Commie Camp: Indoctrination or True Jewish Values?

A new documentary about an offbeat Jewish summer camp raises difficult, pertinent questions about the political meaning of Judaism's core cultural values.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

A new documentary about a progressive Jewish summer camp is making its way around the Jewish film festival circuit. Commie Camp, by Katie Halper, takes as its hook a comment by Rush Limbaugh in 2012. Trying to undermine U.S. President Barack Obama’s pick for head of Bureau of Labor Statistics, Limbaugh prepared a zinger. Evidently the nominee had sent her kid to “a politically left-wing, Jewish summer camp with Communist roots!”

The camp being referred to, Camp Kinderland, was one Halper knew well, and her ears perked up at the remark. Like her mother, uncle and grandmother before her, Halper attended it as a camper. “Does attending Camp Kinderland make you an extremist? Am I an even greater enemy of the state?” she asked herself.

So Halper decided to return to the camp to try to learn whether it is “too late to save the children from indoctrination, and the Republic from ruin.” The documentary follows a handful of campers and staff as they journey from New York City to spend a summer at Camp Kinderland in the Berkshires.

“Commie camp,” one 12-year old camper says with a winking smile, “is a camp where we learn about human justice. We’re not anarchists, but we’re sort of against the general ruling of things nowadays.” This camper plays the accordion and loves Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers. Naomi Klein’s No Logo is visible on his parents’ bookshelf.

It’s an unusual camp, certainly: Yiddish signs pepper the campsite; bunks and buildings are named for activists like Roberto Clemente, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, and Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney, who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while registering African Americans to vote; Color war teams are given arcane and hard-to-rhyme names of actual NGOs like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and the Center for Constitutional Rights. On a given afternoon, campers might be led in discussions about sweatshops, torture of political prisoners, child violence, or redistributing land to Native Americans.

Ultimately, what starts out as a tongue-in-cheek examination of the would-be “robots” facing “indoctrination” turns into a touching glimpse of what can happen when kids, teens and adults come together to form the kind of intentional community that the best kind of summer camps strive to be. It’s compelling viewing.

But here at The Fifth Question, I’ve been puzzling over one of the central themes of the film, namely the purported relationship between Jewish identity and social justice. Judy, a senior staff member, suggests that “love they neighbor as thyself [and] all the values of the prophets are Kinderland socialist values.” She cites the labor-exploitation consciousness of the prophet Amos, and states that the “the Jewish tradition from which I come is anti-racist.”

But despite American Jews overwhelmingly voting Democrat, we know that: a) most liberal Jews would eschew these kinds of radical progressive values, and, b) politically conservative Jews are hardly a statistical footnote. Would these center or right-wing Jews say that their political beliefs emanate from their Jewishness, or that they hold these beliefs in spite of it? Jewish values can’t point to diametrically opposed ways of organizing society - or can they?

I am certainly not the first to wrestle with these questions. Last year, writing as election season was revving up, Jay Michaelson suggested one way out of the Jewish-values-in-politics conundrum: “Judaism is not the answer key; it’s the question key. It sets the stage for the important questions to be asked, but accommodates contradictory answers to them. Thus, rather than inquire as to whether liberals or conservatives are “really Jewish,” we are invited to more interesting explorations. Like which ideology promotes a healthy Jewish people, a saner world, a safer world, or more compassion. Or which ideology leads to more holiness, more connection and more truthfulness with the experiences of all people.”

When it comes to the themes of the film, though, there is one more kink to be ironed out. Camp Kinderland stresses its secular nature. Hebrew was rejected as being too religious. Yiddish, on the other hand, was viewed as the language of “resistance.” Pork wasn’t frowned upon, but not sharing your eight Chinese dumplings (brought by your parents) with your fourteen bunkmates, now that was a sin, Katie recalls.

In a published interview earlier this summer, Rabbi Michael Lerner, himself a vocal advocate of social justice grounded in religion, sought to press Halper on this point. When Katie says that she thinks “the progressive Jewish community in the U.S. is more secular than religious,” and that “secular Jews have been most influential in progressive movements,” Lerner counters with the social action arm of the Reform movement and figures like Abraham Joshua Heschel.

In sum, two points worth considering further: does a secular worldview actually help promote the kind of universalist social justice Camp Kinderland’s philosophy depends on? And how does being Jewish lead to particular ways of wanting to organize our world? With the High Holidays around the corner, these may be questions to think about during the hours spent in shul, contemplating global Jewish interconnectedness amidst the focus on life, death, the passing of time, the next world, and how to fix this very broken one.

Follow me on Twitter @sucharov

A screenshot from 'Commie Camp'.

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