The past, present, and future of Jewish summer camp with Sandra Fox

Jewish summer camp is synonymous, in many ways, with North American Jewish identity. Thousands of Jews attend camp every summer. It’s a tradition almost as sacred as lighting Shabbat candles. But how did it get this way? And why? 

Those vital questions are at the heart of Sandra Fox’s latest book, The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America. She delves into the history of Jewish summer camp pre- and post-Holocaust, noting a marked shift after the traumatic events of World War II, when Jewish leaders anxiously debated how to best preserve Jewish practices. They pinned their hopes on recreational summer camps where children could be educated in different facets of Judaism. 

In various sections of the text, Fox explores Zionist, Yiddishist, Hebraist, Reform, and Conservative camps, unfolding how campers either embraced or rejected aspects of those ideological teachings. During this time, the growing influence of suburbanization and access to a more secular middle-class life placed mounting pressure on summer camps to reinforce certain ideals of what it means to live a “successful” Jewish life. But how do you measure such success? Fox endeavours to find out. 

I spoke with the New York-based author about how the idea for the book came about, if summer camps have evolved over time, and whether there’s room for change.  

Cover of Sandra Fox’s recent book, “The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America.” Image courtesy of Sandra Fox.

First, tell me about yourself and where your love of Yiddish comes from? (Fox founded the Yiddish-language podcast Vaybertaytsh: A Feminist Podcast in Yiddish).

I’m from Long Island and I come from an interestingly mixed family in terms of my religious background—my mom was Reform and secular-ish and my father is more Conservative and Orthodox. But culturally, I had very little awareness of Yiddish. Yiddish words were said around the house but the language itself is not something I grew up with. 

Later on, when I went to a Zionist summer camp, I befriended someone who was in a Yiddish speaking home and that was my first real Yiddishist exposure. As I got older and delved into Jewish studies I had to think about what languages I needed to know for research purposes and how deeply I needed to know them, which is when I studied it seriously. But the introduction to the language really grew from Zionist camp.

The book begins with an anecdote about campers at Camp Hemshekh, a Yiddish cultural sleepaway camp. Was your love and study of Yiddish the catalyst for this book? 

This book grew out of my doctoral dissertation. I was not sure I wanted to write about camp. At first, I wanted to study Israeli history in grad school but quickly realized my interest was in how diaspora Jews use Israel as an identity building tool. So I pivoted to study American Jewish history. And when I thought about dissertation topics I wanted to look into camp—it was on my mind because a longstanding interest of mine is studying childhood and youth. But at the same time I thought maybe this would be too close to my own story. Then I realized I would be studying in time periods that predated when I was born and studying a whole array of camps. So it was actually the perfect way to look at the things I was interested in like youth and childhood, power dynamics between youth and adults, generational tensions, all sorts of stuff.  

You write that Jewish summer camp had a marked change post-Holocaust in terms of its goals for how they wanted to shape the next generation of Jews. Do you think the intensity of that focus has had a lasting impact on camps today? 

It’s not a given that summer camps should be so imbued with a mission, or at least not such an ideological, political, cultural mission. In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, the mission of [secular] camp was to get out of the city, breathe fresh air, and build life skills in the outdoors. It’s not expected that camps aim to basically save a culture. That [mission for Jewish camps] has absolutely stuck. They’re pretty political and educational. As a sector, Jewish camps have become more organized too. More camps are affiliated with different kinds of Jewish organizations that are more looped into the possibility of camp being something that can build Jewish culture, values, and identities in children.  

You also note what ideologies were popular before and after the Holocaust.

In the 1920s there were Yiddish oriented camps, as well as Zionist and Hebraist camps, and then in the postwar period they were joined by the heavy hitters in the organized Reform and Conservative movements. Camp Ramah is often upheld as a very important Jewish camp and a leader in Jewish education. Though, it actually got its ideas and foundational structure from camps that people don’t talk about as much, such as Hebraist camps and Yiddish oriented camps. But at some point Yiddish camps begin to decline and Zionist camps begin to flourish. 

In those postwar years reclaiming and salvaging Jewish culture and identity from that extreme trauma was happening while there was increased assimilation of Jews in suburban middle-class life. How did people reconcile those two identities that can feel like they’re on opposing ends of the spectrum? 

I think it makes sense they happened at the same time because they feed off each other. American Jews in the postwar period were experiencing new levels of social inclusion, affluence, suburbanization, and were changing the face of Jewish life. It can be considered the Golden Age of American Judaism because there was essentially this expansion of infrastructure. Before, you’d live in a Jewish neighbourhood and interact with Jews because they were your neighbours, and go to Jewish shops and communal organizations. But in the suburbs they needed to build that Jewish infrastructure like synagogues and community centres—they had to consciously build a Jewish life in suburbia. But other Jews saw it as an inauthentic form of Judaism. So they’re not in opposition, they’re the reason for each other. Anxieties about Judaism were held by those in communal leadership, not everyday Jews who enjoyed stepping into the middle class and what we would today call privilege. Camp was used as a way to keep those more “assimilated” Jews connected to their Judaism through these various ideologies. 

How would kids reconcile these two identities? 

The thing that I gathered from talking to people and from the archives is that’s the hard part of camp. It creates this ideal Jewish atmosphere that can’t be replicated at home, inherently it can’t. Rather than feeding American Judaism and making it strong, which camps do because they give movements new leaders (Ramah has long been a place where people decide they want to go to rabbinical school), it’s a place where young people were able to see the problems with Judaism back home. What they perceived as an inauthenticity of synagogue life, such as wearing fancy clothes and driving fancy cars to service, did not follow what campers ended up valuing. Jewish leaders thought camp could strengthen [the desire to go to] synagogue back home but it’s actually creating these rebel rousers who aren’t happy. For example, the Havarim movement that appeared in the late ’70s and ’80s—akin to what we have today with independent minyanim that are run by young people who don’t have a rabbi—were camp alumni who were unhappy with synagogue life.

That’s so interesting. Are there other examples of kids rebelling Jewish life or teachings because of camp?  

Surprisingly, there are few examples of kids disagreeing with the core ideologies of their camp. One place where you see the desire of campers not matching the desires of staff and how that affected camp life is when a lot of camps attempted Hebrew and Yiddish immersion, but campers weren’t having it. It wasn’t a protest but it was a battle that happened over the course of years and led to the adults having to change the camp’s goals and not focus so much on language. That is an example of campers resisting and showing their power because they were the majority in these places and the consumers. If they don’t like camp, they won’t come back. Another example is that the Ramah movement a lot more formal education in its early years. I found interesting sources where educators said the campers “don’t like this” and “if we don’t have their buy-in, this won’t work.”

In the book, you say you get asked the question: does camp work? Do you think it does? Is it successful? 

It’s a tough question. It depends on what you mean by success. When middle-aged and older adults ask me that, what they mean is, does it prevent children later on in life from marrying non-Jews? Does this affect marriage choice? Or does it translate to them being active in Jewish communal life on an official basis like with a synagogue membership? Those are often what the North American Jewish metrics are based on. It does those things but those are limited ways of looking at what success is. What I tried to do in my book is not to get to the question of were camps successful but what do Jews want out of them and where did we get this idea that we should be successful in the first place? How did they become this missionized? My book gently points to the question of what if we removed that pressure on camps to succeed at these particular missions. I don’t think young people agree with their parents and grandparents on a lot of these missions. It seems like an odd way to measure success. Like what if a Zionist camp’s mission was not just creating people who love Israel no matter what but to also produce people who critique Israel because they care so much about it? Some would say that’s a camp failure but I would say the fact that you care so much is a sign of success. These questions are political.   

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity and length.

Cover image design by Clarrie Feinstein. 

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