Henry S. Jacobs Camp Director Anna Herman helps campers board the buses on the last-minute HSJ Magical Mystery Tour
One of the unheralded qualities necessary in Southern Jewish communities is the ability to pivot — but Jewish interconnectedness around the region often makes it easier.
That was evident for the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Mississippi, which in the past has dealt with challenges including Covid, and been a place of refuge for those evacuating from the paths of hurricanes. This June, it was the camp that wound up needing a place of refuge, with a full complement of first session campers.
A major thunderstorm hit the Utica area early in the morning on June 16. While there was no significant damage to the camp, the power was knocked out.
Camp Director Anna Herman said they planned for the outage by renting emergency lights, held a Glow Stick party at breakfast and served pizza for Shabbat dinner. Aside from that, they tried to have a normal camp Friday, despite the heat and the lack of electricity.
As it became apparent that the damage to the electrical infrastructure in the area was extensive, plans began to move everyone to Jackson for Saturday if the power was still out. Jackson itself was dealing with widespread outages, including at Beth Israel, which wound up being out for almost a week. Beth Israel Rabbi Joseph Rosen, though, was spending the week at Jacobs Camp.
Abram Orlansky, a camper parent and Camp Committee member, volunteers as an indoor soccer coach at the Jackson YMCA. He contacted the YMCA director, and on Saturday the camp had arranged for several buses, and the Flowood and Reservoir YMCA locations welcomed the campers with air-conditioned space, as well as plenty of floor space for sleeping bags.
With assistance from the local Jewish community, “our staff magically re-created the camp Shabbat experience for our campers with a variety of Shabboptionals and a special sno-cone treat,” Herman said, and the campers also enjoyed skating and bowling excursions.
But the power wasn’t coming on in Utica any time soon, and the camp leadership knew they needed to find a place with beds and showers.
Isaac Nuell, Union for Reform Judaism associate director for strategic initiatives, and Melissa Frey, managing director of URJ Camps and Immersives, researched options, finding that the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Baton Rouge had enough space for the entire camp.
Linda Posner of Baton Rouge, immediate past Camp Committee chair, said “much of the city was in Omaha for the College World Series, but our bench is deep, and we knew we could do whatever needed to be done.”
With the power still out on Sunday morning, the next stage of the “HSJ Magical Mystery Tour” was launched, and buses headed to camp for a quick re-packing of overnight bags before departing for Baton Rouge.
“Moving 380 people on the fly, along with an entire camp’s worth of art supplies, sports equipment, snacks, toothbrushes and loveys, plus our full medical team, was no small task, but we were not working alone,” Herman said.
As the campers headed south, Nuell in North Carolina and Frey in Indiana coordinated room assignments for the night. Posner noted that each double room needed an additional single bed for a counselor, and while the hotel had some rollaway beds, there weren’t close to enough.
The Posners, who had been out of town, headed back to Baton Rouge, with Frey ordering every air mattress from every Target store in a path from Alabama to Louisiana. Camp Committee Chair Gary Lazarus sent the Posners directions to each store along the way. “Between stops, we made phone calls to secure meals, snacks, security and a medical team,” she said.
When they arrived with the air mattresses, a group of volunteers had already assembled to inflate and place the mattresses in the various rooms.
Rabbi Sarah Smiley, in her first full summer with the Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge, was supposed to have traveled to Utica that day to receive her introduction to the camp as a week-long faculty member. Instead, “Jacobs Camp came to me in Baton Rouge.”
When the buses pulled up to the hotel, the ballroom had been transformed into a camp dining hall, with a big “Welcome Home Jacobs Camp” banner. A hot dinner had been hastily arranged by the Kantrow Altons, camp parents who own Bistro Byronz, which had been closed that day. Security was arranged by a camper parent who is a police detective and got colleagues to show up despite it being Father’s Day. A medical team of camp nurses and doctors also joined in.
“When the leadership decided to bring the entire camp to Baton Rouge, I witnessed beauty,” Smiley said. “Not only the leadership team and staff of Jacobs Camp, but many members of the Jewish community of Baton Rouge stepped up.”
As room keys were handed out during the late afternoon, word came that the power was back on, but Nadav Herman and his team that had stayed behind needed time to get everything restored so the campers could return the next day.
Posner said there was “an epic slumber party on two floors of the Baton Rouge Crowne Plaza” and fun at a local arcade the next morning.
“Our campers could not have handled the transition to the hotel in Baton Rouge more beautifully,” Herman said. She reminded the campers that they were representing the camp, and “the hotel staff told us over and over again what a great group we have, and it was no surprise at all.”
Posner observed that the hotel had probably never experienced 360 voices singing Birkat Hamazon, as they did after breakfast on June 19. “For those of us fortunate enough to witness it, the sound was familiar, but the closing words landed with a different kind of gratitude.”
Later that day, everyone headed back to Morrison Road in Utica. “Passing through the Jacobs Camp gates has never felt so sweet as it did on Monday when we brought our campers back home,” Herman said.
Posner said that though the task was “immense,” it seemed “normal.”
“Everyone did what needed to be done — often before they were even asked — because this is what real communities do,” Posner said. “In this part of the country, where our Jewish communities are small, we are also integral parts of our larger, secular communities,” and those relationships made everything possible. “Our amazing Jewish communities in Jackson and Baton Rouge said hineini with more enthusiasm than we could have asked for… they took care of us.”
They were also assisted by the national URJ staff. In addition to Nuell and Frey working remotely, Debby Shriber, executive director of the URJ Northeast Camps, was on the ground for the adventure.
To help with the unexpected costs, the camp posted an online fundraiser at jacobscamp.org/offsitefun and has raised about $9600 toward a $20,000 goal as of press time.
Herman said those days were “nothing short of extraordinary, thanks to our entire community. There is nothing our camp family can’t do together, and I am so grateful.”