weeks in overnight camp now face the prospect of having no structured program for the hot summer months ahead. To these families, yesterday’s court ruling is an absolutely crushing blow.

The pill was difficult to swallow for us at Agudath Israel as well. Not just because of the displacements suffered by the Agudah’s renowned network of “Ruach Country” summer camps – though those displacements are substantial. And not just because we have had to disappoint many families that have been longtime Agudah camp “customers” – though the disappointment was palpable.

What made the court’s ruling especially painful to Agudath Israel was the fact that, at the urging of our rabbinic leadership and other prominent menahalim and mechanchim, we had placed special emphasis in our advocacy efforts on getting the camps up and running.

To be sure, overnight summer camps have always played an important role in the ruchniyus’dig development of our youth. This year, however, after three difficult months of yeshiva shutdown, the urgency of getting children into immersive 24/7 structured camp programs was greater than ever. Recognizing this, Gedolei Yisroel, Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbonim charged the Agudah to take an active role in persuading Governor Cuomo to allow overnight camps to open.

We faithfully tried to meet that charge.

Under the banner of AJCO (the Association of Jewish Camp Operators – an umbrella group formed by Agudath Israel to represent the interests of the Jewish camping community), our group developed a detailed plan, endorsed by a group of prestigious infectious disease specialists and other prominent medical professionals, that would enable the camps to open with the safest possible environment for children.

Under the leadership of Agudath Israel’s board chairman Shloime Werdiger, with the help of Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein who played a major role in the advocacy efforts, and with the participation of representatives from across the broad spectrum of the Orthodox camp universe, we arranged no fewer than three meetings with the Governor’s top staff.

And then, after the Governor finally announced his decision to shut down the overnight camps, we convened with the camp representatives and decided to go to federal court in a last ditch effort to vindicate our community’s rights by obtaining a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) preventing the Governor from shutting down the camps. We did so with great reluctance – the mesorah of Agudas Yisroel is that suing a government official is always a last resort option, to be exercised only in exceptional situations – but this clearly qualified as such a situation.

And so, we were deeply disappointed when news of yesterday’s ruling came in. We were reminded, though, of a letter of chizuk that the Rosh Hayeshiva Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt’l wrote some 50 years ago to legendary Agudah leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer z’l after the Supreme Court had rejected an important argument we had advanced regarding a matter of great importance to the community. The Rosh Hayeshiva told Rabbi Sherer that there was no reason to be down, for our job in this world is to do, not to accomplish; only Hashem accomplishes: tzu tuhn, nit tzu oiftuhn.

In truth, despite our loss in court, we also achieved a great victory, a victory for kvod Shomayim. As the court noted in its ruling, by the time Governor Cuomo issued his decree in the last days of June shutting down overnight camps, virtually the only camps that still wanted to open this summer were the Jewish camps. And the only camps that felt so strongly about opening that they were prepared to challenge the Governor in court were the Jewish camps.

Which tells the world something very special about the Jewish camps – and the Jewish People. To the world, summer camps may be about children swimming and playing baseball and hiking. To us, summer camps are about children learning to connect to Hashem, to develop their spiritual selves no less than their physical selves, to experience the joy of total immersion in Torah learning and Torah living.

Those are things worth fighting for, even after everyone else leaves the playing field.

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There are 8 Comments to "Staying On The Playing Field | Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America"

  • Bnei Noah says:

    This affects so many more communities. We have a faith-based camp in the Harriman section of NY. While this is a disaster we all prayed together and one of our congregation members was made aware of a camp we could rent in Pennsylvania. We had most of the money already from the tuition and we added the money slated to pay our teachers for the time they were barred from work. Many of them became counselors and directors/managers. I understand the additional expense of having to make the kitchens kosher and having kosher food and utensils but the Jewish community is well known for stepping up to the plate to generously handle concerns such as these. I have seen them spring into action in my town. May the Almighty help you as He has helped us through our prayers. We are grateful to our Father in Heaven.

  • Connecting to Hashem says:

    I understand that many parents are disappointed that their children cannot attend summer camp, and that the children are likewise disappointed at not being able to attend. My children had not planned to attend sleep away camp; they weren’t interested, which is just as well as we can’t afford it. Still I hope that we will be able to connect to Hashem even outside of upstate NY, and hope the same for the disappointed children and parents. Is Hashem not everywhere?

  • Chaim says:

    If the Agudah sincerely thought it was essential for kids to go to sleepaway camp, perhaps their time and resources would be better spent trying to make sure camps are affordable to all. Many, if not most families cannot afford to send their children to sleep away camp. Those families are happy their children won’t feel left out this year since none of their friends will be going either.

  • Camp for all says:

    100% Chaim! I was always under the impression that sleepaway camp was a luxury. But after this long fought battle for “ kvod shamayim”, it seems that sleepaway camp has become an absolute necessity. We should , starting with camp Aguda, bring down the price so everyone can have such a wonderful experience. No camp owners should be allowed to run camp on a business model. Rather it should be ran like yeshivos. We’ll have dinners and fundraisers to make sure everyone has a chance.

  • Camp for all says:

    100% Chaim! I was always under the impression that sleepaway camp was a luxury. After this long fought battle “lkvod shamayim ans hatzalas nefoshos”, it seems that sleepaway camp is a real necessity. I think it’s time, starting with Camp Aguda, to lower the cost of camp. We can no longer let camps run on a business model. They should be run like our yeshivos. We’ll have dinners and fundraisers to ensure that no neshama should be left behind.

  • My 2 cents says:

    I think camps could be more affordable if they didn’t have over the top trips and fancy canteens serving pizza and burgers etc. They could pare down some of their expenses. Post WWII camps, I am sure didn’t cost so much compared to now. It’s just that they’ve become so competitive. And that goes for day camps too.

  • Eli says:

    This article is written well, with very good intentions.

    As the other posts are articulating Camp is not affordable for many families.

    This author is saying that the spiritual need of our children is crucial by being in sleep away camp which is true, The next step is to make it affordable for all the our Children..Camps need to run as non for profit, with fundraising etc. As mentioned we can do away with the all the crazy standards that camps are doing to keep the wealthy satisfied. Keep it simple like the Torah would want it. Ultimately that is true Chinuch .

    Agudah please start to work on it. The same way HASC, Amudim ,Lakewood center, Chai lifeline, A time, Bonei Olam, Rccs etc. which are all great organizations can raise Millions so can mainstream camps.

    One more thing, when we do get these camps off the ground keep them out of New York!!! Forever!!!

  • Asher says:

    This article has no mention of a global pandemic which affects all members of Hashem’s earth, which is shameful for a news organization such as TLS. The purpose is not to take away the very important experiences of Jewish Summer programs, but to protect the health of our children, our teachers, and those members of the communities where the camps are located.

    Camps are not closed environments: kitchen staff, delivery staff and others come to camp on a regular basis, and closing camps is an effort to protect our children as well as the population of those communities as well.