Some camp directors might panic at the sight of a damaged oak tree cordoned off by orange cones with a broken branch dangling precariously from a cable — but not Eytan Graubart.
In the second week of June, on a day that scorched like the start of summer, the 30-year-old who moved here from Virginia to become director of the new Harlam Day Camp stood near the tree, but not close enough to benefit from its shade.
He didn’t appear to feel the heat from camp preparations being a week behind schedule due to a brutal winter that had caused tree branches to snap and snow days to pile up at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, the site of the new camp, the first of its kind for the Reform movement in the country.
“My wife said to me, ‘You’re always crazy the week before camp,’ ” said Graubart, so a broken branch and an extra time crunch were just par for the course.
Looking at the 35-acre arboretum surrounding the Barrack buildings, one could understand why Graubart, who has been a camp director for seven years, wasn’t rattled about the prospect of transforming a venue for note-taking and tests into a day camp where campers will soon be bellowing out songs. There were ponds, streams, picnic tables and an abundance of green space.
But there was still plenty to do before June 23, opening day for the program affiliated with Camp Harlam, a Union for Reform Judaism overnight camp at the base of the Pocono Mountains.
An arborist would need to check the health of that tree and others on the property, Graubart said, noting that this is a pretty standard precaution for camps these days. And he needed to prepare for about 100 elementary and middle school kids enrolled in the inaugural year of the camp, which is one of nine Jewish day camps in the Greater Philadelphia area.
With school ending a week later than expected because of the snow, training for staff needed to be condensed.
Two staff members had arrived from Israel a few weeks before camp started and immediately asked for rolls of burlap fabric for a scouting project they were planning. Burlap had not been on Graubart’s shopping list.“We are ordering and shopping like crazy to make sure that we really have everything for it to not feel like a brand new camp,” he said.
Staff members were tasked with hauling all the desks and chairs out of classrooms and bringing in posters from Israel, stereos and beanbag chairs to convert them into “bunk rooms.”
They were also still developing the intangible aspects of camp, such as songs and sayings that could potentially become traditions. They will borrow some of them from the overnight Harlam, Graubart said.
The idea, he said, is to give the day camp the same feel as the residential program, which the fifth- and sixth-grade campers will get to experience during a special overnight in Kunkletown, Pa.
“Certainly one of the aims is to get kids to go to Harlam” overnight camp, he said. But, he added, there are also campers who might prefer to stay in a day camp setting.
The Bryn Mawr camp is acting as a pilot program for other URJ overnight camps around the country and emerged from the idea that there needed to be a better way to engage children in the Reform movement between preschool programs and overnight camps.
“More and more people are starting to buy into the notion that attending day camps is a really valuable experience for forming your Jewish identity,” Graubart said.
The Conservative movement has similar partnerships between Ramah day and overnight camps around the country, including Camp Ramah in the Poconos and its day camp in Elkins Park. Graubart said he has traded ideas and received help from Susan Ansul, the director of the local Ramah Day Camp.
“We’ve also sort of made an agreement that we’re not in competition with one another until every Jewish kid is going to Jewish camp,” he said. “For the most part, most Jewish kids aren’t, still. We can’t wait for the day where we’re competing with one another, but right now, it’s helping each other out.”
Graubart, who grew up attending and working at Camp Young Judaea’s overnight program in central Wisconsin, doesn’t need to be sold on the power of day camps.
“I was always an overnight camp person,” he said. Then, while working as director of a JCC day camp in Virginia, one experience helped transform him. A parent emailed saying the son wanted to play a game on Shabbat he had learned that week at camp but he couldn’t remember the rules. The family later told him that they hadn’t regularly celebrated Shabbat.
“I realized that this family was spending their Shabbat together,” he said. “And camp was the reason why they were doing it.”