Secular Zionist Summer Camps

Red hot American summer.

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As the legend goes, in the 1950s and ’60s, on any given summer day in some small towns in the Catskills, you could find throngs of Jewish kids begging for money on the streets. Dressed up in funny costumes, singing and dancing to Hebrew songs, these teenagers were actually attempting to raise money to return to their secular Zionist camps many miles away. It was Survival Day–the day these teens were dropped off in small groups somewhere unknown, with no money, no means of transportation, no food, no nothing–and given 24 hours to find their way back to camp.
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True or false, legends like these color the current conceptions of socialist and labor Zionist summer camps in North America. Unruly, bare, ideological youth villages, these camps–like Shomria in Liberty, New York, or Gilboa in the Los Angeles area–aimed to toughen young Jews and make them halutzim (pioneers) who would join kibbutzim–agrarian socialist communities in Israel.

Has Much Has Changed?

Some of these camps are still around, but in recent decades, tightening legal regulations and parents concerned about safety have made activities like Survival Day, meant to teach independence and strengthen group bonding, out of the question. But the most ardent supporters of these secular Zionist camps claim that their core elements are still the same; they still foster Jewish identity, connection to Israel, social consciousness, communal values, and youth empowerment.

In the beginning, that is, in the 1920s, the educational and recruiting activities of Jewish socialist youth movements were designed to take place throughout the year, with short summer camping trips for members. Year-round, these groups held discussions, often in Hebrew, focused on Jewish liberation, human liberation, and the efforts to establish an independent Jewish homeland in Palestine. Run by youth for youth, they actively revolted against adult influence. Members of their leadership averaged at 18 years old, with some adult representation in the form of not-much-older shlichim, or emissaries, of the movement from abroad.

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Tal Beery recently completed his tenure as director of Camp Shomria in Liberty, New York. He is a magshim of Hashomer Hatzair, and a member of an urban kibbutz in Brooklyn, NY.

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