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Wet Hot American (Jewish) Summer

The following is a transcript of Episode 140 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Thursday, May 11th, 2023. 

So Jews, in my experience, divide pretty neatly into two groups, camp people and not camp people. This division is not just about whether or not you went to summer camp at one point or another. It’s more like whether you think that the world kind of revolves around summer camp, whether you imagine summer camp to be the ideal version of human existence, whether you cry in anticipation of summer camp starting and then weep upon the prospect of leaving. 

You can hear more about this in episode 109 of the podcast This American Life, titled Notes on Camp. The episode description on the NPR website says, “Camp kids explain how their non-camp friends and their non-camp loved ones have no idea why camp is the most important thing in their life.” 

So I was not a camp person. When I was in about fifth or sixth grade, my parents sent me, by accident, I think, to an all-boys, ultra-Orthodox sleepaway camp. I can’t remember what I thought about that decision when it was happening, but I hated it. Although, to be fair, I can’t quite parse now whether I hated camp in general, or this one in particular, what with it being an all-boys, ultra-Orthodox camp. 

And if you’re wondering how parents might accidentally send their kids to a particular summer camp, well, I think part of it was, no disrespect, Ima and Abba, maybe a little bit of benign neglect, and also you have to understand there was a time before we had the internet, so you were pretty much guessing all the time about experiences and places that you didn’t know much about. I think my parents’ friends said to them that they were sending their kids to this camp that they found called Camp Yadid, so there we went. 

I remember we missed the bus to camp, so my mom had to drive us there, and I… distinctly remember the ominous feeling, one of the few things I remember about that summer, driving into the gates, our car suddenly surrounded by young men in white shirts and black pants, with tzitzis swinging about and wondering to myself, where the hell am I? 

I didn’t go back to camp after that until I was 17 and a staff member, and I worked then at Camp Moshava for two summers as a counselor and a division head. And then, I did have a great time, but I was really a lousy counselor. And ultimately, it was never for me the way it was for the real camp kids, those who had grown up there. And some of those folks are still working at Camp Moshava every summer, nearly 30 years later, breeding a whole new generation of camp kids. 

Meanwhile, my wife Stefanie was a camp kid. It was her favorite place on earth. And she stayed at camp from, I think, age seven or eight through her early twenties. One of the great and absurd things about camp, we’ll talk about this today, is the trust, often place or misplaced on very young people with the lives and experience of others. And so Stefanie was put in charge at camp from age 17 to age 20. Camp it seems is the only place in the Jewish world that walks the walk on generational transition of leadership and maybe there’s something to be learned from it. 

My research assistant actually, here at Hartman, who works on helping prepare for this show, Shalhevet, was running camp right before she came into this job, her first full-time job after graduating. My guess is that normal work in an office feels easy when you come straight from working 1,440 consecutive hours in the summer. 

Because genetics being what it is, Stephanie and I have kids who now fall on both ends of the camp-non-camp divide. Our oldest is a totally different human from June to August. Camp is his happy place, and he returns after the summer hoarse and exhausted and irritable that he doesn’t get to live by a lake in New Hampshire year-round. Meanwhile our middle son tried it out once and it just wasn’t for him and he just doesn’t get the appeal. 

But summer camp for the American Jewish community is not just a thing that people do, a site of summer plans or even just a dividing line between these two different types of American Jews. For the Jewish identity industry and in Jewish communal life, summer camp has become a huge bet. Vastly larger numbers of non-orthodox Jewish kids go to Jewish summer camp than they do Jewish day schools, and my guess is that they overwhelmingly like it a lot better. 

For a community struggling to generate affectively positive attitudes toward Judaism and Jewish life, the immersive experience of camp checks a lot of boxes, and the philanthropic dollars are therefore flowing in that direction. Jewish summer camp is like a shrine to the possibilities born in Jewish informal education. And done right, it gets treated like an insurance policy for the Jewish future. And so camp, then, is also kind of the center of gravity in American Judaism between June and August. 

We at Hartman like to think that that center of gravity is actually at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where we welcome rabbis and educators and Hillel directors and lay leaders for our programs. And registration is still open. But we don’t really compete. With the hundreds of sites across the continent, those places in the woods with Native American, Hebrew, Yiddish American, or Jewish donor names, places like Towanga, Morasha, Kinderring, Sprout Lake, or Kutz, where a great number of our kids run free, kind of, and absorb this extraordinary cocktail of Jewishness, sweatiness, sugary snacks, as we all get a respite from their nonsense and they get to taste a little bit of imagined community. 

And by the way, we Jews are not the only ones to notice the essential value of summer camp to American Jews and Jewishness. I remember the first time I watched the now cult classic movie Wet Hot American Summer, a slapstick comedy about summer camp, and I was amazed that it seemed like obviously it was going to be set in a Jewish summer camp, like that was a normal way to write a mainstream American movie with predominantly non-Jewish actors. 

So I don’t think summer camp is definitively just an American Jewish thing. And perhaps our guest will help us understand that today. But it kind of feels like it is. And that seems like a big story to me about American Jews and this public culture that we sometimes share and that we sometimes shape. 

So my guest today is Sandra Fox, the Goldstein-Goren visiting assistant professor of American Jewish history at New York University and director of the Archive of the American Jewish Left in the Digital Age. That would make for a totally great other episode. Her book, The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America, recently out from Stanford University Press, talks about just this. As a historian, she addresses the experiences of youth in postwar Jewish summer camps and the place of intergenerational negotiation in the making of American Jewish culture. 

So Sandra, thanks for being on the show today. We’re going to talk about Jewish history, American Jewish history, and camp. But I first have to ask you. Are you a camp person? And if so, whether your own camp experience somehow informed your interest in doing this project.

Sandra: Of course I’m a camp person. I don’t think someone who’s not a camp person could have written this book. I’ve been thinking about camp as a historian now for a decade. That’s how long it took, you know, from the beginning of this as a project, to the end of it as a book. So I think you have to be a pretty passionate camp person. 

But I’m an interesting camp person, actually. So I went to Young Judea camps. You mentioned Sprout Lake. I went to Sprout Lake. And then I went to Camp Tel Yehuda. I recently counted it up and I spent about two years of my life, between being a camper and a counselor, in Young Judea camp and a year also in Israel with Young Jude. So that’s three years of my youth in Young Judea’s auspices rather than my parents’ auspices. 

And so, you know, that’s a lot of time and all of my best friends were from camp and I think, you know, if you look at the trajectory of my life, becoming a Jewish studies scholar, and a bunch of other things that I’ve done, Young Judea’s impact is definitely present.

At the same time, you know, you asked how my camp personhood might have affected the choice to write about this or the way I wrote about this. I started this project when I was 23 years old. Actually, I was worried at the time that I was too close to my camp experience to really write about camp, so I was dancing around the subject in a variety of ways. I was writing about youth movements, about other forms of Jewish informal education in history, when it kind of occurred to me that I was just avoiding the subject of camp because I was worried, that, how could I be this objective scholar, how could I look at this with the kind of distance that I needed, at that age. 

Well, now I’m 34. That’s how long it took for this project to come to fruition, because that’s how it goes when you’re writing a Ph.D. that then turns into a book. And, obviously I aged, I matured in that time, but also when I look at the book now, I understand that part of what I was doing by studying this history was processing my own trajectory as a Jew from someone who grew up in a Zionist youth movement to someone who later embraced Yiddish culture and came to understand diaspora Jewish heritage a lot more and the idea that American Jews have a history. 

So I’m an American Jewish historian, but it took until I went to graduate school, really, for me to think about American Jews having a history that had value. 

Because the message at my camp was Israel is what has value and everything that happened before 1948 was bad. And even though we were all American Jews besides the staff who were Israeli, we didn’t talk about American Jewish history. 

So I think it’s really interesting for me now to have this distance from the project. I finished it months ago, if not really a year ago at this point, and can look at it with new eyes and understand that actually it’s a book about youth that follows me through a period of my own youth, figuring out who I want to be as a Jew.

Yehuda: That’s really interesting. And I have a lot of questions that emerge from that. But it’s,  the focus of the book is really the 1940s to the 1960s, right. And I assume your camp experience based on what you described as your age takes place after that. 

Sandra: Yes.

Yehuda: So maybe we could talk a little bit about the 40s to the 60s and then come back to the question of what are the implicit messages that you’re arguing about for the phase of the book that you don’t deal with. Maybe that’s a second book, which I think we could use, on what happens next, which you allude to by the end of the book, but it really is a focus on that earlier period. 

So maybe just locate us historically in the 40s and 60s as the driving forces. I mean, it, so many big topics that situate us in summer camp as a choice, American Jewish arrival in certain ways in American public culture, two, three generations post-immigration. the great immigration waves, urbanization, affluence. So, like, what is the story that provides for this kind of explosion of Jewish camp, summer camp participation in this period of time?

Sandra: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that was what gave me some of the confidence to write about the topic, because I did have distance from it, because I was not born during the years that I studied. 

So the 1940s was a pivotal moment for American Jews. And you alluded to some of the reasons just now. I should say that American camping and American Jewish camping emerged earlier, in the early 20th century. Jewish camps for all different kinds of Jews started to emerge in the early 20th century and increasingly in the 20s. Then there was a pause in the 30s with the Great Depression. And then you have this moment in the 1940s. 

But Jewish camping changes in the 1940s in a lot of different ways. So this is the period in American Jewish history where American Jews are, as you said, arriving. They are increasingly socially mobile. They are able to get jobs and enter universities in greater numbers than before. They are more accepted into Gentile society. They’re moving into the suburbs where they’re able to build nice shiny homes with all the different kinds of comforts of affluence. 

And a lot of American Jewish historians have described the immediate post-World War II years as a period of goldenness, of American Jews finding themselves comfortable in suburbia and in that comfort, able to build new synagogues, different kinds of organizations, sisterhoods, Hebrew schools, and summer camps.

 And that golden story is true. Of course, you know, this is a moment where Jews are stepping into privilege, to use our words today, right? They’re becoming white, and they’re stepping into that privilege. And very few everyday Jews were anxious about what that meant. They were enjoying that comfort. 

But Jewish leaders were actually very concerned about what that change, what American Jewry’s new comfort and affluence meant for the future of Judaism. And we have to understand that concern in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The shadow of the Holocaust is right there. 

And one shift that I think is not obvious to us because we’re younger and we’re not necessarily thinking about being that close to the Holocaust, is that prior to the Holocaust, American Jews could kind of sit comfortably with the thought that Judaism, an idea of an authentic Jewish life, was existing somewhere else. That Jews were still in Eastern Europe and they were still living as the American Jewish immigrants’ ancestors had. 

Suddenly after the Holocaust, that vision is cut off. Six million Jews are lost. And now the future of Judaism is really in American Jews’ hands. That’s how they feel at least, right? 

Israel is still new. Israel is constantly under threat at that time. And so you couldn’t assume that Israel was going to be able to kind of hold the future of Judaism. So that is percolating at the same time that American Jews are actually experiencing this great moment of affluence and suburbanization. 

And so Jewish summer camps, that’s where they start to be seen as this solution to basically every communal ill possible. You alluded earlier to the idea that people invest a lot of money and a lot of energy into camps as a solution. This is where that comes from. Because for the Jews who were anxious about the future of Judaism, taking kids out of suburbs and moving them to a place where you could control every single aspect of their lives, for four to eight weeks, and really immerse them in different visions of Jewish culture was a way to mitigate that problem. 

If they weren’t going to learn how to be real quote unquote or authentic Jews at home, then at least at camp you could give them a taste of that in an immersive setting that hopefully they would carry with them further into their lives. 

So there were a lot of different kinds of camps. before the 1940s, but in the 1940s, you start to see the growth of Zionist summer camps, the Reform and conservative summer camps come into being in that period, and Yiddish summer camps, Yiddish-speaking summer camps that existed prior, beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, start to shift into more ideologically Yiddish-oriented spaces, because as fewer and fewer American Jews spoke Yiddish as their everyday language, Yiddishism as an ideology had to come to the fore. And so that’s the period I mostly talk about.

Yehuda: Okay, so you used a really interesting word just now, which appears in the book, and you talk about it at length, which is control. So two pieces of that. One is, first of all, it’s worth noticing the irony that communities that are rooted in anxiety about the present, ambivalence about the present, anxiety about the future, construct, I don’t know if it’s ironic or it’s direct, they construct the ideal or idyllic Jewish atmosphere. 

Right, and it’s interesting that you can pull that off, because sometimes anxiety and ambivalence actually get in the way of imagination. So it’s striking that you can say, wow, I’m really anxious, so let me construct the ideal atmosphere and actually, that can succeed. But what that requires is this weird tension between camp as experienced by kids as a place of freedom versus camp as actually an intensely engineered controlled atmosphere. I think that you analogize here that camp is like maybe more like a prison or a monastery, but it’s not felt that way by the campers. 

So can you talk a little bit about that dynamic between creating the illusion of freedom when actually, actually it’s like a totally controlled engineered atmosphere?

Sandra: Yeah, the concept of it being like a monastery or an asylum is one of the few places in the book where I reference a sort of philosophical text about the organization of time. It’s called Hidden Rhythms by Evitar Zerobovel, who was also a Jew, which is interesting, perhaps, and relevant. And it’s sort of funny, because of course camp is not a prison, right? But I did talk about this last week with Ramah leaders, and I did kind of imply, well, let’s talk about the ways in which it is a prison,

Yehuda: But is it?

Sandra: Because campers can’t leave, and they are told what to do every hour of every day. And then, of course, kids face all kinds of control in all sorts of places all the time. That’s just the life of a child. But camp is more controlled than home, for most kids, in the sense that every single hour is dictated by someone else. 

What camps have to do in order to get buy-in and to get campers to love camp, and loving camp is not just about loving camp in these ideological and educational Jewish spaces, it’s also about loving the camp’s ideologies, is make them feel free. 

So what my book is about is about that constant tension between control and freedom and camp leaders in the post-war period did not mince words. They used words like control and brainwashing, words that people today might say at a whisper or in a joking manner about camp, but won’t say that that’s a legitimate form of Jewish education. 

In the post-war period, people used those words. They said that the power of camp lies in the ability to control a child’s life for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for four to eight weeks. And then what camps do is try to insert spaces and moments and sort of infrastructure for campers to feel free. 

And that can take the form of things like camper governments, like student government, right? That’s a kind of space in the school where kids are given some rein, but it’s not real. We all know that student government is not real power. It’s not, at the end of the day, there are camp rules, there are school rules. 

A lot of my favorite sources in the book are moments where the camper council, or whatever it was called at a given camp, would propose something, maybe something absurd. Like at a Reform camp Swig, one great source, campers proposed that they should be allowed to curse on Shabbat. That specifically on Shabbat, they wanted the ability to say curse words. And of course the counselor said, well, cursing is against camp rules. And then the campers write in the camper newspaper, if it’s against camp rules, then what power do we actually have? They say we have freedom, but is this what freedom actually is? 

So campers were also in on this tension. They understood that. And especially in Jewish camps that kept teenagers as campers as late as possible. And that’s a whole other thing, that Jewish camps, especially the educational ones, try to keep campers as campers as long as possible. And that was true even in the 50s and 60s when, honestly, teenagers were considered more adult than they are today. They were less protected and treated as children as they are today, but even still camps like Ramah, for instance, the Zionist camps, they actually created opportunities for teenagers to stay at camp as late as possible in various kinds of leadership training programs. And that’s pretty unique. 

And that is another factor in this whole story of power is that you’re getting campers who are frankly done with being told what to do every single hour of every single day. And so how do you give them a sense of release? How do you give them a sense that they have control? 

So part of that story is things like camper councils, camper newspapers, humor is a huge feature, right? Jewish camps often have allowed really raunchy humor. 

I know at my summer camp, for instance, we would have Friday Night Live as our Shabbat Oneg, our event on Saturday nights after dinner, where humor that was frankly quite raunchy and edgy would be allowed. And that was part of allowing campers to feel that camp could reflect their youth culture. 

Sexuality and romance was another opportunity for camp leaders to strike that balance. I’m sure we’re gonna get into that more.

Yehuda: Yeah, this is maybe a dumb question. Is this a bad thing? I mean, is the control thing a bad thing? And I think this lingers a lot longer. I remember being a counselor at camp, and I’ll give you two anecdotes. One was, it was not uncommon during the day, when kids were doing random activities at this religious Zionist camp Moshava, that someone would get on the PA system, and quietly whisper throughout the day, “Make Aliyah.” 

And it was like a way of teasing that the, we’re gonna make a subliminal message, which everybody knows is actually the overt message, at all times, of the camp. Or another thing, which you allude to, of camp time, which is one of the ways in which you create control over people, as you change the clocks. 

One time the camp succeeded at color war breakout by convincing the entire camp that it was Friday when it was actually Thursday. And they got everybody dressed for Shabbat and started Shabbat and then they’re like, haha, it’s color war. 

There’s something extraordinary about these kinds of tricks, but you implied that like, we wouldn’t do that today or we shouldn’t do that today. I’m curious how you think about this almost as an ethical question. Is there something wrong with naming the fact that this is an environment of social control, knowing that you’re trying to achieve a whole bunch of educational outcomes? Maybe wink a little bit, make fun of it a little bit, but own that that’s what you’re trying to do.

Sandra: It’s not my role as the historian to talk about whether or not this is good or bad. My hope is that by pointing it out, Jewish educators who read the book might look at their work differently.

I think it’s very natural that Jewish educators and all educators, in fact, are trying to make an impact on campers or students. That’s what education is. But I think that with summer camp, it can be very easy to not look at what it actually is. Right? So, of course, I’m sort of tongue in cheek when I say to Ramah leaders last week, it’s a little bit like a prison, but I think it’s important to point that out, and to think about the ways that power and control are negotiated in camp. And specifically to look at things from the perspective of youth in general. 

Historians have had a lot of trouble studying the history of youth, both archival trouble, where the voices of the young in the archives, but also trouble placing ourselves in the place of young people, and especially small children, but even teenagers, depending where you are in life. 

And I think everyone benefits from looking at educational spaces from the perspective of the young. And so I hope that it’s useful. I don’t think I was trying to be intentionally charif or edgy about this, but I do think that it can be really useful to look at camp from that top-down level

and from the bottom up. 

That’s what the book is really doing. It’s looking at the top down and the bottom up to understand how power is negotiated and how power flows.

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, I can steer back into the book on this question because you do allude to it near the end around, you know, the anti-occupation organization, If Not Now, setting its sights on the Zionist camps in the past decade and basically saying, yeah, this is an environment of a certain educational control, which we’re going to refer to as brainwashing. 

And then as opposed to saying, we’re going to fight the camp industry to begin with, they’re like, you know what? We’ll just play by the same rules. Let’s figure out whether we can get to camp counselors. and use the incubated environment of camp to actually teach a different message. 

It almost feels as though there’s not really, there’s not really a lot of folks out there arguing, don’t let camp be this kind of greenhouse of ideologies. It’s more like how do we seize control of the greenhouse in order to promote the ideologies that we want? 

Is that an accurate rendering of the 40s to the 60s? And do you think that that’s carried forward to the present?

Sandra: Well, I first want to say, I don’t know if that’s an accurate rendering of what If Not Now did. I was involved in one of their retreats for summer camp counselors as a historian presenting on this work. And I don’t think that the goal of it was to get counselors to necessarily project a certain particular message at camp. But it was about expanding their horizons, right? They had questions about Israel and the Palestinians that were not being answered in camp. And maybe they didn’t go to colleges where they were able to take classes on that subject or that wasn’t available to them. So I don’t think it’s exactly apples to apples there. 

But your question was about in the 40s and 60s. Can you re-clarify what you mean?

Yehuda: I mean, I guess like it’s the question that relates to how assertively this is a concrete project by the American Jewish community, and well, we can move on actually. 

Sandra: No, no, I’m interested. I was interested in the question. Like you were asking basically, why should it like, when are we going to move away from the idea of it being an incubator for any particular ideology?

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, is there, is there, I guess one way to put it is like this, is there intense self-awareness, and how does that manifest itself in the camps knowing that you describe this as a concrete project of American Jewry in response to certain anxieties and ambivalences. 

So what kind of evidence and literature do we have about the folks doing this knowing that what they’re doing is creating a brainwash-y, intensive atmosphere, and is there any ambivalence about it? 

Because in the present, it sounds like there’s ambivalence about whether we should be doing this. And I’m curious whether some of that ambivalence appears earlier on in this process, even as people are building out this industry.

Sandra: From the 40s through the 60s, I wouldn’t say there was a lot of ambivalence about the idea of Jewish camps being incubators of particular ideologies. No. There was a lot of explicit conversation about how to make that work and how to make campers feel like they were taking on these ideologies freely. But no, I didn’t see a lot of self-reflection to that effect. 

I think that Zionism was not controversial in the same way that it is now. So if the hot-button issue is Israel, then that’s just not going to be the same in the 40s and the 60s. By the Six-Day War in 1967, American Jews overwhelmingly support Israel, and it’s not a controversial subject to the same degree. 

So I think that this is a contemporary issue. I’m not saying that there were absolutely no moments in the post-war period where people had a feeling of concern about the idea of control or questions about it or, you know, certainly ideologies were debated, which ones should prevail. I think it’s really interesting. If you look at Ramah or the Reform camps in the 40s through the 60s, the fact that they would become Zionist was not a given. We think of it as a given because we don’t know of anything else, but it was not a given at the time that Israel should play such a role. 

So that’s a process that occurs through an evolution over time. But the idea that camps should incubate certain ideologies and ideas about Jewish culture or ritual, that was present in that period, and I did not see a lot of ambivalence about it.

Yehuda: It certainly has to be the case that some of the intensity of the ideological messages that are being taught at camp, whether it’s about Zionism or Yiddish culture or Shabbat observance, et cetera, have got to be at odds with the lived experience of most American Jews who are sending their kids to camp.
So maybe we could talk a little bit about that. Like what’s going on, I understand for the camp industry, that is deeply ideological, yeah, they want to basically create these incubators. But what’s going on with parents? Like why are parents sending their kids into an environment that’s going to be so radically, ideologically different from the ones that are experiencing at home? And have you ever uncovered any tensions around that between communities and their camps?

Sandra: Yes, absolutely. It’s a great question. Parents are, they’re not always clued in on what they’re doing, especially you, you talked a little earlier about the fact that pre-internet people just knew a lot less about where they were sending their kids to camp.

Sometimes, oftentimes actually, a parent sent their kids to a camp that was related to a parent organization, let’s say, that they were a part of. So camps that were associated with the Workman Circle, if you were a Workman Circle member, you might send your kids to that camp. If you were a Hadassah member, you might send your kids to Young Judea. If you were a conservative synagogue member, you might get encouragement to send your kids to Ramah.

But I also, I know anecdotally of plenty of stories where it was just something to the effect of, oh, all of the kids in that Hebrew school decided to go to this camp, and so I’ll send my kids to that camp too, because they want to be with their friends and they don’t necessarily know what’s going on, I would say.

Certainly my parents did not know the degree of what I was getting from Young Judea. And when I came home at some point in high school and said I wanted to go on a gap year in Israel, they were like, what have we done? We don’t want her to do this at all. So parents don’t always know. 

And in so many ways, the anxieties that Jewish leaders had about the Jewish future, was about the failure of Jewish parents to carry forward the kinds of education that might have happened in the home previously, and other generations. So the home is a failure, the parents are a failure, the Hebrew school’s a failure. We gotta ship them off to camp. That’s the only way they’re gonna learn this. So camps are in a way also a critique of parents. 

And then there are tensions when kids come home and they want to be differently Jewish than their parents or, you know, there were historical moments in the post-war period where Ramah really butt heads with the conservative movement because kids would come home or counselors would come home from Ramah and say, why does our conservative synagogue stink? I mean, I know that’s kind of a funny way to put it, but that’s basically what they realized, was that Ramah was the conservative movement’s summer camps, it was the JTS’s summer camps, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s summer camps, but it didn’t match what life was like at a conservative Hebrew school or synagogue in the post-war era in the American suburbs. 

So there were a lot of different ways that camps were critiques of parents, critiques of Judaism back at home. And it’s funny, because the the parents are paying for it, right? It’s a really interesting tension.

Yehuda: Yeah, totally. 

So what do you think happens, by and large with, I love cognitive dissonance moments like that, of, this identity that has been manufactured is the ideal version of the identity and it runs counter to the neutralized, boring, pale version of this identity that’s back home. 

What emerges for camp alumni as a result of that experience? Because it doesn’t result in transforming of the conservative movement to the Reform movement in any sort of significant way that I could tell, but maybe, maybe I don’t see it.

Sandra: I would say there are some ways in which it did transform movements. In one interesting way, the conservative summer camps, the Ramah camps, were more egalitarian earlier than the movements back at home. That did create a tension. And I won’t say the fact that there are women in the conservative rabbinate is because of Ramah. That’s maybe too simplistic. 

But the fact that Ramah leaders wanted girl campers basically to feel included and to learn Jewish ritual on their own, through experience, meant that they had those experiences at camp and came to expect it when they got back at home. I would say the Chavurah movement also, which is so important to the history of American Judaism, that was something that former campers really were leaders in. Ramah campers, but also other campers. 

In the Reform movement, I know that song leading, which is a huge part of Reform Judaism, is something that emerged out of the summer camps and came into the temples afterward. So there are ways that camps actually did change culture. 

The fact that we have a Yiddish renaissance today, or at least that’s what people talk about, I have questions about how new this is, but you know, continuously people say, oh Yiddish apparently isn’t dead and there’s a renaissance. I would also say that’s owed to the summer camps. And so there are different ways that summer camps actually do create change back at home. 

But in terms of the dissonance, I think one thing that post-war camp leaders pointed to was the problem that when kids went home, they didn’t have a way to connect into the Jewishness that they just learned back at camp. I think that it takes a very particular former camper who lives in the right places as they grow up, you know, a place like New York City, for instance, where I am, that has all different kinds of Jewish communities and Jewish cultural options. to be able to continue something like what they had at camp into their adulthood. 

For a lot of other people, I think it’s very frustrating if your primary positive experience with Judaism was at summer camp, and then you go into the real world, and it doesn’t feel like summer camp. I’ve heard that from former campers who say, I don’t like services anywhere but my camp. So it can create this dissonance between camp and home.

Yehuda: I wonder where you think the culture of innovation that you described, whether it’s in egalitarianism or music or prayer or, I remember in my summer camp at Moshava when I was a staff member, it was basically kids coming back from Yeshiva in Israel who were like, we need to bring different Torah study to camp and change the culture. 

I wonder what you think is the lifeblood or the life cycle of that kind of creative innovation in that camp. Is it lab-grown, is it adult-driven, is it youth-driven? What fabricates the possibilities that Camp offers in terms of these kinds of innovations at the edge of lived Judaism?

Sandra: Well, I think that the innovations go back to what I was talking about before in that top-down, bottom-up dynamic. I think that innovation happens in the space between what adults want and what children and teenagers want. It’s that intergenerational negotiation that makes change happen. I can give a couple concrete examples from my research. 

A lot of camps aspire to be Hebrew or Yiddish speaking, not just what we kind of know today as “infused,” to use the words of scholars like Sarah Ben-Nor. Hebrew-infused environments where Hebrew is used to talk about different spaces around camp or group names in announcements a little bit here and there. No, they want it to be fully or at least largely Hebrew or Yiddish-speaking. That’s what adults wanted. Kids did not want that. So the innovation, then, is the Hebrew infusion and the idea of using language as a pathway towards identity, even if it’s not fluent language. That’s one example. 

I’m trying to think of other concrete examples. In the Yiddish camps, Boiberik and Hemshekh in particular, are camps that I gave a lot of attention to that were more Yiddishist in their ideologies, not just using Yiddish in the early 20th century when it was one of American Jewry’s languages, but also constructing an ideology around it as Yiddish started to decline. The tension between what adults wanted, which was to continue fluent Yiddish, and what children and teenagers wanted, which was not to speak Yiddish all the time, but to use it symbolically and to use it to engage with their Judaism. 

That is a lot of how people use Yiddish today. There are people who speak Yiddish fluently, like me, who wanna speak Yiddish with their children, et cetera, but a lot of people who describe themselves as Yiddishists, Yiddish represents to them an ideology of social justice, of secular Jewishness perhaps, of diasporism, of doikite, of hereness, and they don’t need to speak it fluently in order to use Yiddish to connect to that. That came, that’s an innovation. I would call that an innovation that came out of camp and it came in that tension between children and youth. And there are so many examples of that.

Yehuda: I want to talk a little bit about Zionism because it appears in a major subset of these camps. I’m sure it’s an evolving story between the kinds of things that you’re going to play act and reenact about early Zionism versus post the Six-Day War, what Israel embodies and makes possible for American Jews. 

But I couldn’t help but suspect, reading through some of your research on this, that it’s not just how do we use camp as a means of attaching people to the story, but that there’s something far more exciting about what Zionism offers to American Jews than the banality of their own existence. I wonder if you could poke at that a little bit as to why the industry of Zionist camping builds up in such a significant way. 

And you alluded to it earlier in the show, actually, where you said it’s not self-evident that Zionism would have actually taken off within the context of American camping, especially if it was trying to make for good American Jews who were gonna stay in America.

Sandra: Yeah, I think that, and this is not just the Zionist camps, meaning the camps that came directly out of Zionist movements, but the fact that Zionism becomes mainstream in all kinds of Jewish camps is a feature of the fact that basically Jewish educators right after the Holocaust looked at the situation. And I’m really going to I’m going to boil this down to something very simple, because I found sources to this effect. 

They looked at the situation. And they said, okay, what’s going to make Jewish kids feel proud right now? What’s going to make Jewish kids feel good about being Jewish? It’s not looking at Eastern Europe. You know, the Yiddish camps did that. And they fought an uphill battle and many of them closed. 

So most Jewish camps, they look at Israel as a place where Jewish kids can source pride and the idea of Jews being strong and Jews being able to persevere. And that is where the idea of Zionism as central to Jewish camping comes from. It’s not necessarily, I mean it is political, but it’s not necessarily that what came first was that all American Jews bought into Zionism in the way we think of Zionism today as kind of support for Israel in this blanket way. It was more that they looked at the kids and thought about what is going to make them love being Jewish. And Israel was an answer. 

And when you think about American camping more broadly, American camps of all kinds use Native American symbols, group names and camp names and teepees and totem poles and all these different things. Well, in a Jewish camp, Zionism was an easy kind of replacement for that. Let’s call the camp names, you know, Alumim and Tzofim and all these different things. And so that’s where that comes from. And it remains, you know, it really remains a big part of why Jewish camps, I think, engage with Israel. And they don’t necessarily know what to replace it with if they’re if they want to replace it at all.

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, you gave a hilarious example of one camp that had two color war teams, one of which was Shalom Aleichem, and the other one was Y. L. Peretz. And it’s hard to imagine that that makes for a better color war fight than Irgun versus Palmach. I mean, like, it’s so obviously the very military metaphors of color war and the competition led themselves to the kind of, I don’t know, the embodiment that comes with Zionism, which is so different than Jewish, Yiddish, and other forms of culture that they might have inherited.

Sandra: But it depends, right? Because for those children who grew up in that Yiddish-speaking milieu to some degree, whose parents might have read parrots and who had Yiddish newspapers around, that might have had resonance, or it might have been a little funny. But still funny in a way that fit camp life, because camp is funny.

Yehuda: We’ll talk a little bit about sexuality because you alluded to it earlier and I want to address it. As you described in the book, the culture gets less permissive after the sexual revolution because they’re genuinely nervous about what’s gonna happen at camp and what it means for adults to be responsible. 

And at the same time, there’s this relationship to the continuity crisis and it kind of seems like the early DNA of so much of Jewish programming and institutional life that lives on to today, Birthright being the prime example, which is rooted in how do we get Jewish boys and girls to hang out with each other and maybe fall in love and eventually have babies, becomes important to the camps. 

I wonder if you could walk us through a little bit of history and especially like, a little bit of the intentionality around eros and sexuality as something that’s intended to be programmed into camps in the period that you studied.

Sandra: Yeah, well, I think I’ll start by just saying that when I began this project, everyone asked me if I was going to write about sex at camp, and I thought I wouldn’t, because I wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar, and talking about hookup culture didn’t seem very serious to me. I was, you know, in my 20s, a young woman in academia, I was already writing about something that I think a lot of people didn’t consider important. Some camp people did, but a lot of scholars did not necessarily think it was important to talk about camp from the perspective of children and teenagers. 

So I avoided the topic for a while, but then it became increasingly clear that that was really the heart of the project in a lot of ways, right? A lot of people are interested in this topic of camp and sexuality because something is happening at camp. And I wanted to understand the historical roots of it. 

So to understand the historical roots of it, I had to go beyond the archives. The archives have some amazing documents. Camp archives have amazing documents written by campers and by leaders that point to the kind of culture there was at camp around sexuality. But I needed more than that. So oral history was a very important part of how I got to write that chapter. 

You talked before about the fact that actually, camps were even more permissive before the sexual revolution. That was fascinating. And it launched me into reading all about sexual culture before the sexual revolution. We think of our grandparents’ generation as very prim and proper, and they didn’t do much, maybe a little bit of necking and quote unquote “heavy petting.” 

But actually, I spoke to former campers and many of them said that they had steady girlfriends or boyfriends as teenagers, but sex was off the table. So that is true, that people more or less, you know, at that time were not having sex, at least before engagement. But they were doing stuff at camp, up until sex, and they had a lot of ability to do so. 

I mean, people from the forties, people who went to camp in the forties, were talking to me about boys entering girls’ cabins. I even spoke to someone who said he had a threesome or almost had a threesome at camp, was a little vague. And I didn’t end up using it in the book cause I had a lot of questions about it. But things were happening in the forties is what I’m trying to say, and the fifties.

But what happens during and after the sexual revolution is that the prospect of teenagers having sex enters the American consciousness. It’s everywhere. Even though a lot of American teenagers are not having sex, but the idea that they might, because of public displays of affection and sort of the openness around sexuality is new, puts fear in some camp leaders over the idea that kids might actually have sex at camp, which could lead to unwanted pregnancies. They weren’t talking about liabilities in the way that camps talk about liabilities and things like that today and lawsuits, but there was a consciousness around the fact that there was a line. They didn’t want people to have actual intercourse at camp. 

But they did want campers to feel free, as we’ve been talking about, and they did want campers to couple off. At first, it wasn’t really about the fear of intermarriage. It was more about Jewish kids partnering with people who came from similar kinds of Jewish communities, Jews of a similar ilk. It transitions in the late 1960s and much more so, even in the 70s and 80s and 90s, into what we now know as the continuity crisis. 

And camp leaders are looking at the pre-existing camp culture around sexuality, the fact that teenagers come to camp looking to have these first experiences of romance and sexuality, and say, oh, this might be a place where we can nurture these ideologies, the idea that marrying Jewish is the positive thing to do. 

And so there’s this interesting, two things going on at once. There’s both the camper culture, where campers are often very focused on having those experiences at camp. And there’s the stuff that Jewish camp leaders are allowing, right? They’re creating camp banquets, which was something that all kinds of camps did, but still it creates a sort of romantic atmosphere. Different events where boys and girls would be mixed in a sort of way that encourages coupling. 

And also giving them free time at night. And that is something I’ve, you know, there’s not a lot of research about American camping in the post-war period. I wish there was. I wish I understood more about what kind of broader American camps do around sexuality. But what I will say is that if you compare Jewish camps to Christian camping, there’s a scholar named Jacob Sorensen who I’ve spoken to and whose work, it’s called Sacred Playgrounds, it’s a book about Christian summer camping. I highly recommend researching that book and other things about Christian camping if you work in the Jewish camping space. 

When I talked to him about romance and sexuality at Jewish camp, he was shocked. I mean, that’s just nothing like what’s going on at Protestant camps. They’re happy if people couple off and marry eventually, but they don’t want anything sexual to be happening at camp. And I’m not even talking about Evangelical camps here. This is really not Evangelical, this is just Protestant, kind of mainline Christian camps. So there is something Jewish specific about the ways in which the naturally kind of romantic and sexual atmosphere of putting a bunch of teenagers in a summer camp mixes with what Jewish leaders want.

Yehuda: There’s a lot more here in the book that we’re not going to get to today, but I do recommend people read it. There’s a whole fascinating chapter on Tisha B’Av, like a Jewish holiday that basically owns its origins to the first century, but its popularity to the 20th because it’s the holiday that takes place at camp.

But let me ask you just two last questions that move us a little bit into the present. One is what accounts for what I’ve experienced as, even if you’ve described this as kind of a heyday, of the rise of this movement, what accounts for the boom in the past 20 or 30 years in philanthropy? The Foundation for Jewish Camping emerged and changed to Foundation for Jewish Camp. They raised millions and millions of dollars and actually were, I think, the most successful Jewish organization through the COVID pandemic, at withstanding basically the bailout of the camps. 

What do you think accounts for that in the contemporary American Jewish community that would be analogous to the crisis of anxiety or ambivalence, that motivates the rise of this movement in a previous era?

Sandra: The precursor to things like the Foundation for Jewish Camp was basically a crisis in Jewish camping that hit in the late 1970s and 1980s. That was largely a demographic crisis. There were just fewer Jewish children around after the baby boom. Gen X is a generation we don’t hear a lot about in history yet, and that’s partly because it’s not that long ago, but it’s also because there weren’t a lot of Gen Xers. And so, there was a lot of space in Jewish camps that were not being taken up, and people were freaking out in the Jewish community about the extra beds. 

So there were these earlier moments before FJC, before the way that camp is so professionalized now, where different parts of the Jewish community were trying to professionalize camp and work on this problem and convince the American Jewish community that sending kids to Jewish camps was important. So that’s the precursor.

I think that it’s really interesting that it’s so organized now, because actually, someone who reached out to me who works in kind of, I don’t think he works for FJC, but some organization that works with camps on a sort of broader scale said, I didn’t know that there were any efforts prior to FJC, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, to bring camp directors together. There were a couple moments in the 1960s, for instance, where that happened, but nowadays camp people are much more in touch. And I think that they realize that the strength is in numbers and in being in touch and innovating together. So I think that that’s a very, very positive thing for the camping market. 

Yesterday I was asked in an interview where camping is going. Honestly, it seems like camps face a lot of different challenges. The fact that camp is super expensive now. It’s harder to convince teenagers and their parents to send them to camp way into their teens when college applications demand children to be adults, basically, which I think is a horrible aspect of being a teenager today. 

And honestly, looking ahead, as a millennial, I just don’t know how my generation is going to afford sending kids to camp the way that our parents did. We’re not necessarily upwardly mobile anymore. We’re kind of downwardly mobile. 

So actually I think there’s another crisis ahead, where I don’t think all young Jews who might want to send their kids to camp will be able to. And so I think those philanthropic dollars are only going to become more important for the industry to survive. 

And I see a lot of camps, mine included, creating sessions that are shorter, which I think has to do with economic need and the balancing act that parents and families have to do as kids become teenagers and have to become. basically miniature professionals before college. 

So I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but I think that there were precursors to this Yehuda: Yeah, and I think one other variable with this history of the present gets written that is essential to understanding the rise of this investment is the rise of mega Jewish family philanthropy as well, because that system tends to like large scale systematic interventions and then puts massive amounts of dollars behind it. 

So as opposed to a single camp raising a certain amount of money, you can raise something like the program called One Happy Camper, which can give you $1,000 off any camp that you opt into. And that just means that philanthropy changed in terms of its scale, and camp looks like, oh, it’s not this program for 70 kids, it’s thousands and thousands of kids every summer, and then I can address the problems I want to face around identity and continuity.

Sandra: Absolutely.

Yehuda: I guess my last question for you is a hard one, which is, I kind of wonder, reading through this and listening to you, there’s something, there’s a lot that’s wonderful and magical about this heyday of absurdity at camp, about color war, about the performance of this kind of, in some ways, muscular, fascinating Zionism, around the latent sexuality which is connected to trying to move the Jewish community forward in a particular way, all of the role playing, the imagines, the real suffering, imagined suffering. 

I kind of wonder whether you think that camp, in order to be magical, is going to be able to survive the scrutiny of the 21st century on all of these things, the constant questioning about the politics on Israel, the renegotiation of sexual politics. Can camp continue to do what it does if the anxiety is no longer external to which camp is the solution, but if there’s so much anxiety about what’s going on at camp itself and so many eyeballs on it?

Sandra: I don’t know. I think you have to ask someone who’s been to a camp more recently than I have. I think it’s a challenge, for sure. I mean, I think to take the sexuality example, when the Me Too movement started to kind of enter the Jewish conversation and specifically a conversation around youth groups and summer camps, even I felt a little conflicted, and I’m a feminist, you know, absolutely agree with the activists that camps have nurtured problematic sexual environments on a bunch of different levels. I have stories of things that happened to people I know and to myself at camp that were not okay. 

And also, I liked that my camp was very open about sexuality and very sex-positive in a certain way. And that’s complicated. And I don’t know if camps will be able to dance that dance anymore. I don’t know what camp looks like in a time when teenagers are given a lot less leeway, a lot less freedom to roam and to be kind of whoever they want to be and to be irresponsible, and I don’t want to romanticize that either, there were problems with the degree of laxity at Jewish camps, absolutely.

But there’s also problems with how overly parented camp teenagers seem to be. I’m talking about teenagers here, obviously little kids need a lot of supervision. But I don’t know what Jewish camp is going to look like going forward. I hope that it’ll be able to thread that very, very difficult needle. And my thoughts are with the people who have to figure out how to do it.

I’m here to provide a historian’s angle, but it’s challenging.

Yehuda: Well, thank you all so much for listening to our show today, and special thanks to our guest Sandra Fox. The book is called The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America. It’s published by Stanford University Press, and I think you can probably get it everywhere.

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes or great books we should read. If you have topics you’d like to hear about, if you have comments on this episode, you can write to us at [email protected]

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