This week marked the midway point for many Jewish summer camps. A number of our youth returned from camp, while others embarked on their Jewish summer camp experience. Jewish camping as we know it 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 his 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. Labor was highly valued; a punishment for bad behavior would never be, say, cleaning the bathrooms, because bathroom duty was a noble and important role in the camp society.”
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.”
What is it about Jewish camps that make them so successful at instilling in children Jewish identities so deep that they last a lifetime? “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,” said Amy L. Sales, co-author with Leonard Saxe of How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (Brandeis University Press, 2003). Culture encompasses everything, from how the Sabbath is observed to never deviating from grilled cheese on Mondays.
Why is camp so much more impactful in the lives of young people than most of the other activities in which they partake? Benjamin Kramarz suggested that camp effectively harnesses what anthropologists call “liminality,” the state of being in transition, the middle stage between one place and the next. While mainstream society mostly marginalizes and even suppresses liminality, pressuring us to “figure it out” and to decide who we are and what we stand for as quickly as possible, summer camp embraces and celebrates the in-between state, encouraging young people to openly explore themselves and the world around them.
Camp creates a whole new reality for young people, an alternate version of their lives that only exists between the months of June and August. In this space, everybody is between one grade and the next; everybody is in transition. This time, when children briefly lose their regularly assigned societal identity, is perfect for personal and communal transformation.
I think that the success of Jewish summer camps can serve as a model for other Jewish institutions, including shuls. By fostering a culture of ongoing religious growth, we can all tap into the liminality of our Jewish lives. Emphasizing community, valuing positive peer pressure, and valuing Jewish practice as both a part of our routine and yet something personally meaningful are just some of the ways we can seek to continue the positive impact of summer camp- once camp is over and once we age out of attending.