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.’”
For many, camp hookup culture was a formative part of their Jewish adolescence. If not responsible for the majority of his camp memories, Michael says, “a nontrivial part is linked to sexual and romantic relationships at camp.” In fact, these early liaisons indirectly buoyed camp friendships. “When I see my friends at a camp reunion I know we’re going to talk about who hooked up,” says Hess. “It’s something we all laughed about.”
The degree to which camp hookup culture plays a role in Jewish identity is unknown. There are no studies that “address matters of sex, eroticism, romance and related issues among Jewish campers,” says Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the NYU Wagner Berman Jewish Policy Archive. Even so, there is evidence that individuals who go to Jewish sleepaway camp are more likely to marry within the faith. “Jewish summer camp elevates Jewish engagement, and more specifically, it increases the number and quality of Jewish-Jewish relationships and Jewish social networks,” Cohen says.
Camp administrators, meanwhile, see the hookup culture as hindering the Jewish sleepaway camp experience. “We still see them as children,” says Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national director. “Their experiences at camp will be maximized if there is less social and sexual pressure.” Even so, Ramah camps’ only official policy is against unwanted touching or come-ons. The camps also discourage public displays of affection. While counselors can be fired for sexual behavior deemed inappropriate, “we try to deal with campers in more of an educational way and treat it as less of a disciplinary issue,” Cohen says.
“The focus is on building relationships with the community and with the Jewish identity,” says Scott McGrath, associate director of New Camp Initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. McGrath says various camps have taken measures to discourage romantic relationships, including increased supervision and more structured programming. At pluralistic Camp Tawonga in San Francisco, for instance, the policy is HAKWACO, an acronym for “hugging and kissing with all clothes on.” “We don’t want campers to feel sexual behavior is bad, but we want them to focus on friendship and community at camp,” director Jamie Simon-Harris says. Upstate New York’s Eden Village Camp, which is pluralistic, has a “no ‘body talk’” guideline that discourages campers from commenting on each other’s appearances.
Orthodox camps have predictably stricter policies. Cleveland’s Camp Stone, one of the Orthodox Moshava camps, asks its campers to be shomer negiah, forbidding physical contact between unmarried members of the opposite sex. The camp even discourages “Shabbos Walks,” shomer negiah dates, during which couples stroll on Saturday afternoons. This policy is “not for halachic reasons, but because of the social pressures,” former director Sharon Weiss-Greenberg says. “It’s not necessarily normal or healthy for children to feel the pressure of dating.”
Yet while camp directors are none too pleased to find campers getting handsy by the lake, they are quick to advertise the fact that the seeds of marriage are often planted at camp. “We tell parents, even of little kids, that Ramah is a great place to meet your future spouse,” Cohen says. A section of the Ramah website is devoted to camp marriages. And Camp Tawonga has a special chuppah for couples who met at camp to sign their names.
Former campers say that early romance at Jewish sleepaway camp influenced their preferences. “It creates a subconscious tradition,” says Samantha Reese Schechter, 22, who attended the nondenominational Camp Green Lane, in the Poconos. “My parents say marry who you love, but at the same time, I’m looking for a nice Jewish boy.”
“When you hook up with someone at camp, you are very potentially meeting your future husband or wife,” Hess says.
Emily Shire is the chief researcher at The Week magazine and is a freelance writer. Find her work at emilyshire.wordpress.com