Notes on Camp

How a Summer Choice for Kids Became a Linchpin of Jewish Continuity

By Jay Michaelson

Published June 11, 2004, issue of June 11, 2004.
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The buzzword in Jewish circles these days is “continuity”: What turns Jewish children into actively Jewish adults? Sociologists usually point to parents and schools as the two prime agents of socialization. And yet, in the Jewish community, these agents don’t seem to be doing their jobs. A report released last month by the National Study of Youth and Religion showed that only 12% of self-identified Jewish teenagers say that their families talk about such religious matters once a week or more often, compared with 57% of Protestants and a 45% national average. Likewise, while enrollment in full-time Jewish schools continues to rise, only a small fraction of Jewish children participate in them, leaving the majority of students who receive any Jewish education at all in the hands of supplementary schools, which have only a few hours per week — and no consequences like a “permanent record” — with which to work. So, what’s left?

“Camp is one of the only things we’ve done right,” said a prominent leader in the Conservative movement, who requested anonymity. “It’s the only way we’ve figured out to really reach our kids.”

According to an earlier National Study of Youth and Religion survey, 43% of Jewish teenagers attend Jewish summer camp for at least one summer of their lives. And both sociologists and ordinary camp veterans who spoke with the Forward agree that Jewish summer camp, whether religious or nonreligious, does “work.” It is, for many Jews, often the single most formative Jewish experience that they have. This year, social psychologists Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe confirmed what camp veterans have suspected for years: Camp is critical in forming identity, teaching about Jewish culture and institutions, and — most importantly — socializing young Jews into the Jewish community.

According to Sales’s and Saxe’s new book, “‘How Goodly Are Thy Tents’: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences,” there are 191 non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish sleep-away camps in America, with approximately 83,000 Jewish children in attendance every summer, and approximately 18,000 staff. (Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox camps serve another 6,000-12,000 campers, but are closed to nonadherents and were not part of the their study.) About half are privately owned, and JCCs, federations and similar communal organizations run one-third of them. The rest are affiliated either with Zionist organizations or particular denominations.

The vast majority of Jewish camps include some religious programming, Israel-related programming and educational activities, particularly revolving around Sabbath observance. But a large subset of Jewish camps — non-Orthodox, for-profit camps — has very little educational or even cultural programming, leading one to wonder exactly how summer camp has become so effective.

Sales and Saxe found that camp is a socializing experience much more than it is an educational experience. In fact, even among summer camps with significant educational programming, formal education tended to be far less successful than either informal education or the simple presence of the camp counselor as, in their words, “teacher and friend.” Curricula matter much less than what Sales and Saxe call the “Brigadoon-like” setting of most sleep-away camps: Isolated and insulated, camps are their own cultures (most restrict contact with the outside world), which quickly develop their own internal tribes and form social bonds among campers and staff.

Camp is, in other words, a holistic immersion experience not dissimilar to the ideal of the halachically observant Jewish lifestyle. It presents what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “plausibility structure” — or, as explained by Sarah Chandler, a five-year staff member at the Reform movement’s Camp Eisner and now a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Education, “an alternate universe, where all the food is kosher and all your friends are Jewish.”

“Camp shows what it would be like to be in a 100% Jewish community, so that when campers come out of that plausibility structure, they still recognize it as their own,” said Chandler, who contrasted that whole-life-immersion experience with a visit to a synagogue, “which, on its own, may seem very alien.”

Sales and Saxe found that camp counselors often perform the vital function of Jewish role models, although they also found that most camp counselors are woefully underprepared (and underpaid) for the role. In contrast with, say, trips to Israel, in which substantive Jewish content is embedded into the whole structure of the experience, many camps struggle to offer more than “bagel Judaism,” with counselors being role models not of any particular religious or spiritual affinity, but of Jewishness in its simplest form: identity.

In fact, what is perhaps most interesting about “‘How Goodly Are Thy Tents’” is its conclusion that some of camp’s strongest effects are on the counselors, not the campers. As it turns out, it is the staff of camps who develop the strongest bonds both to the camp in particular and the Jewish community in general. As they struggle to teach, organize, survive and, somehow, sleep, they — even more than the campers — are having their lives transformed. Moreover, because most staff are between the ages of 18 and 25, it is they, and not the campers, who are in the most critical period of identity development in contemporary American society — a time known as “emerging adulthood.” To paraphrase a well-known camp song, the kids may be brats and the food may be hideous, but studies suggest that the experience of being a camp counselor is more than just fun and fooling around; it can be even more life changing than that of being a camper.

For example, Chandler attributes her decision to become a professional educator to her five years on staff at Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Mass. She never was a camper herself, and first experienced a “full-time Jewish community” when she joined Camp Eisner’s staff. Yet it was an experience she sought to replicate in college.

“I really missed the down-to-earth community of Jews who loved to sit and sing and celebrate Shabbat, and that’s what I found in my chavurah at school,” she said. “It was like water to me.” She is now pursuing a master’s degree in informal Jewish education.

So, what happens at summer camp is actually a very complex phenomenon. Campers are learning, but they’re learning less in formal educational contexts than by simply being with Jewish role models and peers. And the people who may be learning the most are the “teachers” themselves.

To be sure, in any compressed, intense, community-building environment, there are many dangers, as well (think “Lord of the Flies”). Many children and teenagers who, for one reason or another, don’t “fit in” are often subject to cruel treatment and exclusion, and critics have observed that time-honored camp rituals like “color war” may lead more to uncritical groupthink than to authentic individual development. All agree that there is always the need for camps to reinvent themselves, to remain relevant and fresh.

Of course, some shifting social currents provide opportunities as well. David Schildkret, a longtime camp veteran who will be teaching drama this summer at the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in Nyack, remembers turning a camper’s offhand remark about jumping rope being “for girls” into a discussion about inclusiveness.

“I asked them, ‘Why is it important for us as a community, especially a Jewish community, to make people feel included? And also, why do certain things need to be just for girls and certain things just for boys?’ The answers I received were inspirational. It was as if this topic was something they have been struggling with and just needed an opportunity to express their feelings in a safe and supportive environment.”

Jewish parents have many options if they still haven’t made summer plans for their kids: 191 summer camps; dozens of trips to Israel, ranging from the standard United Synagogue Youth Israel Pilgrimage and other denominational programs to independents such as Nesiya, which combines the usual Israel travel itinerary with nature, art and social action programs. There is also a new generation of Jewish outdoors programs that carry Jewish education everywhere from Ukraine to the Rocky Mountains. And college students also may be looking into the Jewish camping world, since their job market is still in recession-level doldrums. If Sales and Saxe are right, they might find more there than they expect.

Jay Michaelson is a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Ivry Prozdor High School, and will be working at the Elat Chayyim Teen Program this summer.






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