The Cult of the Jewish Summer Camp
On Friday nights, we wore white.
It was mandatory, the monochromatic look, but nobody really minded; some of the older girls even curled their hair and applied aqua-colored eyeshadow, like they had dates with God. Before dinner, we recited the traditional Shabbat blessings in addition to the semi-Anglicized version of the Hamotzi that we sang at the start of every kosher-style meal. (“Hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we give thanks to God for bread…”) Afterward, we reported to the archery field for Folk Dancing.
Today’s Jewish camps frequently offer a religious experience that’s more immersive than what many of their charges are getting at home.
Had it been possible for passersby to see us twirling from the mountain road below, they’d have been forgiven for thinking we might be pint-sized cult members. Especially because they wouldn’t have been entirely wrong—there was something a bit cultish about our devotion to the specific norms and traditions of Camp Louise, a sleepaway camp in Cascade, Maryland.
Cultish, but not unique: I have it on good authority that the denizens of Jewish camps around the country, including Kinder Ring, Surprise Lake, Ramah, Tawonga, and Pinemere (not to mention our own brother camp, Thurmont, Maryland’s Camp Airy), are equally dedicated to the rituals of their own summertime retreats.
Of course, this isn’t exactly an accident. According to the book A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping, the first Jewish overnight camp was founded in New York in 1893, with hundreds more springing up by the mid-1920s to serve the city-dwelling, factory-working children of Eastern European immigrants. (Louise and Airy, established in 1922 and 1924 respectively, are among this lot.)
Many of these early camps might be described as incidentally observant—they were Jewish because their campers were—while later camps, were more likely to be explicitly so. Whatever their original purposes, though, today’s Jewish camps frequently offer a religious experience that’s more immersive than what many of their charges are getting at home. And because of the nature of summer camp, i.e., it’s fun and it’s over fast, nostalgia sets in almost immediately, and for some pretty unlikely stuff.
Like, for example, the dancing. Was it cool? Objectively, no. In fact, despite being officially billed as Israeli Folk Dancing, it wasn’t even especially Semitic. Our repertoire was made up of maybe a dozen discrete routines, each of which corresponded to a particular song. But the two most popular by far were Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 version of “Sixteen Tons”—a song about coal mining—and South African singer Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata,” which we invariably referred to as “Noxzema,” because that was how our 1980s suburban girl brains interpreted the first two-thirds of the hit’s oft-repeated Xhosa-language lyric, “Nants iPata Pata.”
But it was ours, or close enough. As were the trio of never-changing, old lady-led activities (leatherworking, cookery, and copper enamel), which were more beloved than most of those taught by even the coolest college girls. As were the dull, sun-baked Saturday morning services, which were held in an outdoor theater-in-the-round known as the Solarium.
As were Canteen and Cab Night and, for that matter, the inconveniently hilly and lake-free terrain upon which the Baltimore philanthropists Aaron and Lillie Straus had decided to build the camp itself.
I didn’t often talk about these things during the school year—I didn’t even really see or speak to my camp friends, despite the fact that I adored them, and they all lived within a thirty-mile radius of my parents’ Northern Virginia home. But I do think Camp Louise had an effect. Especially given that I didn’t particularly enjoy Hebrew school, it was probably good that I was getting something out of being Jewish, especially when it seemed that everyone else in my (almost entirely Christian) group of friends was going to CCD together, or Young Life.
And, obviously, I kept going back.
All told, I spent nine summers at Camp Louise, beginning just a few weeks after my eighth birthday and ending the year of my twentieth. (This morning, I couldn’t remember my Gmail password, but I can tell you which bunks I was in: 2, 3, 10, 14, 20, 27, 27 and 32.)
It wasn’t even my only Jewish camp: Before I was old enough to work at Louise—but after my friends and I decided, regretfully, as tenth graders, that we might be getting too old to go there—I worked at Achva, a local day camp.
But if you’re reading this in search of a truly definitive answer to the not-quite-eternal question of why Jews are so obsessed with camp, I’m not sure I can help you. It’s kind of like asking why non-Jews love bacon. If you’ve tried it, the question kind of answers itself.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.