American Jewish Summer Camps: A History

Transforming Jewish identity one camper at a time.

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To learn more about current trends in Jewish camp, check out JTA’s annual special section on Jewish camping.

To learn more about Jewish summer camp options in North America, visit the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s website.

 

Reprinted from The Forward with the author’s permission.

Thirteen-year-old Becky Goldberg’s summer was filled with magic: glittering sunshine on sparkling lakes, capsized canoes and children rappelling like spiders down rocky cliffs. By the time her four weeks at Jewish sleep-away camp were over, Goldberg felt like a link in a giant chain. “I had a ton of best friends from all over the United States,” she said. Excitement beamed from her voice.Summer Camp

Goldberg, a fifth-year camper at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wis., the Reform movement’s first camp in America, is one of about 62,000 Jewish children who attended a Jewish camp last summer.

A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping,” edited by Michael M. Lorge and Gary P. Zola (University of Alabama Press), is a new book of scholarly essays that raises the questions: Where did Jewish camping come from? And where is it going? The book is a history featuring twists, turns, asides, footnotes, and cool trivia, like the fact that the first known Jewish camp was, of all things, a girl’s camp, founded in 1893 by the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society, located in New York. But in a nutshell, the history goes like this:

Turn of the Century

The first Jewish camps sprouted up amid the larger organized camping movement in America, led by 19th-century social reformers seeking to give a reprieve to children living in the squalid conditions of industrializing cities. These fresh-air programs blended spiritual, educational, and recreational components. By the mid-1920s, hundreds of camps had opened in forested, lakeshore spots around the United States.

The early Jewish camps were motivated by two concepts: Bring inner-city kids out to the country, and “Americanize” the children of Eastern European immigrants. What made these camps Jewish was their demographics, not their programming. Their campers were Jewish, and the camps were run under Jewish auspices.

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Jeri Zeder is a freelance writer living in Lexington, Mass.

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