How have Jewish summer camps changed throughout the years? Experts explain

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Jewish summer camps have a rich history dating back to before World War I. (Photo: Getty Creative)
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 beloved summer memory for many Jewish families and communities. But these summertime programs have not always been the Jewish summer camps of today. Through the decades, summer camps have varied between everything from an experience that excluded Jewish people to 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 camp in the U.S., Jewish people and other minority communities were left out of these traditional summertime activities.

"Camps often had Christian influences," he explains, "and while some were officially non-denominational, many camps were restricted — which means that Jews, Black people and other marginalized people were not permitted to enroll."

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

The first Jewish summer camps

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

"For middle and upper-class families, the growth of summer camps at the turn of the 20th century was part of a wider cultural reaction to urbanization and industrialization," he adds. "Nostalgia was palpable for what was imagined as a simpler time, when humans were more connected to the land and to nature."

For the children of immigrants, fresh air camps were touted for their health benefits. According to Krasner, parents saw the value of relocating kids from hot, overcrowded city neighborhoods and exposing them to nature, fresh air, hearty food and wholesome play.

"Camps were [also] agents of Americanization: teaching immigrant kids how 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 gave Jewish children a camp they could attend, but weren’t much different from their non-Jewish counterparts. If any Jewish culture was presented, like Friday evening services and a Shabbat dinner, it was minimal.

World War I brings change to Jewish summer camps

"After World War I, a new type 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 emphasis was on spending the summer immersed in Jewish culture and living rich, joyfully-Jewish lives."

These newer Jewish summer camps were not only a place for fun 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 picturesque remote locations always had a cache with the rich, parents found a new reason to favor these camps during World War II," Krasner tells Yahoo Life. "[Parents] fearing U-Boat attacks (a type of naval submarine operated by Germany during the first and second World Wars) on East Coast population centers, packed their kids off to camp in remote locations like the Adirondacks and central Maine."

As World War II came to an end in 1945, Jewish summer camps, along with many other Jewish institutions, saw massive amounts of growth throughout the U.S.

A new type of Jewish summer camp

Daniel Olson, director of strategic initiatives and research at the National Ramah Commission in New York, says in 1947 when the first Camp Ramah (Jewish summer camps affiliated with the Conservative Movement of Judaism) opened, it was just the beginning of the second stage of Jewish summer camps.

"There were camps organized around using Hebrew, using Yiddish, teaching socialist values or being early Zionists — supporting Jewish state-building in Palestine," he tells Yahoo Life. "At that time, the American-Jewish community was more established with less concerns about assimilating into mainstream American culture … so, the post-World War II period is when you saw Jewish denominations getting into the summer camp game and having a much more self-conscious focus on Jewish education for leadership development."

Olson says 75 years later, 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 protected from potential attacks by Jewish summer camps, refugees new to the country found comfort and community in these summer experiences after the war had ended.

Jewish summer camps today

Today, Jewish summer camps continue to be a part of the Jewish experience in the U.S. and around the world, a phenomenon experts believe may be tied 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 Foundation for Jewish Camp. Orlow says Jewish summer camps have entered into a new phase, paving the way to continue the tradition of the Jewish summer camp experience.

"Now it's how do we make them good Jews?" he says "Even if there are many different flavors of what a good Jew could look like. The third phase happened about 13 years ago — an enterprise to build new specialty camps, to bring new kids to the market who would not necessarily be going to Jewish camp otherwise"

"Reform science camps, farm-to-table camps — how do we take these niches of human existence and integrate Jewish into that space and bring new people into the camp environment?" Orlow adds.

Olson agrees, and says in recent decades, Jewish summer camps have learned not only how to share a more authentic, full Jewish life, but also how to be more inclusive.

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

"Respect for difference and the full diversity of our communities is a really important outcome here," he adds. "When you're living an an immersive — especially for the overnight camps — 24/7 environment, surrounded by other people, there's an incredible opportunity to not just learn about Jewish values, traditions, rituals and customs, but also to live them out all the time. That, I think, is one of the most special pieces that Jewish summer camps provide for kids and staff members."

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