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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 11: Camp!


Jeremy Shere: Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of “Adventures in Jewish Studies.” So now, in normal times, in non-pandemic times, a lot of kids would be going to summer camp, and especially a lot of Jewish kids. But alas, this year, tragically, most camps, maybe all camps, are closed for the summer. I'm on the line with Associate Producer Jen Richler. We’re still social distancing, so we're looking at each other through a screen. But Jen, your kids normally would go to summer camp, right?

Jen Richler: That's true. They would, right now, as we record, they’d be at a Jewish summer camp in Canada — actually the one I attended as a child, a little north of Montreal — and they would be happily whiling away the hours canoeing and making lanyards, or whatever it is — well, I guess I know what kids do at camp, because I went there — and they'd be having a great time. And now, they are, sadly, not doing that.

Jeremy Shere: Aargh. So how are you handling that?

Jen Richler: Well, I do feel disappointed for them, because camp is fun, as we will discuss in this episode. Camp is a really special place and it's fun. And actually I find, this summer, my kids have been telling me more stories about previous summers of camp that I hadn't heard before. And I think that is due to some nostalgia and longing for what they're missing. And I feel bad for them. I will be honest and also say I feel a little bad for myself and my husband, that we have been deprived, like many parents, of the little respite and the kid-free time that camp affords to parents everywhere — or lucky parents everywhere.

Jeremy Shere: I hear you. I mean, my kids, they're 19 now — twins. But they used to go to camp. We sent them to a Young Judea camp up in Wisconsin. And boy, when they went away for those four weeks, or however long it was, that was like paradise for us, for me and my wife, and also for them too, right?

I went to camp too. I went to Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Michigan, to a Habonim Dror camp. And it was a pretty formative time in my life, in terms of Jewishness and how I felt about being Jewish, and just the friends I made there. I mean, those are some of my best friends, still to this day. So it really is such a shame that camp is closed this summer, but what are you going to do? They had to close.

Jen Richler: What are you going to do? You just plod along and hope for the best next summer.

Jeremy Shere: But as you mentioned, that's really what this episode is all about. I mean, yes, summer camps are closed, but this episode about summer campus is pretty much the next best thing. Wouldn't you agree?

Jen Richler: Oh, yes. It's camp in podcast form.

Jeremy Shere: Yeah. I mean, it's almost the same.

Jen Richler: It's like being there.

Jeremy Shere: Of course it's not, but that's really why we wanted to do this episode. We knew camps would be closed. And so we wanted to take a look at Jewish summer camp. What is the big deal? What makes Jewish summer camp so special?

And part of the way that we explored that is by going back in history, as we often do, looking at the origins of Jewish summer camp. How did it get started? Why did it get started and how has it evolved over time? And why does Jewish summer camp remain such a big deal today?

Enough of us yakking about camp — let’s get to the episode.


Imagine you're a kid growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1890s. You're the child of Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life. But for the time being, at least, you're poor. It's summertime, and the heat is so oppressive in your family's tiny tenement flat that you spend most of your time outside, roaming the crowded streets.

One day, you're visited by a young woman from the Settlement Movement, a Progressive-Era, reformist social organization that works to help tenement-dwellers with daycare, education, and healthcare. She explains to your mother that the stifling heat and unclean air and water and general squalor of the Lower East Side can be harmful to young people's physical and moral health. Why not have your child spend the summer in the countryside with other kids, breathing clean air and learning to become a real American? Plus, it's all paid for by the Settlement Movement, so there's no cost.

It sounds like a wonderful opportunity. It is a wonderful opportunity, especially for Jewish immigrant parents, who want their kids to take advantage of everything that America, the “Goldene Medina,” or Golden Country, has to offer.

And so, off you go to spend the summer in the great American outdoors.

Sandy Fox: American summer camping as a definable movement or sector comes out of the Progressive Era idea of the fresh air movement.

Jeremy Shere: This is Sandy Fox, a Jim Joseph postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University who specializes in the history of Jewish summer camping.

Sandy Fox: The idea being, take urban youth, who live in these industrialized cities — which reformers believed were bad for them, in terms of their health and their moral hygiene —take them and bring them to the countryside and give them an opportunity to live in a kind of anti-modern fantasy.

Jeremy Shere: The fresh air movement wasn't a Jewish movement. Although many young urban Jews of the era participated in summer camp programs, some Jewish organizations such as the Young Men's Hebrew Association, or YMHA, the Jewish counterpart to the YMCA, also sponsored summer camps, but the camps were not intended to foster Jewish identity. Their purpose was to mold immigrant youth into upstanding Americans.

Sandy Fox: It was appealing to go, let's say, to a Settlement House camp, because they would be free or very, very low cost, and families would be encouraged to do so. At the same time, these camps, with their assimilationist impulses, did not make a lot of accommodations for Jewish campers. So kosher-style food, for instance, that would be probably be a no-go.

Jeremy Shere: During the early decades of the 20th century and into the 1920s, specifically Jewish camps that did strive to cultivate Jewish culture and identity began to emerge. There had been some private Jewish camps before then, but camps with a Jewish educational focus really took off in the 1920s.

Sandy Fox: You start to see, in the 1920s, camps sponsored by Yiddish organizations, the Folkshulen organizations like the Workmen’s Circle, and different labor unions or fraternal organizations sponsoring camps for Yiddish-speaking youth, or children who were born to Yiddish-speaking parents. So these kids, in the beginning, in the Progressive Era, already spoke Yiddish, but they would come and they would better their Yiddish, or that would be the idea. Jeremy Shere: Zionist camps also began during the 1920s. And so did Jewish camps that weren't explicitly Zionist.

Sandy Fox: Jewish educational camps that are not affiliated directly with a Zionist or a Yiddishist movement, like Camp Cejwin, Camp Modin, and that's the milieu of the Jewish educational camp and the interwar period.

Jeremy Shere: One reason that more and more Jewish kids during this era went to Jewish summer camps was because mainstream camps were for middle-class Protestant boys. Many didn't allow Jews, Catholics, African Americans, or any other non-Protestant kids. But Jews chose Jewish camps for other reasons, too.

Sandy Fox: There was a relief in the social comfort of sending your kid to camp with fellow Jews. Where, maybe at home, the kids and the families both would feel a pressure to assimilate, to give up their minority language and aspects of their culture and religion, camp offered a safe place for Jewish children to basically become immersed in some degree of a Jewish social lifestyle.

Jeremy Shere: The period from roughly 1942 to 1952 saw an explosion of Jewish summer camping. Many of the Jewish camps that we know today, such as Ramah, as well as Reform summer camps and Zionist camps, got started then.

And it wasn't only Jewish camps. Christian summer camps grew as well.

Sandy Fox: And that's likely because of the same reasons, which is that you have this expanding American white middle-class, you have a boom period for American denominational religion, spurred in part by the move to the suburbs, and the idea that your house of worship would be a center or an anchor of community.

Jeremy Shere: And so Jews active in the Reform and Conservative movement saw summer camp as an extension of the temple or synagogue and the Jewish community centered there.

But other forces were at play too. After World War II, many of the barriers that kept Jews from participating fully in American life began to fall away. No longer barred from elite universities and from entering the most lucrative professions, Jews began to prosper and to move out of the urban ghettos and into the wealthy suburbs.

But rising prosperity came with anxiety about a loss of Jewish identity. Many American Jewish parents worried that their suburban kids were too comfortable. Their middle class lives seem completely disconnected from the poor inner-city Jewish enclaves, not to mention the shtetls of Eastern Europe…

Sandy Fox: …and who certainly would not understand the Zionist mindset, the experience of halutzim, pioneers, in Palestine and later Israel, and the difficulties they faced.

Jeremy Shere: Jewish parents came to see Jewish summer camp as a way for their kids to have what they saw as an authentic, immersive Jewish experience.

But there's no doubt that Jewish summer camps owe their growth after World War II to one thing above all: the destruction of European Jewish life and culture in the Holocaust. Suddenly, American Jewish leaders saw themselves as responsible for carrying Jewish culture into the future.

Sandy Fox: At that point, we have to remember, Israel's future was very uncertain, and so American Jews really were conscious of their role in continuing Jewish culture as they understood it. And so camps came to take on that mission, and in very different ways, depending on their ideologies.

Jeremy Shere: For example, millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews had been killed in the death camps of the Holocaust. The directors and counselors at Yiddish camps felt that they had a duty to teach Yiddish, to prevent the language from becoming extinct.

Sandy Fox: The entire fight to keep Yiddish alive in a camp — let’s say like Camp Hemshekh or Camp Boiberik — was inflected by this tremendous feeling of tragedy and loss, at least from the staff members’ perspective. But also, a lot of the campers in the postwar period at Camp Hemshekh, at least, were the children of Holocaust survivors.

Jeremy Shere: Zionist camps also responded to the Holocaust by positioning the newly formed state of Israel as a sort of beacon of hope during a dark time.

Sandy Fox: Zionist educators believed that Israel could be used effectively as a tool to engender Jewish pride, in a time where Jewish pride might've been kind of hard to come by. A Zionist take-home message was very, very common in most Jewish summer camps, because it provided a happy ending to a generation that — at least these older Jews believed —needed that happy ending in order to feel positive about being Jewish. So that's very different at the Yiddish camps —there’s no easy, happy ending there.

Jeremy Shere: Jewish summer camps weren't the only institutions that American Jews relied on to provide education and foster a sense of Jewish identity in their kids. There were also, of course, synagogues and Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools. But camp was seen as a cut above those other institutions, because, as Fox says, it was fully immersive.

Sandy Fox: So what do I mean by immersive? I mean, obviously, you have a campsite. And so that environment plays a role in it. You can build an environment that all the names of the buildings are in Hebrew or in Yiddish, and you can lock the gate or not take campers too much outside of camp for the period they're there.

And I think the fact that Jews went to camp for longer periods, like four to eight weeks, adds to that. So Christian camping — there are a few camps that are Christian and meet that long, but it's a very, very small number by the postwar period, as I understand. So that length of time is really crucial.

Jeremy Shere: Camp directors and educators crammed those four or eight weeks with as much Jewish content as possible…

Sandy Fox: …from prayer in the morning to flag raising — and the question of, are you going to raise the Israeli flag alongside the American — to “labor hour,” that evoked the kibbutz mentality or the socialism of Yiddish speakers of yore, and so forth and so on. So you structure camp life from a daily, a weekly, and a monthly perspective, to have an ideological vision all the way through.

Jeremy Shere: Part of that ideological vision, before World War II and in the early postwar years, included language instruction in Yiddish or Hebrew. And we're not talking about simply using Hebrew or Yiddish words to describe various camp buildings and age groups. We're talking about full Yiddish and Hebrew immersion. In some camps, English was forbidden. But as early as the 1940s, it was pretty obvious that Yiddish immersion wasn't going to work.

Sandy Fox: By the 1940s, Leibush Lehrer, the director of Camp Boiberik, is horrified at what he's seeing, in terms of the abilities of campers — and even to some extent, their parents, who fill out surveys for him, noting that they don't want to receive his letters about camp, the camp newsletter, in Yiddish. They want to receive it in English.

Jeremy Shere: Bowing to reality, many Yiddish camps turned to more of a language infusion model.

Sandy Fox: The names of places around camp and the times and the schedule and the songs are in Yiddish, but very little emphasis is placed on learning Yiddish.

Jeremy Shere: Some Zionist camps tried to immerse campers in Hebrew.

Sandy Fox: The main example here is Camp Massad. They created their own dictionary. They had a very strict founder and camp director, Shlomo Shulsinger, who, as I understand from the archives and from oral histories, campers could be a little bit afraid of him…

Jeremy Shere: …because, according to Fox, campers who were overheard speaking English could be punished or get yelled at. Camp Ramah also put heavy emphasis on Hebrew in its early years during the 1940s and 1950s. But like the Yiddishist camps, Massad, Ramah, and other camps with a Hebrew-language focus eventually evolved toward Hebrew infusion.

Sandy Fox: You can bring a cow of water, but you can't make it drink. You can bring Hebrew the campers, but you can't make them speak a language that they don't want to speak. And you can't even make the counselors do it either, if they want to emotionally connect with one another and with their campers.

Jeremy Shere: Jewish camps also began to compensate for a declining interest in Hebrew by focusing more on Israel, especially during the late 1960s, when Israel was becoming more and more prominent in American Jewish life and culture.

Sandy Fox: In the case of the Conservative and Reform camps, which didn't begin explicitly as Zionist, as Israel becomes a bigger and bigger part of American Jewish identity and cultural life, so, too, does it enter the summer camp and proves a very useful sort of tool for creating this sense of authenticity.

Jeremy Shere: Now, anyone who's been to summer camp, Jewish or otherwise, knows that part of the attraction for campers is the sense of freedom that comes from being away from parents and school. Jewish camp directors of the ’50s and ’60s were well aware that forcing their beliefs on campers simply would not work. Instead they adopted what anthropologist Randall Tillery would come to call “structured mayhem.”

Sandy Fox: Camp educators wanted camp life to be free, to a certain degree. And by structuring that freedom, allowing certain kinds of activities, like raids, games that gave campers the feeling of running free around camp, like capture the flag, camp dances, that gave a very specific window and a controlled way for campers to express interest in the opposite sex, or perhaps the same sex, and sexuality. These were ways to deal with that fundamental tension of, okay, you have this majority at camp that are campers that are children and teenagers. And how do you give that majority enough power that they feel free?

Jeremy Shere: That was important, because Jewish camp directors also knew that that sense of freedom was essential for achieving the overall mission of fostering a sense of what they saw as authentic Jewishness in their campers.

Sandy Fox: If you want camp to “work,” if you want campers to go home feeling or being more “authentically Jewish,” they need to feel like they made that choice on their own, that that authenticity is their own. And so structuring camps to have a great degree of freedom is one way in which they did that.

Jeremy Shere: Fast forward several decades, and in some ways, Jewish summer camp hasn't really changed much. Camp Ramah, Reform movement camps, and many of the Zionist movement and other camps are still doing their thing every summer, well more than half a century after their founding. Jewish educators and camp directors still see camp as one of the best ways to provide Jewish kids with an immersive Jewish experience that makes being Jewish fun and cool. And campers are still drawn to camp, to be with their friends, swim in the lake, plan late-night raids, and all sorts of other structured mayhem.

But in other ways, Jewish summer camp has changed significantly. Some camps now have shorter one- or two-week sessions for younger kids, instead of the traditional four weeks. And to compete with camps that specialize in sports or theater or art and so on, some Jewish camps now offers similar types of specialized tracks.

Another big change is that Jewish summer camping has become the subject of academic study. There have been dozens of books and studies on Jewish camping, and this body of research has found that in general, there is an even greater focus on Jewish education now compared to the 1950s.

Nicole Samuel: And really a lot of these nonprofit Jewish camps are really succeeding at informal Jewish education or immersive Jewish education.

Jeremy Shere: This is Nicole Samuel, an associate research scientist at the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Samuel and her colleagues have done some of the most important research on Jewish summer camps in the last 15 years, including a 2008 study looking at how the Jewish camp experience has changed over time. And she says that Jewish camps today are seen as educational institutions in a way that wasn't the case in earlier decades…

Nicole Samuel: …where you went to get away, even if you weren't fleeing your tenement for four weeks. Camp is just what you did, it's what your parents did, and it was good for you. You know, be athletic and see new friends and make new friends. But I think camps really, truly have an educational mandate now that they didn't before.

Jeremy Shere: A renewed focus on education has changed the way that Jewish camp educators approach planning. During the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, a typical Jewish camp might have a block of Jewish educational content sandwiched between archery and swimming. But more recently, camp directors have tried to integrate Jewish content more fully into camp activities.

Nicole Samuel: So instead of going from swimming to archery, to the “Jewish block,” you might go from swimming to archery and you talk about the King David. I mean, you can't use a slingshot at camp or something like that, but the idea is that you would take different activities and infuse Judaism or Jewish learning into that.

Jeremy Shere: Same goes for rock climbing.

Nicole Samuel: A lot of the camps I visited in the past 12 years have their climbing walls with a map of the state of Israel on it. So small kids are told, “Put your hands on Jerusalem,” or “Reach for Tel Aviv,” or “Climb to Mount Hermon." So that's one way that camps view integrating Jewish education, and we saw a lot of that in 2008.

Jeremy Shere: Samuel and other researchers have found that Jewish camps today also focus more on counselors playing a key role in fostering Jewish identity in their campers. In 2000, it wasn't unusual for many Jewish camps to have at least some non-Jewish counselors, because camps weren't necessarily thinking about the educational value of the camper-counselor relationship. But that changed.

Nicole Samuel: By the time we went back to camp in 2008, most Jewish camps had, at least for bunk staff, universally Jewish staff, because they found that bunk counselors are huge role models for the kids. And there's potential to do a lot of Jewish education in a very informal manner in the bunks.

Jeremy Shere: Another big change has to do with how Jewish camps approach Israel and Zionism. As Fox mentioned earlier, during the ’60s and into the ’70s, Israel became a focus for many Jewish camps. Zionism, and the pioneering spirit it embodied, were seen as a way to make campers feel proud to be Jewish.

But as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more controversial, and as Israel has come under more scrutiny for its treatment of Palestinians, some Jewish camps are grappling with how to talk to campers about Israel.

Nicole Samuel: So one was a camp where the counselors who are responsible for all education and all Israel education were debating, essentially, how to talk about the Occupation, in the context of teaching Israeli history. And also, at what point do we sanitize this for the kids? And at what point will the camp get phone calls telling us that their kids don't want to learn this or that they don't want really want their kids to learn that?

Jeremy Shere: In 2014, during the Israeli war against Hamas militants in Gaza, Samuel visited a camp that had invited a group of visiting Israeli Scouts to put on a show of their scouting techniques. In past years, the performance would have gone on without any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this time, some of the Israeli Scouts did talk about the war in Gaza, and about how hard it was to be away from home. And after the show, one of the camp’s Israeli shlichim, or emissaries, from Israel, talked about his own concerns…

Nicole Samuel: …And said, "You know, this has been a really hard time. You know, my family has been spending every night in a bomb shelter. My unit has been deployed without me .” And the camp let it happen. And whether it landed with the kids…I don't know. Because, you know, how does that sound to a nine-year-old? But it certainly landed with the staff.

Jeremy Shere: How to talk to campers about Israel has become a pressing issue, especially for Zionist camp organizations, like Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair, that traditionally have encouraged campers to immigrate to Israel, and generally — and often uncritically — supported the Zionist cause.

Nicole Samuel: I think the Zionist camps have a lot of thinking and soul-searching to do about what it means to be a Zionist camp in America in the 21st century. Sometimes it's the Zionist camps that are more accepting of criticism of Israel. And so what does it mean that you have a movement that once encouraged aliyah as part of the pinnacle of your camp and your movement experience.

Jeremy Shere: As Fox points out, campers and counselors today have much more access to information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so camps have to be strategic about how they update their often outdated programming on Israel.

Sandy Fox: How do you present Israel in a way that works for kids in the 21st century, who can Google anything and get different perspectives? So that'll be very interesting to watch and to see how If Not Now pushes American Jewish summer camping, if they'll be a success or not. But something is shifting generationally, and Jewish summer camps understand that they have to respond to that. And how they respond will be fascinating.

Jeremy Shere: The most immediate challenge facing Jewish summer camps today, of course, is that the COVID-19 pandemic has shut them down this summer. It's a huge bummer for kids who look forward to camp — and, let's be honest, for parents who look forward to getting a break from their kids. But the forced closure also puts at least some camps on very shaky financial ground.

Nicole Samuel: I think if some camps were on the brink before this summer, then I think there's going to be a lot to recover from. I think camps that have a business model where they can host conferences or retreats, as soon as they can get that back, they’ll be in better shape.

Jeremy Shere: One reason to be hopeful, according to Samuel and other researchers, is that the demand for Jewish camps seems to be growing. According to the Foundation for Jewish Camps, the number of Jewish kids attending camp in the United States has increased in recent years, and so has the number of Jewish camps on offer. Surveys show that American Jewish parents think that, on the whole, camps do a good job of making their kids feel good about being Jewish. And more than ever, kids see camp as a place with a special kind of magic.

Nicole Samuel: Part of the magic of camp is being away from your family, being with your friends, being in this very youthful bubble. I think there's going to be the desire to go back to camp in 2021. And I think the Jewish community is going to try to do everything that it can to make sure camp survives.

Episode Guests


Sandra Fox

Sandra Fox is a historian of American Jewry, youth, and Yiddish culture. A Jim Joseph Postdoctoral Fellow in education and religion at Stanford University, her book-in-progress research considers the lived experience and intergenerational tension in postwar American Jewish summer camps. She is also the founder and executive producer of Vaybertaytsh: A Feminist Podcast in Yiddish, and serves as a peer review editor at In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.


Nicole Samuel

Nicole Samuel is Associate Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. She is the co-author of a variety of publications, including Advancing Jewish Retreating and Innovating JCCs. Her work focuses on Jewish institutions and their role in supporting Jewish life and community. She has conducted several studies of Jewish life and Israel education at overnight camp with her colleague Amy L. Sales, including Limud by the Lake Revisited: Growth and Change at Jewish Summer Camp. Currently, she is the lead investigator on the evaluation of Hillel International’s Springboard Fellowship. She received her MA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women's Studies from Brandeis University, concentrating in Contemporary Jewish Life, and earned a BA in History magna cum laude from American University in Washington, DC.

Episode Host


Jeremy Shere, PhD

Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.

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