If there is one thing I regret on my journey to Jewish adulthood, it’s that I passed up the opportunity to go to sleep away camp. Why do I lament this more than forgetting to fast on Tisha B’av? More than not spending a year in a yeshiva? Because while I was taking ceramic classes at my local JCC each summer, thousands of my peers were learning how to French kiss at Jewish sleep away camp.
Those of you wise enough to have attended camp know that it isn’t just about the tennis, hiking and campfires. It’s about girls, guys and raging hormones — about a period of discovery and letting loose with other members of the tribe. Still, not everyone is hooking up, let alone enjoying or even embracing this culture. Scattered between the campers making out in mess halls and going to second base in the dugout are girls and boys who feel alienated by the hookup culture of Jewish sleep away camp.
I was lucky enough to peek behind bunk doors and learn about the Jewish sleep away experience through a series of interviews with several camp alumni. While hookups in the woods, bunks and basketball courts abounded, an underbelly of pressure, exclusion and isolation also reared its head.
A kiss isn’t always just a kiss, and many campers, especially pre-teens, aren’t ready for the romantic pursuits of summer camp. Ali Picheny, 21, recalls a strong hookup culture during the summer before seventh grade at Camp Pembroke, an all-girls camp in Pembroke, Massachusetts. When counselors took attendance after socials at all-boys camps, girls would say “yes” (to signal they had hooked up with someone) and “no” (to signal they hadn’t). “When I was younger, I felt there was a lot of pressure,” says Picheny. “For me, it was very embarrassing when everyone said “yes” and you said “no.”
Part of the problem is that some counselors pay more attention to campers who dish on their sexual exploits — and campers who don’t are all too aware that they’re not the ones in the spotlight. Alumni I interviewed remembered discussing hookups with older counselors (and by older I mean three or four years), and said that those conversations helped them create a special bond. Yet this sharing — or boasting — can leave less-experienced campers further alienated. “The counselors don’t mean to, but they want to get in on the information,” says Michael, 24, a former camper and counselor at Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia, who for privacy reasons asked that his real name not be used. While counselors cheer on the girls hooking up with boys, “some [campers] get kind of jealous,” he said. Whether they realize it or not, counselors push campers to kiss and, just as importantly, to tell.
Of course, counselors themselves are often at it like rabbits on Viagra with 24 hours left to live. Most camps expect the staff to keep sexual and romantic relationships hidden, but it’s hard to stop counselors from swapping stories and sharing advice with campers who are all too eager for sexual knowledge.
“We wanted to know how to do stuff. You learned all of your tips and techniques from your counselor,” said Samantha Reese Schecter, who attended Camp Green Lane in Pennsylvania.
And when two campers take their summer romance further than the others, a new bar for sexual expectations is set. “If you’re a camper and you just heard that Shira gave a blowjob last night, then you think, ‘should I be getting?’ ‘should I be giving?’” Michael says. “That can be problematic.”
Few feel the stress to meet sexual expectations more than campers who are not straight — who often deal with the extra pressure of hiding their sexuality in a hookup culture that’s highly heteronormative. RL Goldberg, 22, who identifies as queer, attended and served as a counselor at Camp Barney Mendintz in Georgia. “Camp was certainly a time when many of us wanted (or did) experiment with our sexuality,” she said in an email interview. Yet, despite this freedom to push sexual boundaries with the opposite sex, Goldberg says she never felt comfortable exploring or sharing her same-sex feelings. Instead, she pursued relationships with guys, developing crushes on male campers and hooking up with some of them, but never, ever discussing her attraction to girls.
“Camp culture was far too hetero, and I didn’t have any queer role models,” Goldberg explains.
In her years as a camper and staffer, Goldberg had never heard of a same-sex hookup or of anyone who identified as anything other than heterosexual. “It was disappointing because at camp, surrounded by such a heterosexual culture, I felt like I was missing something, to some extent.”
Goldberg wasn’t alone. While many young Jews enjoy the camp hookup culture, the environment can also serve as a pressure cooker that leaves campers isolated and hurt. As they grapple with their identities and sexual boundaries, camp can quickly transform from carefree to confusing and stressful. Then again, why should camp be any easier than the rest of adolescence?