Off the Shelf: Jewish summer camps

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A major worry of the post-World War II Jewish community was whether affluence would dilute people’s Jewish observance. After all, Jews were moving to suburbs, rather than living in close quarters in Jewish sections of large cities, and finding more acceptance in secular/Christian society. Would their children continue to find meaning in their religion or would they assimilate into the general American culture? One potential answer to this fear was Jewish summer camps where children could live 24/7 in a Jewish environment and experience the beauty of their religion/culture. However, in “The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America” (Stanford University Press), Sandra Fox shows that Jewish summer camps began decades earlier than many people realize and originally served a wider variety of purposes. Fox, a visiting professor and the director of the American Jewish Archive at New York University, seeks to expand readers’ thoughts about Jewish camps by analyzing the different types of camps that have been available over the decades.

Fox notes that while there have been other books about Jewish camps, her work takes the subject in a different direction: “First and foremost, this book focuses less on what makes these camps unique than on how the diverse movements employed the camping idea in strikingly similar ways... this book focuses more on how camps’ diverse leaders came to agree that nationalism, language, and various forms of Jewish practice should be harnessed to transform Jewish children.” These postwar camps built on those that were founded in the 1920s, although their programming would be transformed in the 1940s and ‘50s. While there were many types of camps, Fox discusses four types because they focused on Jewish education: these camps were affiliated with Zionist organizations, Yiddish culture institutions or the Conservative or Reform movements. While each had a different agenda, they were all trying to mold their campers into a particular image. 

Camps were divided by what specific aspect of Judaism they emphasized. For example, there were camps focusing on Yiddish culture, which included teaching Yiddish. Originally, most of their campers spoke Yiddish at home, although that changed over time and there was a split among campers as to whether they wanted to spend their summer studying Yiddish. Zionist camps focused not only on learning Hebrew, but on skills that would allow campers to survive life as a pioneer in Israel. Cooperative exercises and skill training played an important role in this. The camps affiliated with the religious movements wanted their campers to experience a complete Jewish life, although what that looked like differed in each camp. The education offered by most camps had an additional purpose: to keep their campers from intermarrying. This was especially true of those camps that were co-ed from their beginning.

One of the most interesting chapters of “The Jews of Summer” deals with the struggle between what camp administrators/counselors wanted to accomplish and how campers wanted to spend their summers. This was particularly true during the 1960s and ‘70s when the youth culture of the time influenced campers. Campers’ demands led to more freedom of choice. However, even when they were offered a great deal of freedom, that freedom still had limits.zzThat’s because the camps sought to instill particular ideas and skills in their campers in spite of their rebellion: the hope was that the campers would see themselves as partners in that process, rather than being directed from above. Fox writes, “As much as campers felt free as they roamed the grounds, procured alcohol, directed for a day, and hiked alone in the woods, they were subject to the rules and oversight of counselors, unit heads, directors, and rabbis who watched from a distance. Most camp leaders encouraged challenging and questioning ideas presented during the educational programs, but they ultimately discouraged campers from embracing ideas outside the ideological boundaries of their movements.”

Another area where campers and leaders disagreed was on the educational components of camp, including language instruction. This was particularly true in Yiddish camps when campers now came from homes where no Yiddish was spoken; these campers saw no reason to study Yiddish since the language was not relevant to their lives. In the camps that focused on religion, too much questioning, especially of the basic tenets of Judaism, could result in campers not being invited back the next summer. The balance between camps’ educational components and some campers’ desire for recreations, rather spending their summer in what seemed a summer school, served as another factor. 

The conclusion concentrates on the difficulties camps face in contemporary times, for example, campers questioning Zionism or using the #MeToo movement to reconsider the emphasis on pairing and sexual activity in camp culture. The camps, though, have also expanded their ideas of Judaism – for example, offering information about Sephardic and Mizrachic culture, in addition to the predominant Ashkenazic one – and are allowing students to question more aspects of Jewish life. 

“The Jews of Summer” offers supporters of Jewish camps much to consider. The large amount of detail about particular camp activities will be of less interest to those focusing on the greater questions, for example, whether Jewish camps are succeeding in their missions and whether those missions are relevant in contemporary times. Those with fond memories of camp may enjoy revisiting the details of summers’ past. However, the work’s greatest success is its portrait of an important aspect of Jewish American life.