In addition to the kosher canteens and morning prayers, there’s another activity unlisted in any brochure but no less synonymous with Jewish sleepaway camps: hooking up. Ask any alumnus of the dozens of non-Orthodox Jewish overnight camps in North America, and you’ll get stories straight from an episode of “Glee,” with softball fields and squash courts as the backdrops to teenage hookups — everything up to but mostly excluding sexual intercourse. The 2001 film “Wet Hot American Summer” forever branded Jewish sleepaway camps as hookup central. And comedian Amir Blumenfeld described them — somewhat hyperbolically — as a “sexual thrill ride” in a video for My Jewish Learning.
Administrators at Jewish sleepaway camps say they discourage campers from getting frisky with each other. But former campers tell a different story, of counselors who turned a blind eye or even gently egged their campers on. The unspoken subtext, they say, is Jewish continuity. Like a PG-13 version of Taglit-Birthright Israel — during which Jewish 20-somethings are known to fall for each other while they fall in love with Israel — Jewish summer camps acquaint adolescents with their religious tradition, but also with each other. Many former campers say they had their earliest romantic episodes at camp, paving the way for adult relationships with other Jews. Today, hooking up at camp is a hallmark of the American Jewish youth experience.
Dana Cohen, 21, who attended Camp Monroe, a multidenominational camp in upstate New York, says that her camp lived up to the hookup reputation “100%.” Campers were constantly sneaking into each other’s cabins. On field trips, “you would just go to the back of the bus, and people would switch off making out.”
At Ramah Darom, a camp affiliated with the Conservative movement in Clayton, Ga., campers smooched during “hill time,” a period after the final evening activity when campers walked back to their cabins without their counselors. Michael, 24, a former counselor who for privacy reasons asked that his real name not be used, recalls a camper who asked him for an extra 10 minutes of hill time to be with her boyfriend on his birthday; he obliged. “Counselors remember when they had their camp girlfriends and wanted those extra few minutes with them,” Michael says.
At Camp Ramah in the Poconos, counselors took it a step further. Jonathan Hess, 19, a former camper and counselor there, recalls a post-Sabbath tisch, an after-dinner social gathering. “Our counselors started chanting, ‘Stop tisch-ing, start kissing,’” he says. “By the time we were the oldest group, they were implying, ‘Stop doing this and go hook up.’”