Above the Fold: Summer Camp

The recipes for summer camp fun are fairly simple.

Summer camp [Illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Summer camp [Illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Summer has arrived and that means summer camp, especially for Jewish boys and girls.
The Jewish summer camp experience is more than a ritual, and not just an indulgence. Demographic studies about Jewish identity underscore Jewish summer camp as one of only a few Jewish experiences that leads to positive Jewish identity. Summer camps are up there with trips to Israel and attendance at Jewish day schools as foundation blocks for securing Jewish commitment.
The recipes for summer camp fun are fairly simple. Jewish camps remove kids from their parents and from their schools and plop them down in nature with other Jewish kids. The only responsibility attendees have is to enjoy one another and enjoy being Jewish. Each Jewish camp offers different Jewish components, but “being Jewish” is the equalizer among them. Some are more “Jewish,” others are less, but regardless of where a camp is on the spectrum of Jewish, the goal is to instill something Jewish in every camper. And for the most part, the recipes work.
It all began in the 1800s in the New England mountains. Summer camps – not Jewish summer camps but non-denominational summer camps – were a refuge for kids living oppressive lives in urban industrial centers. The idea was to introduce them to fresh air and, in fact, some of the camps were actually called “fresh air camps.” It did not take long for Jews to realize the greatness of what was developing into a real summer institution and hop on the bandwagon.
When they did catch on, Jewish organizations and groups, and even individual families, organized and brought children to the mountains, especially to the area known as the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.
Jewish camping became a way to educate and even indoctrinate – they had an agenda. In summer camp, ideological groups were able to instill their specific brand of ideology and tradition. Ultra-Orthodox camps, Zionist camps, socialist camps, communist camps, Reform camps, Conservative camps – even socialist-Zionist camps – riddled the mountains. Most camps were affiliated with some cause, movement or organization; most of the private camps put some emphasis on sports and had intramurals with other Jewish summer camps.
Some of the Zionist camps tried to turn their campers into halutzim (pioneers). Socialist and communist camps recreated their microcosm. They created mini-worlds following the communist motto of: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” All to be accomplished, of course, during a four- or eight-week period in the Catskills. There were camps where campers were only allowed to speak in Hebrew and others in Yiddish. There were camps that created mini-kibbutizm in Sullivan County. They had mini-farms where city-bred campers were taught to till the crops, milk the cows, tend the chicken coops and collect the eggs. And they loved it.

CAMP LEGENDS abound. One Jewish summer camp legend I’ve heard about often, but only in second-hand narrative, is that of the 24-Hour Survival Day. According to the stories I’ve been told by the children and grandchildren of Survival participants, campers were dropped off somewhere with no food and no money and told they had 24 hours to get back to camp. Since it’s kids and grandkids telling me the stories, I assume everyone made it back. I have also heard legends about camps that sent kids with pushkas asking for tzedaka on Main St. in Monticello.
Over the years I have asked people how, given the vast assortment and array available, the camps they attended were selected. Many answered that their parents had no idea where they were sending their kids, they just wanted them out of the city for the summer. Many said the camp choice was determined by price. But in the 1990s, it became social. Summer camps were selected on the basis of where other kids went. Today, selecting a Jewish summer camp for your child is like choosing a college.
I spent four summers in a Zionist summer camp in the Borsch Belt. Those four summers had such a transformative impact on my life that I couldn’t tear myself away and spent another decade on the camp’s educational staff. It was without a doubt the most exciting, creative and significant educational experience in which I have ever participated. I’m not alone when I say that the people I met in my summer camp are, to this day, some of my closest friends and respected colleagues.
The Borscht Belt, alas, is dying. But Jewish summer camps thrive on, and that’s a good thing. Jewish summer camps are good for Jews and for Jewish identity: a four- or eight-week infusion that lasts a lifetime.
The writer is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.