Summer camps address security concerns

Ramah campers participate in daily prayer services and traditional camp activities.

This is the first camp season after the mass shootings of synagogues in Pittsburgh and outside San Diego, and parents should be asking plenty of questions of the camps to which they are entrusting their children, a Jewish security expert says.

“Parents should be asking their children’s camp how they are addressing safety and security,” said Michael Masters, CEO of Secure Community Network. “What are the policies and procedures they have put in place? What physical security do they have at the camp? How are they training their staff? The counselors? The campers?”

With concerns about rising gun violence and anti-Semitism, camps are doing more than refreshing their security procedures, according to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Camps are certainly putting more effort into training their staff this summer and preparedness,” he said.

Masters suggested that one important step that all camps can take is to build relationships with local emergency officials — fire, police, the sheriff’s department and more — as that can make the difference should the need for emergency aid arise.

Camps Airy and Louise, in Thurmont, Md., and Cascade, Md., said on their website that they have goals similar to Masters’. “Camps Airy & Louise work with state and local authorities to maintain the safety of our campers and staff throughout the summer.” Neither camp responded to questions for this story.

Most overnight camps do not allow participants to bring cell phones or other electronic devices. So how do they handle emergency communications with parents?

Camp Ramah in New England breaks its camp into divisions, which each have a staffer designated a “yoetzet,” whose cell phone number parents receive, “so if they ever have any concerns they can call their yoetzet up directly and speak immediately to someone who knows their child,” according to the camp’s website. The camp did not respond to requests for an interview.

At Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a security consultant specializing in Jewish community spaces was brought on to audit the camp’s security systems and protocols. Camp Executive Director Rabbi Joel Seltzer said local Department of Homeland Security and FBI agents have toured the camp to give suggestions and advice. He explained that the camp, and many other Jewish organizations in the area, were introduced to the security personnel after the 2017 nationwide wave of bomb threats called in to JCCs and other Jewish institutions. Ramah has made investments into its security infrastructure in recent years, adding additional cameras and a campwide public address system.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic acts have been on the rise. The ADL’s 2018 annual audit found that 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents occurred in the United States. The organization’s interactive heat map shows 3,512 total anti-Semitic and extremist incidents in 2018 and 2019.

As concerns grow, camps need to be prepared for emergencies, said Masters.

“If you go on a cruise, you do a safety drill. The same thing on an airplane. And more and more we are seeing rabbis, when they start services, to remind people where the emergency exits are. These are questions parents have a responsibility to ask and institutions should expect to have a strong answer to.”

Traditionally, camps relied on security booths, a guard at the gate, maybe security cameras and other measures. Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pa., offers “a monitored electronic gate entrance that limits entry to those we wish to grant access,” according to the camp’s website. “In addition, we work with local law enforcement agencies to ensure our community remains safe.”

In addition, the camp performs “comprehensive background checks on all staff and staff wear photo IDs on site.”

But upgrading security on a large scale can be costly, and so many camps face the same challenges that synagogues and day schools are facing: funding, and often, a lack of it.

Providing training for what to do in situations where there’s an active shooter or other emergency situation is critical, not just for the staffers at camp, but for the campers themselves.

“There’s always an age appropriate way to train someone to address a situation and react,” said Masters. “It will be different for a 10- or 14-year-old, but the underlining objective is to flee and get to safety. … We have an obligation to provide a skill set of tools to the professionals who work in the camp, a skill set to the counselors and a skill set for the campers,” so everyone knows what to do.

Contributing to this article were WJW Staff Writer Jacqueline Hyman and Eric Schucht, a staff writer at the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of WJW.

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