The History of Jewish Summer Camps

Jewish summer camps have a rich history dating back to before World War I. (Photo: Getty Creative)

The Jewish summer camp experience has become a cherished summer memory for many Jewish families and communities. But these summer programs were not always the Jewish summer camps of today. Over the decades, summer camps varied between an experience that excluded the Jewish people and one that was used to protect and support Jewish children from the effects of war.

Jewish children were once excluded from the summer camp experience

Jonathan Krasner is a professor of Jewish education at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who reports that in the very early years of summer camps in the United States, Jews and other minority communities were excluded from these summer activities. traditional.

“The camps often had Christian influences,” he explains, “and while some were officially non-denominational, many camps were restricted – meaning Jews, blacks and other marginalized people were not not allowed to register.”

Krasner says that as a result, Jews began to create their own institutions parallel to traditional American summer camps, beginning in 1893. As Jewish organizations began to open their own facilities, they followed the two traditional structures different for American summer camps: private camps and “fresh air camps”.

The first Jewish summer camps

“Private and institution-affiliated camps were for middle-class and wealthy kids,” Krasner says. “And, the fresh air camps were for children of immigrants and other at-risk populations.”

“For middle- and upper-class families, the growth of summer camps around the turn of the 20th century was part of a larger cultural reaction to urbanization and industrialization,” he adds. “The nostalgia was palpable for what was imagined as a simpler time, when humans were more connected to the earth and nature.”

For immigrant children, fresh air camps were touted for their health benefits. According to Krasner, parents saw the value in moving children from red-hot, crowded parts of the city and exposing them to nature, fresh air, hearty food and healthy play.

“The camps were [also] agents of Americanization: teaching immigrant children to play American sports and encouraging them to develop a taste for American cuisine and enjoy popular American pastimes,” he says, adding that these early Jewish summer camps offered Jewish children a camp they could attend, but they weren’t much different from their non-Jewish counterparts. If any Jewish culture was featured, such as Friday night services and a Shabbat dinner, it was minimal.

World War I brings changes to Jewish summer camps

“After World War I, a new kind of Jewish summer camp developed,” says Krasner, “the Jewish culture camp.”

“These camps had many of the same activities as the general camps, but the atmosphere was distinctly Jewish,” he continues. “The focus was on spending the summer immersed in Jewish culture and living a rich, joyfully Jewish life.”

These new Jewish summer camps were not only a place of playful and cultural discovery. In some cases, they were a safe haven for Jewish children in high-risk areas of the country during World War II.

“While camps in scenic remote locations always had a hiding place with the wealthy, parents found a new reason to favor these camps during World War II,” Krasner told Yahoo Life. “[Parents] fearing attacks by U-Boats (a type of naval submarine operated by Germany during World Wars I and II) on population centers on the East Coast, took their children to remote camps like the Adirondacks and central Maine.

When World War II ended in 1945, Jewish summer camps, along with many other Jewish institutions, experienced massive growth across the United States.

A new type of Jewish summer camp

Daniel Olson, director of strategic initiatives and research at the National Ramah Commission in New York, explains that in 1947, when the first Ramah camp (Jewish summer camps affiliated with the conservative movement of Judaism) opened, it was not was just the beginning of the second stage of Jewish Summer Camps.

“There were camps organized around using Hebrew, Yiddish, teaching socialist values ​​or early Zionists – supporting the building of a Jewish state in Palestine,” he said. at Yahoo Life. “At that time, American Jewry was more established with less concern about assimilating into mainstream American culture…so the post-WWII period is when you saw Jewish denominations come into summer camp play and having much more autonomy – conscious focus on Jewish education for leadership development.”

Olson says that 75 years later, the stories of that first summer at Camp Ramah, so close to the end of the atrocities of the Holocaust and World War II, are still remembered to this day. And, while some American children had been shielded from potential attacks from Jewish summer camps, newly arrived refugees in the country found solace and community in these summer experiences after the war ended.

Jewish summer camps today

Today, Jewish summer camps continue to be part of the Jewish experience in the United States and around the world, a phenomenon that experts say may be linked to a third wave of camping, focused on individuality.

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the New York-based vice president of innovation and education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Orlow says Jewish summer camps have entered a new phase, paving the way for the continuation of the tradition of the Jewish summer camp experience.

“Now, how do you make good Jews out of them?” he says “Although there are many different flavors of what a good Jew might look like. The third phase happened about 13 years ago – a venture to build new specialized camps, to bring in new children on the market that wouldn’t necessarily go Jewish Camp otherwise”

“Reform science camps, farm-to-table camps – how do we take those niches of human existence and integrate Jews into that space and bring new people into the camp environment?” Orlow adds.

Olson agrees and says that over the past few decades Jewish summer camps have learned not only to share a more authentic and complete Jewish life, but also to be more inclusive.

“We’ve learned a lot over the last generation,” says Olson. “People who come to camp learn to live in a community and to respect many different people. Disability inclusion has been a part of Ramah for 52 years and is now a part of many other Jewish summer camps as well.”

“Respecting difference and the full diversity of our communities is a really important outcome here,” he adds. “When you live in an immersive environment – especially for overnight camps – 24/7, surrounded by other people, there is an incredible opportunity to not only learn values, traditions, rituals and Jewish customs, but also living them. I think this is one of the most special pieces that Jewish summer camps offer to children and staff members.

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