An Immigrant's Tale: How Jewish Summer Camp Became Such a Quintessential Rite of Passage for American Jews

Jewish summer camps actually began as part of a larger trend in the late 19th century to get poor kids from the inner cities out into the fresh air of the countryside and to 'Americanize' them in the process

Eden Village, a Jewish summer camp that opened in 2009 in Putnam Valley, New York, the first environmental, organic farm-to-table Jewish camp.
Mario Guerrero

BOSTON – When I told friends that my 10-year-old daughter was going to be spending a month at overnight camp this summer, I got two totally different responses. Most Jewish friends melted into nostalgia for their own camp days and gushed over how much she was going to love it. But several non-Jewish friends and Israeli friends gave me bewildered looks and asked: How can you bear to be away from your daughter for so long?

Although I know Jews are not the only ones to send their kids for month or longer sessions at an overnight camp, I became curious: How did such camps, specifically Jewish ones, became such a quintessential part of summer for generations of American Jews? And what is the draw today for parents and kids?

The secret sauce seems to lie in the possibility of slipping into another world – often wooded and alongside a lake – where a fun way of being Jewish is baked in along with the requisite campfires, hikes and color wars (and, more recently, the addition of everything from organic farming to coding and even surfing-themed camps), with friends one’s own age and young counselors in an immersive, weeks-long experience lived and breathed together.

An art class at Surprise Lake Camp, a Jewish camp located in New York State, circa 1930.
Surprise Lake Camp

“Jewish life is not being shoved at you by authorities like parents or teachers at home and it's more egalitarian, and you are outside. Everything is led by youth. It’s more creative and more of a choice. I think it lodges a kind of a more personalized Jewish identity somewhere deep,” said Libby Lenkinski, who spent many summers at Camp Shomria in the Catskills Mountains of New York State, a camp associated with the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. She now chairs the movement's board, and also serves as vice president of public engagement for the New Israel Fund.

Lenkinski credits summer camp as the formative experience of her life, shaping her ideas of Jewish community and leadership. “And whether true or not, you feel as kid you are part of creating those rituals and making a decision about those rituals, as opposed to learning a bunch of Hebrew words and reciting them together. [This] makes for a different kind of ownership and sustained connection,” she added.

'Wrapped up with joyfulness'

For David Adelson, dean of the New York campus of Hebrew Union College, a Reform movement seminary, whose son was the third generation in his family to go to Jewish sleep-away camp – this sense of immersion is what it’s all about.

“In American religious life, religious and spiritual life feels very separate from the rest of life,” Rabbi Adelson told Haaretz. However, he added, at camp, “the Jewishness is wrapped up with joyfulness of playing and being surrounded by deep connection. All of it happens, it’s all of a piece. That’s powerful and identity-building and it's happy.”

“Whereas American Jewish parents may agonize over whether to send kids to Hebrew school or not and wonder what it will do for their identities, they know that at summer camp, their kids will be happy while having their Jewish experience and it will be effective,” said Adelson, who is a faculty member at the Reform-affiliated Eisner Camp in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.

The research seems to back this up: A 2011 study found that individuals who had attended Jewish summer camps were more likely to attend and to be members of synagogues, and more likely to contribute to Jewish causes. An early study, in 2010, found that the overnight camps have played the key role in grooming future leaders of the Jewish community: Some two-thirds of these individuals had spent summers at them.

Song leaders join campers and counselors in celebrating the end of Shabbat Havdalah service around the campfire at URJ Camp Harlam, in Kunkeltown, Penn.
Courtesy of Foundation for Jewish Camp

“This is where people find their Jewish role models, find Jewish friends and forge a lifelong connection to being Jewish and to joyous Judaism,” said Jeremy Fingerman, who heads the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which advises and advocates on behalf of the summer camps. “For me it’s that smile, it’s the joy of being Jewish – not the chore of it all” that makes camp work, he added.

This summer some 90,000 children went to Jewish sleep-away camps – about 15 percent of all U.S. Jewish children, according to Fingerman. Some were spending their first summer at one of these camps and as such, were eligible to receive a grant of up to $1,000 as part of FJC's Happy Camper program. Some 80 percent of recipients sign up for a second year of camp, he noted, after getting the foundation grant the first year.

That kind of funding can be essential for families, since camp – even the nonprofit ones that are supported by the foundation – don’t come cheap: The cost on average for a week at these camps is $1,100, according to FJC and most sessions are about a month long. These are big operations, with staffs to pay, extensive logistics, food to supply and prepare, year-long planning and high insurance costs.

Historical roots

The historical roots of Jewish overnight summer camps began with the rise of the American camping movement in the late 19th century. This included YMCA and Fresh Air Fund camps, which worked to bring children, many of them immigrants, out of the overcrowded, sweltering cities into the open spaces and healthy air of the countryside. I myself went to one of those camps for two summers, Camp Louise in Maryland's Cascade Mountains. It was founded to cater to Jewish girls from inner-city Baltimore, some of them already employed as factory workers.

Some of those immigrant Jewish children would have found the rustic camp experience familiar from Europe, where some belonged to organizations like Blau-Weiss, an early Zionist youth movement whose members – my great uncle among them – would trek through the mountains and countryside, mirroring their counterparts in German youth movements.

But although the youngsters at these then-philanthropically funded camps in America may have been Jewish, there was little about the camps that was educationally Jewish in any way. Instead, most of them were focused on acculturating immigrant children into American life. Some, however, were ideologically driven camps with a majority of Jewish campers, like Camp Kinderland in the Berkshires.

Kinderland was founded by the Workman’s Circle in 1923 with a leftist-socialist inspired ethos that prevails today – and which also made it the target of investigation during the McCarthy era. There were also Yiddish-speaking camps and Zionist camps modeled as training farms for kibbutz life.

Fencing class at Surprise Lake Camp in New York State, circa 1930.
Surprise Lake Camp

Then came the 1941 to 1952 era, a period that Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis, a second-generation Jewish camper and alum of Camp Ramah Palmer, describes as “the crucial decade of Jewish camping.”

“It’s when it was discovered that it (camp) can also be a venue for Jewish education,” said Sarna.

That’s when the denominational camps affiliated with America's Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements were launched, as well as other experiments in Jewish education, from Hebrew-immersion camps to camps that functioned as summer schools of Jewish learning.

Today Jewish sleep-away camps are considered a cornerstone of Jewish education.

For example, Rabbi Adelson taught an elective at Camp Eisner this summer on Jewish mindfulness practice. The camp also featured interactive activities that demonstrated the values of good behavior toward one another and the world, the concept of tzedakah, or charity, and justice.

FJC's Fingerman likes to call such camps the “laboratories of Jewish life.”

At pick-up day in July at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake in New York State, where my daughter spent her first summer session away, parents crowded into a sprawling white tent, happily reunited with their children after almost a month’s separation. Hebrew songs blasted from the loudspeakers as various bunks came up to show off newly learned line dances, and campers described highlights of their session, including volunteering at soup kitchens and making sandwiches for the homeless.

Aeronautics Club at Camp Surprise Lake in New York State, circa 1930.
Surprise Lake Camp

“Did we have fun?” Did we make a difference?” Helene Drobenare, Sprout Lake's director asked the rows of campers sitting in the grass before her, noting the camp’s focus on social action.

Cheers and whoops rose up from the children in happy reply.

Sci-tech and outdoors

Speciality camps are the latest development in Jewish camping, echoing specialization seen in other camps around the country. Since a 2010 grant was made by the Jim Joseph Foundation to the FJC, 11 new such camps have opened. They are aimed in part on attracting kids, particularly teenagers, who would not normally have chosen to go to a Jewish camp.

Among them are the Reform movement’s Six Points Sci-Tech Academy camp, located in a boarding school north of Boston, where 450 youngsters and teens spent the summer doing robotics, gaming and chemistry along with celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish activities, as well as a Ramah camp of the Conservative movement that boasts a rugged outdoor experience in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. There are also plans for a Jewish filmmaking camp and another one focused on the performing arts.

One of the first of these specialty camps was Eden Village, the first environmental, organic farm-to-table Jewish camp, which opened in 2009 in Putnam Valley, New York.

“We have the word 'village' in camp intentionally. Because back in the day, we came from shtetls and tribes and we’ve lost that, and we bring that village vibe back. These counselors are partnering with you parents, partnering to help raise your kids. That’s the best thing about being part of a village,” said Yoni Stadlin who co-founded the camp with his wife, Vivian Lehrer.

At Eden Village campers meld caring for the earth with Judaism. As Stadlin told Haaretz: “We literally grow wheat in our farm and kids grow it, care, winnow, thresh, grind make their own flour and bake their own challah. When that happens you do not ever need to convince a kid to make a brachha (blessing) over bread; they have a natural inclination."

The campers also squeeze grapes for juice, make herbal medicines and create candles out of beeswax. Food at Eden Village is all organic, locally sourced and prepared from scratch in the camp kitchen.

“Camp gives us the opportunity to backtrack on rituals. We get to experience the why, not to say ‘do this’ and ‘do that.’ This naturally leads kids to have an attitude of gratitude,” said Stadlin.

“We also think a fundamental organizing principle of our religion is to be ‘world fixers,’ to be caring citizens for [the] world. And farming, cooking and herbalism are a vehicle that gets us to that bigger underlying principle,” he added.

Campers for life

Gene Meyer, a Washington, D.C.-area journalist and author, sent his two sons to Camp Moshava, which is run in Maryland by Habonim Dror, a Labor-Zionist youth movement. Meyer, who served as president of the camp’s board for over five years, marvels at the programming there, planned and led by young people, with a strong focus on social justice and social consciousness. Hebrew is part of the daily vocabulary there, he explained, and the camp is rooted in progressive Judaism.

Habonim Dror camps received attention last year when they decided to create their own gender-neutral form of Hebrew to help make transgender campers feel included.

Camp alumni, Meyer said, “don’t generally become corporate lawyers or developers. They tend to be teachers, social workers and get involved in effecting a positive society."

And, he added, “They are 'Habos' for life, it’s just extraordinary. They pick colleges based on where Habo friends are going, they keep in touch with their Habo friends, they are really tight.”