The Jews of Summer
Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America
Sandra Fox



The Jewish Camp

Between Fantasy and Reality

IN THE LATE 1960S, a group of campers at Camp Hemshekh, a Yiddish cultural sleepaway camp in upstate New York, took a field trip to see a local theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. At Hemshekh, campers spoke Yiddish on a daily basis, immersed themselves in the literature and history of Ashkenazi Jewry, and commemorated the recent Holocaust through celebrating and emulating the Yiddish-speaking culture that thrived in the past. To one counselor named Jo, watching Fiddler that day evoked a surprising feeling, less like watching a fictionalized depiction of the past than “an expression” of life at Hemshekh, causing the campers to “feel very much like the ‘chosen people.’” As the group watched the play, and “more importantly, watch(ed) the rest of the audience watch the play,” they “felt almost as though [they] were in on a very special secret.” After the campers ended the night of performances by singing Yiddish songs to the “audience of bewildered up-starters,” Jo experienced “an inescapable feeling of authenticity.” Drawing a clear line of distinction between the audience—vacationing, middle-class Jews from New York’s city and suburbs for whom Fiddler reflected a nostalgic past—and the Hemshekh campers and counselors, who saw themselves as active defenders of and participants in the culture onstage, Jo distinguished camp life, and the kinds of Jews campers became through it, from mainstream American Jewish culture, detached from their cultural inheritance and from real Jewishness as she understood it.1

Placing Yiddishism, a nineteenth-century Jewish linguistic nationalism, and Bundism, a Jewish form of socialism rooted in Europe, at the center of its mission, the leaders of Camp Hemshekh, many of them Holocaust survivors, operated on a different political wavelength from the vast majority of American Jews at the time. By the late 1960s, not only had Yiddish ceased to be an everyday vernacular among most American Jews; most Jews had also worked to disentangle themselves from the kinds of socialist or communist ideas that Hemshekh promoted in response to the intense scrutiny Jews faced under McCarthyism.2 In comparison to well-known summer camp networks like Ramah, Hemshekh had a small population, serving around a hundred campers each year at one campsite. But while Hemshekh represented a marginal ideology with a shrinking audience, Jo’s description of the camp’s Fiddler excursion mirrored the purposes of a much wider variety of postwar Jewish summer camps: to bring children and teenagers closer to their leaders’ or movements’ particular visions of authentic Jewishness, conceptions based on those of Jews from other times, like prewar Eastern Europe, or fantasies of an ideal, contemporary elsewhere, primarily in Israel.

Camp leaders’ interests in simulating other times and places had much to do with how they felt about their current moment and locale: postwar America. While American Jews had steadily begun their climb into middle-classness prior to World War II, Jewish soldiers returning home from the war found themselves catapulted into middle-class comfort, benefiting from housing loans and educational scholarships offered to white veterans. As they moved from cities to suburbs, the synagogue center, with its sisterhoods, men’s clubs, and other social offerings, provided new Jewish suburbanites official and tangible ways to affiliate with Judaism, replacing the informal, neighborhood-based affiliations of urban communities earlier in the century. Furthermore, mirroring middle-class America’s mounting focus on the child during the baby boom, children and adolescents became the center of Jewish communal priorities.3 Coinciding with what many have described as a “golden age” for American Judaism—a time marked by social mobility, affluence, and suburbanization, and the development of what Herbert Gans coined as “child-centered Judaism”—the period saw the dramatic growth of synagogue Hebrew schools, nursery schools, youth groups, and, indeed, summer camps.4

Hemshekh campers dressed as Jewish tailors from the turn of the twentieth century, late 1960s.
Source: Kolodny Family Photos. Printed with permission.

Growing affluence and rising social status clearly afforded American Jews great benefits. As they climbed the educational and professional ladder, most happily embraced their new standing and the material and psychological comforts that came with it. The sizable and attractive synagogue buildings and Jewish community centers that Jews built reflected their comfort in postwar suburbia and their plans to stay there for the long haul. At the same time, these dramatic socioeconomic transitions also provoked deep anxieties among communal leaders. As historians Rachel Kranson and Lila Corwin Berman have demonstrated, many Jews felt intensely ambivalent about their socioeconomic ascent, worrying that Jewish cultural authenticity would not survive the ease of affluence.5 Rather than celebrating their new place in American society, educators, rabbis, lay leaders, journalists, and others projected these concerns onto youth and parents in particular, citing a growing need to develop Jewish identity in children.6

Ironically, the affluence at the heart of their concerns about authenticity proved essential in the Jewish camping sector’s ability to flourish. In the early twentieth century, thousands of Jewish children attended philanthropic camps that served immigrants and the children of immigrants, or smaller, private camps for the middle-and upper-class Jewish elite. But postwar Jews had more resources to put toward their children’s education and recreation and the enjoyment of their own child-free summers. The more that families could afford to send children to camp, the more the yearly migration of the young from Jewish urban neighborhoods and suburbs to the American countryside became a distinguishing element of Jewish middle-classness and, for thousands of young Jews, a rite of passage.7 This sunny economic picture also meant that Jewish movements and institutions had the ability to purchase acres of land, where they built modern, comfortable, and permanent campsites and could provide scholarships for families who could not afford camp without assistance. The Jewish summer camp thus offers a unique lens for examining tensions between the postwar period’s goldenness and ambivalence. Rather than sitting in contradiction, the affluence, comfort, social mobility, and anxiety over cultural decline that Jews experienced fed off of each other, pushing Jewish culture and communal life into new directions. The educational or ideological summer camp was one such direction, the dazzling homogeneity of camps’ structures and methods over the course of the postwar period revealing their leaders’ underlying shared hopes and dreams: that camping could counteract the downsides of the present, propelling “positive,” “real,” or “authentic” Jewishness forward into the future.

The full realizations of the Holocaust’s devastation added a level of urgency to their distress about the state of postwar Jewishness. Without European Jewry to look to and with Israel’s future uncertain, postwar American Jewish leaders saw themselves as responsible for carrying Judaism and Jewish culture forward into the future. At Camp Hemshekh, remembering the Holocaust played an exceptionally central role in everyday life. To Jo and other Hemshekh attendees at the performance, Fiddler on the Roof represented not only a nostalgic picture of shtetl life but an all-but-vanished Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking civilization that the camp memorialized and tried to resurrect in a new form. Many Hemshekh campers also had parents who had survived the Holocaust and found at their small camp a community of fellow second-generation survivors who understood the specific pains and difficulties that came with having survivor parents. While Hemshekh’s profile was specific, memorializing the Holocaust permeated camps across the ideological spectrum, the genocide’s very recency employed by camp leaders to make counselors and campers take their camp’s mission seriously. For many Jewish educators, producing educational, immersive, and affective Jewish camp experiences in the Holocaust’s aftermath was a matter of cultural life or death, of continuity or discontinuity.

For all these reasons, a vast array of Jewish movements and organizations founded dozens of heavily educational camps in the 1940s and 1950s, while many of the Jewish camps that had been established in the 1920s transformed their missions to answer to the new concerns of the postwar moment. Camps affiliated with Zionist movements, Yiddish cultural institutions, and the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism were by far the most emblematic of these trends. These were not the only Jewish camps of the period. Dozens of camps sponsored by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association or Jewish Community Center movement included some cultural and religious practices throughout the postwar era, as did some private summer camps owned by Jewish families. But the amount of Jewish education such camps integrated into their programs varied immensely from site to site, director to director, and year to year. Communal camps eventually came to put a more intense focus on Jewish education as child-serving Jewish institutions of all kinds became more deeply influenced by rising concerns over assimilation. From the 1940s through the 1960s, however, Zionist, Yiddishist, Reform, and Conservative camps stood out in the degree to which religious, political, and linguistic ideologies shaped the details of everyday camp life and how much energy their leaders invested in inculcating youth with their Jewish beliefs, practices, cultural touchstones, and political attitudes. While other Jewish camps make cameos in this book, these four kinds sit at the center of its analysis.

Camping leaders of these four ideological types disagreed with one another on a variety of issues; even those of the same type held conflicting ideas when it came to the details of their Zionism, Yiddishism, Jewish-language ideologies, religiosity, or secularism. Their camps also differed in the kinds of Jewish families they served when it came to religious observance, economic background, and politics. Because of these differences, most of the previous scholarship on Jewish camping has looked at camps of one type or another, emphasizing the uniqueness of their programs, ideologies, and missions, describing what made such camps distinctive.8 Much of the literature has also focused on the founders and ideologues behind Jewish summer camping, painting a picture of the emergence of camping within the history of Jewish education or the unique histories of different movements. The essential book on the history of American summer camping in the early twentieth century, Leslie Paris’s Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, included some private and philanthropic Jewish camps within its broader range of subjects, contextualizing their place in the foundational years of American camping writ large. More recently, Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni’s Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps offered a unique historical and linguistic study of how camps’ Hebrew “infusion practices” evolved over the course of the twentieth century and continue to play out in the present.9 These works, alongside myriad other social-scientific, educational, and historical studies, have combined to make Jewish camping far and away what one Christian camping scholar called “the most well-researched branch of religious camping.”10

Building off these works, The Jews of Summer takes the subject of Jewish camping in several new directions. First and foremost, this book focuses less on what makes these camps unique than on how diverse movements employed the camping idea in strikingly similar ways. Camping leaders had distinctive visions regarding which Jewish language should take precedence, whether to invest their energies in Israel or the diaspora, or how much religious ritual to include. Much of the focus of the following chapters is placed on how these differences shaped everyday life within various kinds of camps. While holding their differences in mind, however, this book focuses more on how camps’ diverse leaders came to agree that nationalism, language, and various forms of Jewish practice should be harnessed to transform Jewish children. What this mutual agreement and mission articulated about the anxieties that pervaded postwar Jewish culture and how those anxieties shaped the everyday experiences of campers are the central topics driving this book.

Second, The Jews of Summer pays long-overdue attention to the history of Yiddish summer camps, and of Yiddishism more broadly, in postwar America. Scholars of American Jewish history have chronicled the rise of Reform and Conservative camping movements, highlighting how they transformed Jewish camping to match their visions of an intelligent and capable lay leadership; others have centered their work on Zionist camps, where camp leaders promoted Hebrew culture and aimed to build support for the Jewish state. While work on prewar secular Yiddish education lay the foundation for future studies, however, practically nothing has been written until now about these camps after World War II, as if they simply ceased to exist.11 This lack of attention matches trends in scholarship regarding postwar Yiddish more generally. As Jeffrey Shandler has argued, “More often than not, discussions of Yiddish culture terminate in 1939, 1948, or some other date, with any later phenomena involving the language either characterized as vestigial or not mentioned at all.”12

Yiddish culture undoubtedly declined during the postwar decades due to the loss of millions of Yiddish speakers during the Holocaust, American Jewish linguistic assimilation, Soviet repression, Zionist anti-Yiddish attitudes, and American anticommunism. And yet it did not disappear entirely from the American scene, remaining particularly integral to the educational missions of several summer camps. Instead, American Yiddishists and their institutions struggled with their purposes and ideologies in the decades following the Holocaust and ultimately transformed them into symbolic tools that better fit a monolingual American context. Studying their camps not only reveals something about American Yiddishism’s evolution after the Holocaust, however; it also helps to explain how and why Yiddish cultural and linguistic activism have become meaningful engines of identity for thousands of Jewish young people in more recent decades. Rather than emerging suddenly, the perceived Yiddish revival that began around the mid-2000s actually relied on an unbroken generational chain of cultural keepers, creators, and teachers, many of whom were educated and inspired by camps like Hemshekh, Boiberik, and Kinderland.13 For a broader range of readers who may have no interest in Yiddish, moreover, Yiddish camps may expose something even more significant: that Jewish educational camps once nurtured a larger range of Jewish ideas and identities, not only looking to Israel and religious practice as their primary transformational tools, but toward diaspora Jewish culture, cosmopolitanism, social justice, and notions of Jewish secularism. The diverse ideologies of Jewish camps past reveal the possibilities within a broadened American Jewish educational, political, and cultural paradigm.

As a history of Jewish youth and childhood, The Jews of Summer also represents a turn in the studies of both postwar Jewry and American Jewish education. The story of Jewish summer camping has thus far been told mainly through the eyes of the educators, ideologues, and rabbis—mostly male and many middle-aged—who constructed and directed camps with dreams of molding the next generation of young Jews. But while this book pays significant attention to this cohort, adults ultimately constituted the minority of camps’ populations, their missions and plans representing only one side of a more nuanced story. Indeed, all American summer camps, as Leslie Paris writes, “flourished through intergenerational negotiation, a significant degree of permissiveness, and attention to children’s peer culture.”14 Jewish children and teenagers were no different from their non-Jewish peers, arriving seeking fun, freedom, play, escape, and romance, and generally prioritizing these other elements over camps’ ideological missions. While leaders formulated their missions in advance of the summer, life at camp proved much more complicated. To make a mark on campers, staff had to endeavor to get their buy-in, answering to their needs, desires, and interests. This dynamic made Jewish camps sites of ongoing intergenerational negotiation, debates, and dialogues that occurred both aloud and in the unspoken space between what adults wanted camps to accomplish and what actually happened on the ground.

Dynamics between adult and youth, child and teen, staff and camper not only shaped the texture of everyday life within camps, but reconstituted American Jewish culture in and outside them, with lasting implications. Using oral history, sources about children and teenagers from the point of view of adults, and sources written by children and teens themselves, I aim to bring out the myriad ways that young people shaped camp life. Because camps’ abilities to succeed educationally and economically fundamentally required the buy-in of campers, children and teenagers wielded tremendous power within the camp environment in their everyday reactions, their decisions to engage or disengage, to nod in agreement or roll an eye in defiance. As the following chapters show, the desires and interests of campers guided how much camp leaders pushed campers to speak Yiddish and Hebrew, the kinds of educational programs staff created to support their approaches to Jewish practice and ritual, and how they would come to employ campers’ interests in sex and romance toward the goal of encouraging Jewish marriages. Campers and young counselors also influenced the very ideologies camp leaders came to highlight. From the 1960s onward, for instance, modes of Zionist camping once unique to socialist Zionist youth movements like Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair became popular in a much wider array of Jewish camps, including those of the Reform and Conservative movements. A growing focus on Israel correlated with the broader American Jewish embrace of a prouder, louder, and more public Zionism matched the fervent Zionism of many camping leaders themselves. But focusing on Israeli heroism and pride proved more inspirational to young people than looking at the past in the wake of the Holocaust. The collective nature of the kibbutz also provided a natural bridge with the youthful Jewish counterculture of the period, and images of Israeli strength and beauty meshed well with an embrace of Jewish ethnicity also fueled by the countercultural young. Looking at camps from the top down and bottom up reveals that leaders of the postwar period came to harness Zionist symbols, ideas, and practices not only as a result of their own growing Zionist sentiments, but because doing so resonated with the American youth in their midst.

Campers at Cejwin having an impromptu water fight, late 1960s.
Source: Marlene Greenman Heller. Printed with permission.

By highlighting and acknowledging the sway campers held in the camp environment, I do not mean to minimize the more overt power and authority of adults. As the leaders, builders, and funders of American Jewish summer camps, adults played main roles, generating the environment for camper culture to flourish. Parents held tremendous power as they chose which camps to send their children to, basing their decisions on not only programmatic offerings and ideologies but cost and location. Jewish groups chose what kinds of camps to promote to their members and which to support financially, while prominent organizations such as the American Camping Association created codes of conduct for staff, as well as systems of accreditation, exercising serious control over camping writ large.15 State and local governments also played an important role in the daily running of camps as they updated and expanded laws regarding conduct with children and health and safety regulations throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

At the same time, even the seemingly simple categories such as “adult” and “youth” require reconsideration when studying summer camps. Only a few years older than the eldest campers, counselors occupied a crucial yet blurry in-between position within this generational divide. Serving as the on-the-ground enactors of their leaders’ visions of a repaired American Jewish culture, counselors ultimately implemented most of camps’ daily programs and worked most directly and intimately with the children in their bunks. In late high school or college, counselors brought their own youth culture to camp with them, arriving with similar interests in fun, freedom, dating, and sexuality as did adolescent campers.16 With only a handful of middle-aged and older adults in attendance at a given time, summer camps were overwhelmingly shaped by the desires and interests of the young, and even sometimes the very young, with campers starting as early as age six or seven in the postwar decades. The Jews of Summer places special attention on these age-based categories, providing an opportunity to consider the crucial yet often unexamined roles of intergenerational negotiation, age, children, and youth in American Jewish life.

I highlight the voices of campers wherever possible, and much of my focus is on the experiences and reactions of teenagers. While younger children ages seven to twelve appear in various parts of the book and attended many of the same activities and programs as did older ones, teenage campers left more of a mark on camp archives. Although I offer their voices, I also seek to avoid the pitfalls of focusing on the question of agency, which has occupied historians of children and youth since the beginning of the field’s coalescence, often to the detriment of other fruitful questions.17 Due to the field’s connection to children’s rights and the fact that historians of childhood and youth are often pressed by other historians to defend their focus on the young as worthwhile, this examination of agency is understandable: it gives the subject of children and youth immediate importance and connects the field to the kinds of questions that once occupied scholars of the history of women. But as historian Mona Gleason has argued, historians of youth and children must begin to go beyond the “agency trap,” the field’s focus on proving the agency of the young often in ways that obscure other questions and subjects, if they want to bring youth’s “contributions to change over time [to] emerge in sharper relief.” Using empathic reference, or “the ability to imagine and to interpret historical events and sources from the point of view of young people,” this book aims to do just that, offering an assessment of not only “the messier ‘in between’ of more nuanced and negotiated exchanges between and among children” but also their negotiations with leaders and educators of various ages and stages. Campers, moreover, shaped life at camp not only in moments of rebellion, but in moments of acquiescence to their elders; not only in times of agency and separation from adult authority but in times of coalescence and meeting in the middle.18 In this way, The Jews of Summer points to the importance of considering age in the study of Jewish history and to the uses of going beyond agency in the history of childhood and youth.

Finally, this book sets the stage for further research on the history of postwar American camping more broadly. Jews were far from alone in recognizing the potential power of sleepaway camps after World War II. As a growth period for both religious denominations and the American economy, Christians similarly expanded their summer camping sector in the postwar years, with leaders in “the major Protestant traditions . . . convinced of the potential of the summer camp experience for Christian education,” according to Sorensen, and evangelicals “identif[ying] the summer camp model as fertile ground for conversion and religious experience.”19 That Jews followed a similar time line as Christians provides a new and important layer of understanding to what made the early 1940s through the early 1950s what Jonathan Sarna called Jewish camping’s “crucial decade.”20 At the same time, Jewish and Christian camps also diverged in significant ways. Christian camps operated for a standard session of only five to seven days, taking inspiration from the conference model and camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening, a period of Protestant religious revival that took place in the early nineteenth century. While some postwar Christian camps, particularly those in the Northeast serving a clientele of middle-and upper-middle-class Protestants, operated for longer sessions, these camps proved less common within the world of Christian camping both postwar and today.21 Catholic organizational camps and the handful of contemporary camps for Muslim children in the United States and Canada have also adopted this shorter-term conference model.22 While the Reform movement’s summer camps emerged out of five-to ten-day youth conclaves that matched the conference model, Jewish camps generally came to embrace a four-to eight-week summer camping model rooted in the turn-of-the-century Northeast and Midwest. In the case of Zionist, Reform, and Conservative movements, camp sessions lasting two to four weeks became the norm, in many cases even as their camps expanded to the South and the West, where camp sessions longer than a week proved far less common in the broader American camping sector. Religiously affiliated sleepaway camps are by no means unique to Jews, but Jews are seemingly the only religious or ethnic group in the United States that has embraced these longer sessions as standard. That most Jewish campers spend more time at camp each year and often return to the same camp year after year undoubtedly adds to the weight that camping has taken on in American Jewish culture and childhood, helping to explain why camps serving a tiny minority of Americans constitute some of the most studied American camps. Further historical research regarding a more diverse set of postwar camps, including Christian, Muslim, nonsectarian, scouting, sport, and arts camps would allow for more fruitful and detailed comparisons. It is my hope that this book is the first stone laid in the foundation of a much broader history of postwar American camping.

A Brief Historical Overview

The paradigm of the postwar Jewish camp cannot be understood without examining the foundational years of American and American Jewish camping that preceded it. In the Progressive Era, Jews, alongside fresh air reformers, the Boy Scouts of America, settlement house organizations, and Christian congregations, began to build residential summer camps for children. Providing a reprieve from what progressives saw as the deleterious effects of urban life on immigrant children, philanthropic Jewish camps offered recreation in nature with the comfort of socializing with one’s coreligionists, while private camps for middle-class children offered an opportunity for families denied entry to, or left unaccommodated by, predominantly Christian camps. In the 1920s, a small number of new camps, built by Hebraist, Yiddish-oriented, Zionist, and Jewish educational organizations, were established, incorporating some elements of Jewish study, leadership training, and language learning.

In an industry focused on recreation, immersion in nature, socialization, and Americanization, camps with intensely Jewish missions were originally on the margins of the Jewish camping sector, although this began to change in the years between the two world wars.23 With origins in the European Haskalah, nineteenth-century Zionism, Hebraism, and Yiddishism developed as distinct and often clashing cultural and nationalistic worldviews, while German advocates for Reform and Positive Historical Judaism, Conservative Judaism’s forerunner, offered two different paths to religious liberalization and modernization.24 When they arrived on American soil, however, all of these movements moved in new directions, aiming to reconcile Judaism with modernity while seeking to balance their new status in American society. As they sought this balance, all five of these movements turned their attention to the next generation, seeing residential summer camps as particularly valuable to their goals.

Zionist movements built some of the earliest summer camps, beginning in the late 1920s. They revved up in earnest in the 1940s, buoyed by increasing American enthusiasm for the project in the years leading up to and following Israel’s establishment in 1948. Affiliated with the youth movements such as Young Judaea, Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim, and B’nei Akiva, or with Hebraist organizations and Hebrew teachers’ colleges, these camps engaged with “Hebrew culture,” focusing their educational agenda on promoting Zionism and, after 1948, teaching about the nascent State of Israel.25 Zionism was not a singular enterprise, and neither was Zionist summer camping. Young Judaea’s camps imbued campers with a pluralist approach to Zionism, while Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair’s camps were explicitly socialist; B’nei Akiva, serving a more Orthodox clientele, centered itself on religious Zionism, while Camp Massad focused its Zionist energies chiefly on Hebraism. Nevertheless, these movements shared many of the same methods, ideals, and visions, with the imagined lifestyles of the “New Jews” of Palestine and, later, Israel permeating life throughout all their camps.26 No matter the kind of Zionism a camp adhered to, Israel and Israeliness functioned as a counterpoint to American postwar comfort that educators used in their efforts to foster pride, identity, and purpose in campers.27

At their outsets, Yiddish-oriented summer camps of the 1920s primarily provided recreational escapes from the city for Yiddish supplementary school students or the children of labor movement members, mainly Yiddish-speaking children of recent immigrants to the United States. But by the beginning of the postwar period, the leaders of Camps Boiberik, Kinder-ring, Kinderland, and Hemshekh came to hold similar concerns about the decline of Jewish culture in America as their Zionist counterparts, citing the diminishing place of Yiddish in American life as concrete evidence. As campers arrived with less and less Yiddish knowledge, these once-mixed Yiddish-and English-speaking camps became increasingly educational and ideological, their responses to linguistic decline amplified by the Holocaust’s role in the near decimation of European Jewish culture.28 Like Zionist camps, Yiddish camps had a variety of political affinities: some promoted socialism, others communism, some socialist Zionism, and others Bundism. But as the Cold War and McCarthyism made these affiliations precarious, the specificities of their politics faded somewhat in exchange for a focus on Yiddish culture, cosmopolitanism, and social justice. Role-playing the Jews of Eastern Europe, Yiddish writers and intellectuals, and labor movement activists, these camps worked to bring campers’ cultural inheritance to life, performing as stand-ins for a world destroyed by concentration camps. For generations of American children who would never know that world firsthand, Yiddish summer camps became “Yiddishlands.”29

Reform and Conservative movement summer camps entered the sector in the late 1940s.30 In their efforts to produce ideal future movement leaders, these camps modeled immersive Jewish lifestyles and focused on teaching Jewish texts, prayers, songs, and the Hebrew language, and interwove Jewish religious rituals into everyday life. These camps shared many qualities. Both movements gradually expanded their camps across the country, emphasized leadership development, wrestled at their outsets with the place of Zionism in camp, involved campers in leading prayer and ritual, and ultimately came to influence their streams of Judaism back at home. But the myriad differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism also exposed themselves in camp life. The Ramah camps proved more traditional in their approaches to religion than their Reform counterparts, had more rigorous formal education programs and selective admissions processes, and proved more Hebraist in orientation. Reform camps, in contrast, experimented with formal education and eventually came to uniformly embrace Hebrew learning but came to more enthusiastically embrace informal education, role-playing activities, and emphatic song sessions than did Ramah camps. And yet both sets of camps similarly functioned as incubators for their movements, inspiring campers through Jewish practice, text, and language, an immersive experience of “Jewish living.”31

As Jews experienced new economic and social conditions, and along with them new anxieties about the Jewish future, the 1940s through the early 1950s irrefutably marked a moment of dramatic expansion in the field of educational Jewish camping, with the notion of using camps to transform Jewish youth taking on a new weight. Several new independent educational camps, like Camp Lown, Camp Sharon, and Camp Yavneh, opened in the mid-1940s as extensions of Jewish community organizations, schools, and teachers’ colleges.32 Zionist camping grew significantly as American Jewry’s passion for the cause of Zionism grew in the years up to 1948, with passionate Hebraists founding Hebrew-speaking Camp Massad in 1941, and with Young Judaea’s first flagship program for teenagers, Camp Tel Yehudah, starting in 1948.33 By 1966, twenty-eight Zionist camps existed, with the number of campers at an average of six thousand each year.34 Even the Yiddish camps changed in the postwar years, becoming more overtly educational and ideological in the face of Yiddish decline.35

The most influential and robust products of the 1940s and 1950s, however, were the camps affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism. Stimulated by the growth of their movements in postwar suburbia, Reform and Conservative summer camps centered their programs on Jewish religion, culture, and ritual, with the aim of supplementing their movements’ religious schools and youth groups by “giv[ing] each camper a direct personal experience in Jewish living.”36 The Ramah camps, run by the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement, began with the goal of “creat[ing] an indigenous Conservative movement—both lay and rabbinic—that would perpetuate the movement into the next generation.”37 The first Ramah site opened in Wisconsin in 1947, with the establishment of other Ramah sites across the country following throughout the 1950s and 1960s: Ramah Poconos in Pennsylvania in 1950, Ramah New England in Massachusetts in 1953, Ramah California in 1956, Ramah Canada in 1960, and Ramah Berkshires in New York in 1964.38 Working to offer a more balanced approach to Jewish education, these camps included a great deal of Jewish ritual, text study, and philosophy alongside instruction in modern Hebrew.

Short-term retreats for the teenage leaders of the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) group in the 1940s set the stage for the foundation of Reform Jewish summer camps across the United States.39 Reform movement leaders of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis opened the movement’s first permanent, full-summer camp, Camp Saratoga, in 1947, changing its name to Swig Camp Institute in 1964.40 The Union of American Hebrew Congregations established its first national movement camp, the Union Institute (also known as the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, or OSRUI), in Wisconsin in 1952, beginning first with most campers attending the camp “for two weeks or less,” a “pattern of short ‘institutes’ rather than a full summer of ‘immersion.’41 But this shorter-term model did not prevail for long. While continuing to run some shorter sessions, OSRUI began to hold longer sessions in the later 1950s. New Reform camps with lengthier sessions grew across the United States throughout the 1950s and 1960s as well, including Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania in 1958, Myron S. Goldman Union Camp Institute (also known as GUCI) in Indiana in 1958, and Camp Kutz in New York in 1965. All of these camps fell under the Reform movement’s umbrella of youth programs, but they never became centralized to the same degree as the Ramah camps, allowing each camp director a significant degree of autonomy.42

Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Haredi Jews followed a distinctive time line in the development of their youth programs, their camps thus mirroring a different set of concerns and historical circumstances. Some recreational camps for Orthodox clientele were founded in the early twentieth century. Many Orthodox children of the 1940s and 1950s attended camps like Massad, Tel Yehudah, or Yavneh, where traditional or halachic Sabbath and kosher practices were upheld, a small minority of camps defined through the lens of Orthodox Judaism or the religious Zionism of the youth movement Bnei Akiva. A larger and more defined Orthodox camping sector emerged in earnest only in the late 1960s, as Modern Orthodoxy began to grow in size and self-assuredness as a community and began its delayed transition into affluence and Jewish suburbia.43 Their divergent time lines situate most Orthodox camps outside the realm of this book’s thematic chapters, but they do receive treatment in both the first and last chapters, which contextualize Jewish camping before and after the postwar period, respectively.


1. Jo Backer, “Thoughts on What Fiddler Made Me Think about Mame Loshn/Yiddish Loshn,” Di Hemshekh Vokh, n.d., 015009254, YIVO Archives, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.

2. See Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 281–282.

3. Regarding Jewish acclimation to middle-classness, see Deborah Dash Moore, To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Dream in Miami and L.A. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880–1950 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994); Andrew Heinze, Adapting to Abundance: Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Etan Diamond, And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

4. See Herbert J. Gans, “The Origins and Growth of a Jewish Community in the Suburbs: A Study of the Jews in Park Forest,” in The Jews: Social Patterns of an American Group, ed. Marshall Sklare (New York: Free Press, 1958), 205–248.

5. See Rachel Kranson, Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Riv-Ellen Prell, “Community and the Discourse of Elegy: The Post War Suburban Debate,” in Imagining the American Jewish Community, ed. Jack Wertheimer (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2007); Lila Corwin Berman “American Jews and the Ambivalence of Middle-Classness,” American Jewish History 93, no. 4 (2007): 409–436; Eli Lederhandler, New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950–1970 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001); Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry since World War II: “The Jewish People in America,” vol. 5 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

6. Riv-Ellen Prell’s work on camp also addresses anxieties over the state of postwar Judaism. See Riv-Ellen Prell, “Summer Camp, Post-War American Jewish Youth and the Redemption of Judaism,” in The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, vol. 5, ed. Bruce Zuckerman and Jeremy Schoenberg (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2007), 77–106.

7. For more on the history of prewar Jewish summer camps, see Jonathan B. Krasner, The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012); on camps at the transition into and beginning of the postwar period, see Jonathan Sarna, “The Crucial Decade in Jewish Camping” in A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping: Essays Honoring the Fiftieth Anniversary of Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, ed. Gary Phillip Zola (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006); Daniel Isaacman, “Jewish Education in Camping,” in American Jewish Year Book (American Jewish Committee and Springer, 1967), 245–252; Jenna Weissman Joselit, Karen S. Mittelman, and National Museum of American Jewish History, “A Worthy Use of Summer: Jewish Summer Camping in America” (Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1993). On general American camping, see Leslie Paris, Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

8. See Sarna, “Crucial Decade in Jewish Camping”; Shuly Rubin Schwartz, “Camp Ramah: The Early Years, 1947–1952,” Conservative Judaism 40 (Fall 1987): 17, 22; Prell, “Summer Camp”; Joselit et al., “A Worthy Use of Summer”; Celia E. Rothenberg, Serious Fun at a Jewish Community Summer Camp: Family, Judaism, and Israel (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016). For alumni literature and memoir, see Ariel Hurwitz, Against the Stream: Seven Decades of Hashomer Hatzair in North America (Tel Aviv: Yad Yaari, 1994); World Hashomer Hatzair, With Strength and Courage: 50 Years Hashomer Hatzair, 1913–1963 (New York: Education Department of Hashomer Hatzair, 1963); David Breslau, Story of 25 Years of Habonim Camping (New York: Chai Commission of LZOA Movement, 1957); David Breslau, Arise and Build: The Story of American Habonim (New York: Ichud Habonim Labor Zionist Youth, 1961); Massad Reminiscences, Massad Hebrew Summer Camps Alumni Organization and the Oral History Division of the Abraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1996.

9. Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni, Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 1.

10. Jacob Sorensen, “A Theological Playground: Christian Summer Camp in Theological Perspective” (PhD diss., Luther Seminary, 2016), 77. Since the bulk of the writing of this book, Sorensen has published a book based on his dissertation: Sacred Playgrounds: Christian Summer Camp in Theological Perspective (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021).

11. For more on Yiddish secular education, see Fradle Freidenreich, Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910–1960 (Teaneck, NJ: Holmes & Meier, 2010); Naomi Prawer Kadar, Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917–1950, (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016).

12. Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 1.

13. Some examples of Yiddish revival coverage in the press include Lidar Grade-Lazi, “It’s Cool and Fringe, It’s Yiddish,” Jerusalem Post, July 23, 2016,; D. B., “Yiddish on the Rise,” Economist, July 21, 2015, For more on Yiddish activism among American Jewish youth, see Sandra Fox, “‘The Passionate Few’: Youth and Yiddishism in American Jewish Culture, 1964 to Present,” Jewish Social Studies 26, no. 3 (2021): 1–34; Joshua Friedman, “Serious Jews: Cultural Intimacy and the Politics of Yiddish,” Cultural Dynamics 32, no. 2 (August 2020).

14. Paris, Children’s Nature, 150.

15. “Standards Report for the Accreditation of Organized Camps” (Martinsville, IN: American Camping Association, 1966). Tom Rosenberg, CEO of the ACA, sent this PDF to me in October 2017.

16. As Paris writes in Children’s Nature, “Although the counselors were young, often college students, they represented an intermediate generation in some ways like parents and in other ways like older peers” (134).

17. See Elliott West and Paula Petrik, eds., Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850–1950 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 1; Mona Gleason, “Avoiding the Agency Trap: Caveats for Historians of Children, Youth, and Education,” History of Education 45, no. 4 (2016): 447.

18. Gleason, “Avoiding the Agency Trap,” 457. For more on the field of history of childhood and youth grappling with agency, see Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, “Reflection on the History of Children and Childhood in the Postmodern Era,” in Major Problems in the History of American Families and Children, ed. Anya Jabour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Leslie Paris, “Through the Looking Glass: Age, Stages, and Historical Analysis,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1, no. 1 (2008); Steven Mintz, “Children’s History Matters,” American Historical Review 125, no. 4 (October 2020); Sarah Maza, “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood,” American Historical Review 125, no. 4 (October 21, 2020): 1261–1285.

19. Jacob Sorensen, “Sacred Playgrounds: Chapter 2 Draft,” unpublished manuscript, sent to me via email, May 17, 2020, 23.

20. Sarna, “Crucial Decade in Jewish Camping.”

21. Jacob Sorensen, conversation with the author, May 21, 2020.

22. Nadine Karachi, conversation with the author, May 21, 2020. Karachi is the director of Camp Deen, a Muslim camp established in the 1970s in Ontario, Canada,

23. Sarna, “Crucial Decade in Jewish Camping,” 35.

24. For more on Nathan Birnbaum, see Jess Olson, Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity: Architect of Zionism, Yiddishism, and Orthodoxy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

26. See Yitzhak Conforti, “‘The New Jew’ in the Zionist Movement: Ideology and Historiography,” Australian Journal of Jewish Studies 25 (2011).

27. See Shlomo Shulsinger, “Introduction: Hebrew Camps—Their Role and Place,” translated from Hebrew, Camp Massad records, 1944–2003 (bulk 1949–1990), n.d., box 2, folder 7, American Jewish Historical Society, New York.

28. Due to source availability, this project puts more emphasis on Camps Hemshekh and Boiberik than on Kinder Ring and Kinderland. For more about Yiddish camps within the context of communist camping, see Paul Mishler, Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

29. See “Imagining Yiddishland,” in Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 38.

30. My understanding of the trajectory of Reform camping came from research in the American Jewish Archive and from Zola, ed., A Place of Our Own. My reading of the Ramah summer camps evolved out of extensive research of the National Ramah Commission’s collection at the Jewish Theological Seminary Archives (For more on the foundational years of Conservative camping, see the special issue of Conservative Judaism on Ramah (Fall 1987).

31. For more on the history of the Ramah summer camps, see Sylvia C. Ettenberg and Geraldine Rosenfield, eds., The Ramah Experience: Community and Commitment (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1989).

32. Sarna, “Crucial Decade in Jewish Camping,” 32–35.

33. See Norman Schanin, “Young Judaea: A Survey of a National Jewish Youth Movement in 1951–1952” (PhD diss., New York University, 1959), 86.

34. Schenker, “Zionist Camping in America,” 104.

35. Sandra Fox, “‘Laboratories of Yiddishkayt’: Postwar American Jewish Summer Camps and the Transformation of Yiddishism,” American Jewish History 103, no. 3 (2019).

36. Daniel Isaacman, “Jewish Education in Camping,” American Jewish Yearbook 67 (1966), 247. My understanding of Reform camping comes from visits to the American Jewish Archive and from the crucial work on the subject, A Place of Our Own.

37. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, “Camp Ramah: The Early Years, 1947–1952,” Conservative Judaism 40 (1987): 17, 22.

38. “Camp Ramah History,” Ramah Outdoors (blog), November 27, 2017, Additional Ramah camps have opened in recent decades, including Ramah Darom in 1996, Ramah Rockies in 2010, and Ramah NorCal in 2016.

39. Sarna, “Crucial Decade in Jewish Camping,” 43.

40. “A Finding Aid to the Swig Camp Institute Records. 1964–1967,” American Jewish Archives, processed by Melinda McMartin, November 2001,

41. Sarna, “Crucial Decade in Jewish Camping,” 44.

42. See Zola, A Place of Our Own, 28.

43. My understanding of Orthodoxy’s time line regarding camping and youth culture came in large part from Diamond, And I Will Dwell in Their Midst; Zev Eleff, Living from Convention to Convention: A History of the NCSY, 1954–1980 (Brooklyn: Ktav Publishing House, 2009), and Zev Eleff, Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2020).