The development of the Jewish camping movement in the decades following World War II gets a close-up look in a new book by historian Sandy Fox. The book, “The Jews of Summer,” looks at both the sharp growth of sleepaway camps in the post-war era and the reasons why American Jewish leaders felt they were needed.
According to Fox, who teaches Jewish studies at New York University, the post-war years were not only a period of unprecedented affluence for Jews in America but a period of concern about the future of Jewish life. With the rise of suburbs in the decades following the end of the war in 1945 and the prosperity that accompanied it, there was concern that young people were growing up without a strong tie to their Jewish roots. It was an unusual time, according to Fox, that forced Jewish leaders to act.
“They’re responding to this historical moment, which is a strange one, because it’s this tension between a sort of golden period, as other scholars call it, of influence and prosperity, and a period of high anxiety about what the future of Jewishness might be.”
During that period, a strong and influential movement of sleepaway camps developed, particularly outside the major Jewish population centers on the east coast and in the Midwest.
The Conservative movement’s first Ramah camp was opened in Conover, Wisc., in 1947. Three years later, Reform Judaism opened its first camp-institute in Wisconsin as well. Both major branches of Judaism offered an educational program that supplemented the education young people were receiving in their temples and synagogues back home.
One prominent Conservative Jewish educator noted that the camps bridged the gap between “what the school was teaching and what the Jewish child was experiencing in the home, by providing a new milieu which could act as a surrogate home.”
Camp also combined informal educational opportunities in a social setting where the emphasis was, as Fox points out, on youth, both among the campers and among the staff.
“Camp educators understood that they had to be responsive to the desires of young people,” Fox notes, “and create a balance between the kind of control they wanted to have and the desires of the young. And so that’s what a lot of the book is about. How did they create camps as miniature democracies to give campers a feeling like they had power.”
In the 1960s and 70s, summer camps became a place where young people could strengthen their understanding and commitment to Israel and the Zionist ideal, to work for the cause of Soviet Jewry and to deepen their understanding of the Holocaust and its influence on Jewish life.
During the last half of the 20th century, young people had considerable influence in America. Not only did the suburbs offer a new upwardly mobile lifestyle for adults but for their children as well. A youth culture based, in part, on the affluence that young people enjoyed, fueled student protest movements, a lengthy battle over the morality of the Vietnam War, feminism and the sexual revolution. One way or another, says Fox, all of these issues came to camp along with the campers.
“All of these trends make an appearance because camps don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re constantly responding to the broader social trends and happening outside of them. And, in terms of what camp leaders thought about in terms of control, they were very savvy and understood that they needed to create a balance between control and allowance or kind of laxity.”
A youth culture based, in part, on the affluence that young people enjoyed, fueled student protest movements, a lengthy battle over the morality of the Vietnam War, feminism and the sexual revolution. One way or another, says Fox, all of these issues came to camp along with the campers.
Camps gave young people a combination of living and learning that they couldn’t get anywhere else. They could play, learn about Jewish life, and make new friends, as well as be made to feel that they could “take charge” of their own young lives, even as Fox notes, and their attitudes toward sex and romance.
“I write a lot about romance and sexuality at camp. Camp leaders understood they had to give campers an outlet to express those desires and to express their pubescent sexuality…it was part of what has allowed a lot of camp alumni to feel like camp was a place where they were very, very free. Yeah, that freedom was real.”
Today, more than 80,000 Jewish young people attend hundreds of camps sponsored by a broad cross section of religious and non-religious Jewish organizations.