You send your children off to summer camp hoping they’ll make friends, learn new skills, and have a wonderful, carefree experience. And most of the time, they return tanned, happy, and loaded with stories about good friends you’ve never met.
But what’s a parent to do when something terrible happens to another child at the camp? Whether there’s been a serious or fatal illness or an accident—which happens. What should a caring, responsible parent do?
All of this became far more real for my own family and community this summer when a child at a New Jersey Jewish camp died of an as-yet undiagnosed illness. While the immediate reaction is naturally sadness and compassion for that camper’s parents, next come a series of actions.
One would expect the camp would take certain steps, including immediately notifying all parents, as well as any overseeing health officials and local police. A thorough cleansing of the buildings, interior and exterior, including all equipment, must be a priority. All remedial steps to insure physical and psychological health of everyone in camp should be kick in. Mental health professionals should be available and easily accessible to campers and staff.
Open, accurate communication being key, calls from concerned parents must be responded to as quickly as possible. And campers should be able, and encouraged, to call and speak with their parents.
Those are the basics. But then there are the questions with no clear answers.
Should you take your camper home, or should you let him or her stay it out with bunkmates? Assuming all health concerns are alleviated–there is no rampant infection or contagion—is it better to remove kids to the comfort of home under your watchful eye, letting them recuperate in the familiar surroundings?
Or is it best to let them remain in place, hoping they recover some equilibrium with others who have experienced the same trauma, going through activity-filled days under the watchful eye of caring and carefully coached staff?
Who is the better parent? Which is the happier child?
On a deeper level, is it ever possible to view the whole idea of camp, or even summer, as the same halcyon haven again? Or was that always a mirage?
Tragedies happen almost every summer, after all. A young swimmer at the shore gets swept away in a rip tide. An allergic child succumbs to a swarm of bees. The question, as is true in so much of life, is what happens next.
For me, at least, an oft-quoted Talmud passage offers some guidance.
Kiddushin 29a: “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.”
Commenting on the last part of this directive in the journal Sh’ma, Rachel Meytin writes, “Swimming, literally, is a life-or-death matter. The authors of the Talmud recognized that parents must teach their children how to survive—how to come out on the “swim” end of “sink or swim.” Even if we live far from water, even if we think our children will never accidentally enter a pool area, even if we ourselves hate water, we must ensure that our children have the basic skills necessary to survive.”
That directive would include learning how to cope with unthinkable tragedy–at camp and throughout life.