Summer camp is an entirely immersive experience.
That is a jargon-y way of saying that when you are a child or a teenager or a young staff member, and you’re in camp, camp is your entire world. It surrounds you; you breathe it and you move through it and it coats your skin and it’s all you see and hear and touch and feel and know. While you’re at camp, nothing else matters except vaguely; if camp works for you as it does for so many campers, the rest of the year is a countdown toward camp.
Jewish summer camping is one of the most effective ways of teaching and socializing and orienting young Jews. During the time they’re at camp, Jewish campers at Jewish camps live entirely Jewishly. Their parents can choose from a range of Jewish camps — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Zionist, progressive, Yiddishist, artsy, sporty — and their children will come home with an understanding of that part of the Jewish world bonded at the molecular level.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp (not Camping, or Camps, just plain stark Camp) understands that and supports that range of Jewish camps. This week, the foundation held its seventh biennial conference, the Leaders Assembly; this year, it met in Baltimore.
The camp leaders, educators, and foundation heads who met there explored the interplay of camp and the outside world, which waits right outside every camp’s borders. This year, “we had just shy of 800 people,” the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s executive director, Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood, said. “At this conference we unveiled a new initiative to prevent harassment and abuse and bullying and inappropriate language and behavior in camp communities.”
The Foundation is investing in what it calls the Shmira Initiative; so far, it’s spent $100,000 on the program. The goal is to “change camp culture on all levels, implementing a shift in staff programming, training, policy and enforcement around issues of gender, sex and power,” according to its press release.
Shmira means guard duty; in Jewish summer camps, it’s the counselors’ job, making sure that their charges are safe at night. The Foundation will take that term from the literal to the metaphoric level as it “embodies the social and individual responsibility every community member has to ensure a safe environment.”
So what does that mean?
“We believe that our mission at the Foundation is to help the field adapt to rapid, unprecedented change,” Mr. Fingerman said. “We are helping to create camp communities that reflect the best of Jewish values.
“Right now, in North America, we have been experiencing a breakthrough of consciousness of sex and gender and power and violence, and for sure there has been a new spotlight shining on power and exploitation,” he said. “These issues affect all our communities, and we have to address them. Working in partnership with parents and authorities and all our Jewish institutions, we believe that we really have a chance to define what prevention and response plans are, and to lead the discussion of cultural changes in our community.”
To begin, he continued, “We will raise the awareness of camps as they go through their staff programming to create camps that are caring and safe. This is something we have been talking about for a while.”
It is important to remember that the problems that the Shmira Initiative will address are not unique to camps, he added. They’re culturally pervasive, and to some extent they’re generational — millennials feel pressured in ways that their elders did not, and the generation below them, the iGen, as Mr. Fingerman called them, who are today’s campers and young staffers, feel that even more profoundly.
And although the problems the initiative is set to tackle are society-wide, “we had a panel, moderated by our board chair, of foundation heads, powerhouses in the Jewish world,” come to talk and to offer help. Those leaders included the Foundation’s own new board chair, Julie Beren Platt, Lisa Eisen, vice president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation; Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation; Rachel Garbow Monroe, president and CEO of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation; and Deborah Meyer, CEO of Moving Traditions. (Irrelevant but totally fun fact — Ms. Platt is the mother of actor Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen, who has credited Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, as one of the places where he began to refine his craft. Don’t miss the YouTube video of him on Late Night with Seth Meyers, singing “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from Guys and Dolls in Hebrew; he learned it, he said, by playing Sky Masterson at a Ramah production.)
“I am so proud they came to our conference,” Mr. Fingerman said. “I am so proud that they can see that we in the field of Jewish camp really want to step up and address this issue in an important way.”
“Moving Traditions has been focused on moral development issues for a long time,” Ms. Meyer said. “How do we help understand who we are? We have been working with experts on healthy sexuality programs for years.”
Now, “we have gone to camps to train the staff, who are mainly teenagers or young adults, on issues of body image, bullying, sexuality, and the pressure to hook up,” Ms. Meyer said. It’s complicated.
For one thing, campers and counselors live in the outside world, they bring the attitudes they learn in that world, or online, with them to camp, Ms. Meyer said. For another, what she called “the pressure to hook up” often can be reframed as the communal desire to have young Jews date each other, which is in itself a good thing. “But on the other hand it can be inappropriate and problematic,” she said, insofar as it pushes often age-inappropriate sexuality on kids who are not yet ready for it. “We have come to understand that more in the last few years.”
Any kid — any person — who has access to a computer — in other words, just about everyone — sees deeply disturbing things that they cannot fit into their understanding of the world, and it can be warping. “Any kid who has a smart device today is seeing pornography, either looking for it or stumbling across it,” Ms. Meyer said. “And they are freaked out by it. We have had boys say, ‘Do I have to choke a girl?’ What they see is so aberrant.
“And girls don’t know that sex is something that they can enjoy. They learn online that sex is something that girls and women do for boys and men. They don’t know that it’s intimacy, that they do for and with each other, and they do it for love.
“That is where Jewish values come in,” she said. “We don’t want to say that the body is bad.” And camp is embodied.” It’s physical; it’s not a disembodied intellectual experience. “You are living there, all summer long, inside your body. It’s an opportunity to teach the right values. “Sexuality is about intimacy,” she said. “You don’t get a kiss, or steal a kiss. You kiss with somebody.” It’s about choice and caring.
When Moving Traditions works with staffers, either as they get to camp to prepare for the summer or once camp has started, there is a two-step process. “The first part is when the staffers find out about the camp’s stated policies and the second part is when they talk about how things really happen,” Ms. Meyer said. “They find out that they have great policies and values but they are not always fulfilled.” Sometimes the language of teasing can be hurtful; “the words can be homophobic or gender stereotypes, and full of body image objectification. And it is not conscious.”
What does she mean? For example, campers often are encouraged to pair off for Shabbat walks; when a boy gets back to his bunk, his friends “might put a chair in the middle of the room, and he is asked to sit there and tell them exactly what happened on the walk.” Hand-holding, kissing, the sort of intimacy that is appropriate for teenagers but not meant to be shared with anyone else.
“It is not a conscious thing,” Ms. Meyer said. “It is not as if they are pushing boys to push girls to have sex. But it comes out of their tradition, out of the camp culture that has developed over many decades.
“It is inappropriate,” she said. “This counselor may be a 19-year-old and this is what happened to him when he was in this camp. He might not remember that not all boys want to do this. It is not coming from a place of venality, or of consciously trying to pursue an agenda. He would have thought that it was funny and sweet.” But it’s not.
These exercises help the staff assess the differences between the camp’s beliefs, policies, and goals, and the reality of camp life. The fact that it falls short isn’t shocking — it’s a human institution — but pointing it out helps staffers keep their real goals and values in mind.
“We work with counselors to help them see the issues for themselves, and then we help them figure out how to approach the kids,” Ms. Meyer said.
“In the earlier grades, we find that crushes are kind of pushes. This is an unconscious agenda, not a planned curriculum, but somehow the culture fosters the ‘Who do you have a crush on? Who do you want to be a couple with?’ when you are 8 or 9. But you’re not necessarily interested then, so why push it? Even when the kids get older, how do we foster a healthy sexuality?
“When I say sexuality, I am not just talking about intercourse,” she added. “I am talking about feelings. Feeling interested. Feeling excited. For most people, this starts happening around puberty, and we want to be able to acknowledge it and celebrate it, and also set boundaries around what is ethical and what is normal and what is not.
“Judaism is about discerning differences and setting boundaries. It is about what is Shabbat and what is chol.”
There is a balance that it is necessary to remember, Ms. Meyer added. It is easy, when you talk about the Shmira Initiative and the problems it has been established to counter, to forget the joys and overwhelming value of Jewish summer camp. That would be a huge mistake.
“We have aspects of our tradition that are so beautiful, and we can access the best of comprehensive secular sexuality education and social and emotional learning, and we can connect those things,” Ms. Meyer said. “That is what Moving Traditions does. Our approach to Jewish teaching and Jewish wisdom is to show Jewish counselors and Jewish educators how to bring this teaching, this understanding of what it means to be a Jewish person into the teenage years, and then young adulthood.”
In trying to help young Jewish campers and counselors deal with the issues of sexuality that the Me Too movement has unearthed, we must not overlook the value of camp. “The good news is that we are paying attention to these things,” Ms. Meyer said. “We are working with camps across the country that really want to do it right, to integrate a healthy way of looking at it. That’s because camp culture can be so positive. We are working with camps across the country to truly foster a very positive and healthy camp culture.
“The good news is that we are paying attention to these things. How wonderful for Jewish families who send their kids to camp, who are looking to address issues from our secular world that impact our children, whether they go to public school or day school. Camp is where kids really learn to be members of a community, which is such a good thing for the Jewish community.
“We are looking at how to create a community that is based on ethical, respectful, positive behavior.
“When you think about it, the role of Judaism is redemption,” Ms. Meyer said. “It is about bringing God into the world. When we pray, when we do acts of lovingkindness, we are tapping into the divine.
“At Jewish summer camp, we want to make more of that happen. We want to make it more and more clear that we are created b’zelem Elohim — in God’s image. So how fabulous — how excellent! — that the Jewish community is investing in creating a camp culture that allows us to greet each other b’zelem Elohim.”