Friday, July 30, 2021 – כ”א באב תשפ”א
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
This summer thousands of our campers have returned to camp. We have returned to color wars and campfires. We are back to climbing Alpine Towers and drinking bug juice. We have figured out how to have large song sessions keeping ourselves distanced enough to be safe, yet together. This year we can be reminded of the significance of Jewish summer camp experience, how necessary it is for thousands of children, teens, staff, and parents – all of whom know that camp’s impact goes way beyond the activities, the outdoors, and even lifelong friendships.
The success of Jewish summer camps lies in their capacity to instill a strong Jewish identity – the way that no supplementary Hebrew school can. Camp creates a complete Jewish ecosystem, a full Jewish society. It is a Jewish bubble where weekly programming and activities stop on Shabbat and campers enter that palace in time, regardless of an individual’s level of observance; where playing sports, climbing the high ropes course, arts and crafts, campfires, and singing become Jewish activities along with limmud (study), Ivrit (Hebrew language immersion and instruction), and tfilah (prayer and ritual).
The relationships, the feeling of belonging in a Jewish community, and even the skills gained by campers and staff alike, become part of camp culture, creating an ethos that defines our gemeinschaft (i.e. “community”). Camp is formative and transformative.
Some have been critical that investment in camp comes at the detriment of year-round experiences. They argue that camp should be seen as a laboratory for experimenting with Jewish life and education, and not a total existence or an “ideal Judaism.” But let us understand camp for what it is: it is an example of the utopian existence to which we aspire and the pipeline for connecting tens of thousands of Diaspora Jews with Israel and Zionism.
The first Jewish camps sprouted up amid the larger organized camping movement in America, led by 19th-century social reformers seeking to give a reprieve to children living in the squalid conditions of industrializing cities. These fresh-air programs blended spiritual, educational, and recreational components. By the mid-1920s, hundreds of camps had opened in forested, lakeshore spots around North America.
The early Jewish camps were motivated by the need to bring inner-city kids living in Lower East Side tenements to the country, and “Americanize” the children of Eastern European immigrants. What made these camps Jewish was their demographics, not their programming, leading some to label them as ‘camps for Jews,’ rather than Jewish camps.
As the decades passed, we saw a stark transition. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, as more Jews assimilated into American culture, Jewish camps switched their motivation and mission to instill a sense of Jewishness and teach Judaism. “Each camp has a very strong and intentional culture, camp by camp. Camp’s power to socialize young Jews–How do I be a Jew? How do I be a member of the Jewish community?–depends on this culture,” said Amy L. Sales, co-author with Leonard Saxe of How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (Brandeis University Press, 2003).
In fact, Jewish summer camp created a microcosm of the cultural Zionist ideal – a complete Jewish society. Camp itself was like a mini-Israel (or maybe more like a kibbutz). The idea of Jewish public culture, a society that operated using a Jewish language, and which lived according to Jewish time was the Zionist dream. This was most notably articulated and envisioned by the forebearer of cultural Zionism Ahad Ha’am.
In his 1897 essay “The Jewish State and Jewish Problem,” Ahad Ha’am wrote:
“For this purpose, Judaism needs at present but little. It needs not an independent State, but only the creation in its native land of conditions favorable to its development: a good-sized settlement of Jews working without hindrance in every branch of culture, from agriculture and handicrafts to science and literature. This Jewish settlement, which will be a gradual growth, will become in course of time the center of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable. Then from this center the spirit of Judaism will go forth to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, and will breathe new life into them and preserve their unity; and when our national culture in Palestine has attained that level, we may be confident that it will produce Jews in the country who will be able, on a favorable opportunity, to establish a State which will be a Jewish State, and not merely a State of Jews.”
Jewish summer camp was where Jewish kids accustomed to their outlier and minority status felt accepted and part of the mainstream. Jewish summer camp was the place where they didn’t need to explain themselves to their peers and didn’t feel embarrassed about being Jewish.
Nowhere else in the Jewish world, outside of Israel, are we able to create such an environment of a complete Jewish society – providing both formal education and creating a culture of Jewish living – other than at Jewish summer camp. The foundation of camp as a complete Jewish experience paved the way for the introduction of Zionism and that we Diaspora Jews could live in this romantic ideal as our permanent existence and not just for a month or two a year. While I understand that this is a romantic and generalized view of both camp and Israel, I suggest it here as a basis from which we can then move to discuss the particularities.
But more on than next week…
This article is Part I of a three-part series looking at the connection between Jewish summer camp and Israel.