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Swine Aint' Kosher at Jewish Summer Camp


D’var Acher
(Alternate Title): Porky Pig, Superman and Other Comics

translation: swine flu, super staff and the theater of the absurd

D’var Acher (Alternate Title): “I Know it is 1:00 am, and I’m Sorry to Wake You, but…”

Team Crisis Management. From midnight, Wednesday, June 17, 2009 thru lunchtime, June 18, 2009, Michelle and I joined the URJ Camp Newman’s Team Crisis Management as the camp responded to a few cases of Influenza A (presumed to be H1N1 – swine flu) and another dozen cases of the regular flu.

[We just read that the Sacramento newspaper reported: 15 swine flu cases close Santa Rosa religious youth camp

Camp Newman-Swig, a sprawling 500-acre complex on Porter Creek Road, had two probable and 13 highly suspect cases of the H1N1 virus among members of its adult staff, said Dr. Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, Sonoma County’s public health officer.

The Camp experience began as expected. We had arrived at Camp Newman at about 5:30 pm and enjoyed the traditional pre-camp faculty dinner out at Dafna’s Greek. A fabulous faculty meeting followed where we learned about many exciting camp intiatives, and where I was introduced as Faculty Dean and Michelle as a member of the Nefesh Team (“nefesh” = soul = the camp’s psychosocial support team). We were dazzled by the efforts of Or Ami Rabbinic (and Rabb/Ed) intern, now Camp Education Director Sara Mason-Barkin.

Not ten minutes after the meeting let out, the faculty was called back into session and informed that camp, facing a number of staff with flu-like symptoms, had determined that we were facing a few cases of presumed H1N1, swine flu. With a decision immanent to postpone the arrival of the younger campers (Avodah, CIT and Staff were already at camp), we were being drafted into Team Crisis Management and asked to call all camper parents tonight to inform them of the decision.

By 10:15 pm, a calling script was being written, call lists divided up (rabbis/educators began by calling our own congregants), and, with Michelle’s guidance, a list of responses to anticipated questions was being developed (when will camp invite the younger campers up? Still to early to say).

By 11:00 pm, we were spread out all over camp, manning phones, spreading the calm but clear message:

Dear Parent,

We are in the process of calling all of our camper parents with the important announcement…

In the last 48 hours a number of our staff members have come into the infirmary not feeling well, some with fever. In order to be very cautious and responsible, we tested some of our staff and the results came back positive for Influenza A. Our county public health department has informed us that this is mostly likely the H1N1 virus – swine flu. Therefore after consulting with medical professionals and the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism we have determined that is wise to delay the opening camp and to demonstrate an abundance of caution. While we know that this will be tremendously inconvenient, we take our responsibility for the health and safety of children entrusted to our care as our foremost priority.

We will be in touch again by email late Thursday with an update. We hope by then to be able to make a determination as to when the session will begin. Again we are very sorry for calling so late and we certainly understand that our campers will be disappointed.

Thank you for your understanding and support. (Email addresses were provided for those with questions.)

From 11:00 pm until 2:00 am, Michelle and I joined a dozen other faculty, waking parents and sharing the news. It was a fascinating and overwhelming experience. Fascinating because here we were, telling parents that their child’s camp experience and long planned family plans were being changed, yet with the exception of a handful, most parents were appreciative and complimentary about our proactive decision. Overwhelming, because a good many offered to help in a multiplicity of ways. Even better, of 200+ campers, only one (one!) camper showed up for camp. In just 3 short hours, we successfully reached the entire camper population!

Though we were dragging by 2:00 am, we were reassured by the experience of being part of a Jewish community dedicated to emet (truth/honesty), chochma (wisdom/wise decisions), and responsiveness. Just before we passed out in our bed, Michelle and I chatted about how impressed we were with the quick, patient leadership of Director Ruben Arquilevich, Associate Director Phil Hankin, and their senior staff. They consulted with the top notch camp doctors, coordinated with the local Department of Public Health, conferenced by senior URJ leaders in New York (waking them as the concern mounted), and made appropriately conservative decisions in the best interests of the staff/CITs/Avodahniks currently in camp, and those who will come up in the future.

Those staff who are sick have been segregated (isolated/quarantined is the medical term), and many of those who had flu symptoms are currently on the mend. As the flu has an incubation peried of about 7 days, the camp is being proactively responsible in waiting to see if the flu will spread. Our daughter is hanging with her CIT (counselor in training) friends, observing the camp separation between CITs/Avodahniks and the staff (the latter who were together during the incubation period).

After a few hours sleep (I woke at 7:30 am Wednesday), we gathered down in the Chadar Ochel (dining room) to evaluate and begin the process of deciding next steps. Communication with the national URJ office, with the Health Department, with our medical staff, with the region’s rabbis/cantors/educators and with parents continues on the highest, most open level.

How are we Kipnes/Novembers?
Understand that our Kipnes/November family is healthy and safe, as are the vast, vast majority of the camp community. Though we told our two sons to wash hands regularly, to eat at tables away from the rest of the staff, and to refrain from hugging anyone (a challenge in the loving camp community), they are enjoying the run of the camp with only minimal supervision.

Reflections on our Camp Newman Leadership: You take the measure of an institution, and the measure of a man, by the way they respond in the most challenging of situations. That’s why, in the end, I remain a fan of the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, and of its leadership (from Senior Director Ruben Arquilevich). They are being prudent, responsible, consultative, caring, tireless and more…

6 comments

  1. Sue Gould says:

    The situation has been handled brilliantly, prudently and compassionately. If only the Camp Newman Leadership team could take over the world!

  2. CJ says:

    Thanks so much for describing the experience inside the camp. As a parent who was called at 1:30 a.m., I eagerly await information about what will happen next–and how the ill are doing. Wishing those with the flu a speedy and full recovery, and looking forward to more updates,
    A Mom

  3. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi,

    As I also passed along to Rabbi Rick, you and the rest of the staff have my family's compliments for the proactive, courteous and respectful manner in which this situaion has been handled.

    The whole point of crisis management is to attempt to determine the best course of action given difficult circimstances and imperfect information. The decisions and actions enacted by the crisis team thusfar have ensured the absolute safety of the children and have minimized the level of inconvenience to the families.

    Don't get me wrong… my kid is horribly dissapointed that he's not at camp, especially since this was to be his first year. But the handling of this situation is a credit to the care and professionalism of the URJ and Newman staff. You have demonstrated that this is a wonderful organization to work with and that Newman is the right camp for us to be sending our son to in the first place.

    We truly appreciate the ongoing hard work that has been put forth in this effort and are hopeful that the camp will get healthy and open as soon as possible.

    -Brian Schwartz

  4. Anonymous says:

    My daugther is there, Avodah..She is at "home" when at camp. This is her 9th summer and I'm so pleased she is in Avodah and being part of the community service program.
    Her brother is due to join her as soon as Opening Day is announced. He is for sure bummed to still be home with me! 🙂

    I hope those that fell ill, are getting better each day so that they too, can continue enjoying the summer at Newman..a truly special place for all..

    Robin

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