Summertime, and the camping is Jewish

Summertime, and the camping is Jewish

Professor looks at postwar kids and the impact of their sleepaway years

Dr. Sharon Fox
Dr. Sharon Fox

Imagine it is post World War II, you are an American Jewish leader — perhaps a rabbi, or an influential lay person — and you are tremendously worried about the future of American Jewry. What are the best ways to reach and influence the next generation to ensure that authentic Jewish values are passed on?

Sandra Fox, a visiting assistant professor of American Jewish history at NYU, explores just such concerns in her book, “The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America,” and it is the topic she will discuss in her talk at Rutgers University on April 8. (See box.)

“The heart of the book is about how American Jewish leaders came to feel a lot of anxiety in the postwar era about the state of American Jewry; that suburbanization and social acceptance, which all of course have a lot of positives, yet also had this negative in their minds, in causing a kind of cultural decline,” Dr. Fox said. “Many of those Jewish leaders looked to summer camps as the solution to this communal problem, that through the next generation, within the 24/7 totalizing experience that is sleepaway camp, they could construct or reconstruct a more ideal Jewish culture.

“It’s about how different kinds of Jews, from different ideological backgrounds, all came to use camp to achieve very similar ends.”

Dr. Fox recognized that Jewish summer camps were the “ideal site to study because there’s no place quite like them.

“School kids go to school, obviously every day, day in and day out, but they don’t have quite the same degree of power with a school that they do within a summer camp. In summer camp they are the consumer, they have to be made happy and the experience is so immersive and totalizing, for a month or two in the summer, for many kids year after year, so I thought it was a really unique kind of place to study.”

Dr. Fox went to sleepaway camp, and even thought the book is not about Jewish camps during the period when she was a camper (she is a millennial, so it was in the ’90s,) she drew from both her scholarship and her experience to say that camp is effective because the experience is immersive. That means that camp could influence young Jewish values, including those toward Israel, the family, and religious observance.

What made sleepaway camps in general, and Jewish sleepaway camps in particular, have such a strong impact on campers? “I think what’s really special about camp is that it’s designed to be an emotional experience,” Dr. Fox said. “It is more powerful than less immersive, less emotional, less social, more frontal lessons about Judaism could be, and its affects last far longer.

“Camps are structured to have these kinds of emotionally climatic moments. I’m thinking about how Jewish camps have Shabbat as a ritual that gives every camp a climax to the week, and that you have special days at camp, like color war, and even sad days, like Tisha B’Av, which kind of give an emotional load to the summer.”

Dr. Fox said what she found particularly interesting was that even though camp leaders had different visions for how to fix the issues with American Jewry at the time — and some camps were far more religiously observant than others — still the campers “all came away with similar types of Jewish values.”

There was a gap between “the things Jewish adults were worried about, which were different from what the kids were worried about,” she said. “The kids wanted to have fun, romantic relationships, and there was a tension between what the adults wanted to accomplish and what the campers wanted from the experience.

“I hope that people who work in camps today, and in Jewish education, can learn from the camps that they passed through, and understand how they’ve gotten to where they are.” That includes how “Israel came to be at the center of American Jewish education, and how camps contributed to that.

“I feel that camp was utterly unique,” Dr. Fox said. “I hope that the people who work in camps today — and in Jewish education more broadly — can learn from their own experiences in the camps that they went to.”

She also feels strongly that the camps of the postwar era deserve much credit for shaping positive Jewish identities. The camps were successful at putting Jewish ideology at the center of their mission, and as a result they helped mold several generations of campers who went on to lead committed Jewish lives, an outcome Dr. Fox finds admirable.

“It’s amazing that these camps, which were run as nonprofits, succeeded in being fully transformative to the generations of campers who flocked to them every summer,” Dr. Fox concluded.

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