Home Living Jewish What makes Jewish summer camp special? – Part two

What makes Jewish summer camp special? – Part two

(Wikimedia Commons photo)

Last time we looked at how to find a Jewish camp, which many former campers will tell you was an unforgettable experience for them. But beyond good memories, what lasting effect does Jewish overnight camp really have? Well, the researchers have thoroughly gone through the data and the answer is – plenty.

When summer arrives, it sometimes feels as if practically every Jewish kid has vacated the city. Enrolment for North American Jewish overnight summer camps reach about 77,000 camp-aged children every summer. An impressive number certainly, but that represents only 10 per cent of eligible camp-age kids. Why does it feel like more? Sociologist Leonard Saxe, co-author of How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences, says it may have to do with the socioeconomic factors.

“It wasn’t part of the instructions at Sinai or part of the genetic material,” says Saxe. “My guess is that Jews are disproportionately professional and that Jewish women — disproportionate to women across the board — have professional jobs. That both gives them more resources and creates a need for them to have some sort of full-time activity for their kids over the summer.”

And how does Jewish summer camp attendance stack up against other religions? According to a study by the National Study of Youth and Religion in the U.S., 43 per cent of American Jewish teenagers have attended an overnight camp run by a religious organization. Surprisingly, that puts Jewish teens in fourth place. Nearly 80 per cent of Mormon teens have attended such a camp, followed by 53 per cent of conservative Protestants and 48 per cent of mainline Protestants. “We think it’s a Jewish phenomenon because of our circle, but apparently it’s an opportunity that all movements of religions believe in,” said Jerry Silverman of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “We just don’t have the awareness” of them.


The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – Massad Camps

There is no question of the critical role that Jewish summer camps play now – or historically. Jewish camping as we know began in the late 1890s as a way to provide children with a brief respite from industrialization. “By the late 1920s, Jewish summer camps had gotten explicitly ideological: socialist, communist, anarchist, Zionist, Yiddish,” writes Dan Nosowitz in a fascinating article, The Evolving Ideologies of American Jewish Summer Camp.

“Zionist summer camps prepared kids to move to Palestine … [while] a socialist summer camp would have no individual money, and any packages a camper received from home would be divided equally to the rest of the camp. Labour was highly valued; a punishment for bad behaviour would never be, say, cleaning the bathrooms, because bathroom duty was a noble and important role in the camp society.”

Jump ahead a couple of decades and Riv-Ellen Prell credits the focus of Jewish camps on civil rights for launching a “transformation in American Jewish culture.“ It expressed itself in many ways such as the plays that were performed like Finian’s Rainbow and Show Boat. Writes Prell, “In 1962, senior campers in the Nayack camp performed in Porgy and Bess. Chaim Potok, the late noted American Jewish writer, served as a head counsellor at Ramah in the 1960s and looked back on that production as the event he was proudest of at camp, because he said that the ‘campers could get under the skin of black men and women.’”


Benefits of Jewish Summer Camp

What about the current impact of camps? Many people have a gut feeling that the Jewish summer camp experience is a powerful one. A 2011 report crunched the numbers and looked at the long-term influence of camps based on evidence from 26 studies on Jewish engagement. Among its findings:

  • Adults who are former campers are 55 per cent more likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel.
  • As adults, campers are 45 per cent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month and 37 per cent more likely to light candles regularly for Shabbat.
  • And as adults, they are 30 per cent more likely to donate to a Jewish Federation.

From the study’s conclusion, “The impact of camp on Jewish community awareness should not come as a surprise. … The bonding experience of camp not only builds a long-lasting taste and yearning for community, it also creates habits of Jewish practice. It makes Judaism part and parcel of life’s most joyous moments. Moreover, those moments are experienced as integral parts of life in a beloved community.”


Szarvas Camp: Europe’s Jewish Future

What is the secret of Jewish camps and their power to shape campers’ identities for a lifetime? Amy Sales is co-author of How Goodly Are Thy Tents and writes “Each camp has a very strong and intentional culture, camp by camp. Camp’s power to socialize young Jews – How do I be a Jew? How do I be a member of the Jewish community? – depends on this culture.”

Adds former camper Libby Lenkinski, “Jewish life [at camp] is not being shoved at you by authorities like parents or teachers at home and it’s more egalitarian, and you are outside. Everything is led by youth. It’s more creative and more of a choice. I think it lodges a kind of a more personalized Jewish identity somewhere deep.”


By now, you may be convinced about camp. Next time – how do you know if your child – and you – are ready? And what to do about special needs and interests?

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