Essential. Such a simple word, yet so subjective.
A whirlwind of new words and phrases were brought into our daily vocabulary during this pandemic. “Social distancing,” “flattening the curve,” “PPE,” and “essential businesses.”
But what is essential? Well, it depends on your priorities. For the policymakers in Albany, liquor stores were considered essential even as the virus was wreaking havoc on New Yorkers. They never doubted that alcohol was essential no matter how bad things got. Close liquor stores? No way! You’ll have a riot on your hands! They must stay open.
For us Yidden, the mitzvah of vechai bahem trumps all. The most essential parts of our daily lives: our shuls, batei medrash, and yeshivos were closed to be able to fulfill this ultimate mitzvah. We never doubted that they are most essential, but we knew what Hashem wanted from us. We gave up our essentials, because that is what He asked us to do. It was essential to stay healthy!
It’s nine weeks later. The states are reopening, each at its own pace. New York is reopening slowly, and again the question is raised: What is vital to open? What industries are essential in order to function? What do New Yorkers need?
I would like to make the case for a population in New York that has no voice of its own, no representation in Albany, and no big names to drop at the governor’s office: The little boys and girls of the average, everyday New Yorker. The children who have been cooped up for nine weeks and counting with very little, if any, social interaction. The children who have been attending school remotely, despite the constant distractions around them. The children who will need to reenter the “regular” school system in September and put their best foot forward to catch up for lost time.
These children need a structured, fun-filled, summer to recalibrate and rejuvenate.
As the state opens parks, shops, golf courses and other venues, it must consider the children’s summer needs as essential. Obviously, we would need to draw up safety guidelines to allow for a safe operation, but we must consider camp operations as essential. The narrative must be how to open camps, not if.
Every state presented its opening plan, and it is very telling to read what each state considers important enough to push to the head of the line. In Texas, for example, youth camps are in the second phase, thus enabling them to open for this summer, while in New York, as it stands now, they’re in only the fourth phase.
As in other areas in life, when something is deemed important it becomes a question of how, not if.
Let us advocate for these little heroes. They need day camps and sleepaway camps to restore and revitalize themselves. They are not a luxury, something that we can push off to the last stage of reopening. They are essential. Essential to their mental health; essential to their physical health. Essential to the health of their parents who home-schooled them for four months. Essential to their emotional well-being for the upcoming school year.
Let’s figure out how, not if.
Shmuel Kohn, LMSW, a middle school principal in Boro Park, is a licensed therapist working at the JBFCS. He is the director of chaverimboyz, an independent day camp in Woodridge, New York, now in its tenth year.