CT News

This summer, Camp Laurelwood returns to nature

By Stacey Dresner

MADISON – There is some good news for families hoping to send their children to Connecticut’s only Jewish overnight sleep away camp this summer.

On June 27, Camp Laurelwood in Madison plans to once again open its popular seven-week camp program to young campers who were forced to stay home last summer due to Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are expecting that [state] guidance is going to come in and we’re going to be able to open it up this summer,” says Rabbi James Greene, Laurelwood’s executive director. 

“We often say, our campers wait 10 months for two months of camp. Now they’ve been waiting 22 months for the two months in camp. And we think this summer camp is going to be exceptional. One of the idioms that we’ve been using during this last year is that ‘the comeback is always better than the setback.’”

Of primary concern will be keeping campers safe and healthy.

“What we learned from camps that did open and operate last summer around the country, by and large, is that they did so extremely safely. They had very low rates of COVID exposure,” he said. “This camp is a really safe place, and we already knew that because we invest a significant amount of resources in health and safety.

“We will have a robust testing program…we expect that we will be testing both before campers arrive at camp, as well as while they’re here, some amount between weekly, and every other week. And we will also be operating in smaller groups.”

This summer Laurelwood will feature two new activities with an emphasis on the outdoors. 

One is a social justice project created in partnership with Jessie’s Community Gardens, in which campers will tend a garden and donate its produce to a local food bank.

“Having a garden at Camp Laurelwood is very appropriate to our family because all four of my children went to camp at Camp Laurelwood and enjoyed the experience very much. And now three of my grandchildren go to Camp Laurelwood, so the camp is very special to us,” says Dane Kostin, the father of the last Jessica Kostin in whose memory Jessie’s Community Gardens was established. 

“Teaching kids the necessity of helping others is a critical part of why we started Jessie’s Gardens. …These campers are taught about tzedakah and tikkun olam so this is a perfect opportunity to use the garden as part of a lesson,” he adds. 

In addition to the new garden, plans are also afoot to build a chicken coop on the camp grounds. campers will tend to the chickens and collect eggs that will also be donated to the local food bank.

Laurelwood’s bucolic campus will also be the site of a new nature program. Rabbi Greene, who serves as a volunteer wilderness guide and homesteader in the town of Suffield, where he lives, will lead campers on hikes – something he did this past January for the New Haven Jewish community’s PJ Library Tu B’Shevat program. 

Now, says Greene, “My hope is we’ll see synagogues using the campus for retreats. We’ll see Federations, JCCs and day schools partnering with us… [using] the ropes course or the pool or maybe boating on the lake, or for Jewish activity and engagement for religious schools.”

The idea to open Laurelwood’s sprawling 140-plus campus to community-wide programs stems from last summer, when the overnight camp was forced to close and instead opened up for three weeks of ‘Family Camp.’

“We heard from our families that they wanted a place to come and get away. And so we opened up family camp programming for three weeks,” Greene said. 

During that time, 30 families stayed at Laurelwood, each enjoying the privacy of their own cabin and bathroom.

The program was so successful that Laurelwood was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Jewish camp, becoming a cohort in the foundation’s inaugural JFAM initiative. The grant will help Laurelwood provide meaningful Jewish experiences for families with young children.

Now, family camp weekends are scheduled for the next five years, beginning with one planned for early June 2021.

The experience will give families from throughout the region the opportunity to experience Shabbat as they explore Laurelwood’s sprawling 140 acre campus and all the activities it has to offer.

Main Photo: The waterfront at Camp Laurelwood.

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