I met Peter Beinart in 1999 when he was writing an article for The Atlantic on Jewish community day schools. This was long before he became the bête noire of an anxious American Jewish establishment. He was sitting in the front office of The New Jewish High School (now Gann Academy) waiting to speak with the school’s headmaster, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, and we struck up a brief conversation.
I was familiar with his byline from The New Republic where he wrote mostly about American politics and foreign policy. Jewish education was well outside his bailiwick, and I was interested in what his angle would be. When the article was published a few weeks later it was clear that he was conflicted. He described the school’s environment as vibrant, intellectually exciting and mildly subversive (which was meant as a compliment).
His diagnosis of the reasons behind the rising support for day school education among the non-Orthodox (a trend that has since leveled off) reflected the conventional wisdom in a community that had long ago ended its unconditional love affair with the public schools and was struggling to respond to assimilation, a byproduct of the exceptionally hospitable American environment, where Jewishness was increasingly a non-issue.
When my ten year old daughter heads to sleep-away camp this summer she will follow a family tradition that began the summer after World War II. Fearing an outbreak of polio in New York City, my grandparents shipped my father off to Massad, a Hebrew-speaking camp in the Poconos. He was only five years old. My grandmother kept the postcards he mailed home. My dad was just learning to print and his penmanship was atrocious. Still, they weren’t difficult to decipher, and all were virtually identical: “I don’t like it here,” his postcards wailed. “Take me home!”
As a former camp counselor I know that dad’s homesickness was hardly anomalous. But by-and-large, his peers who attended Jewish overnight camps have very fond memories of their summers. Dr. Josh Perelman, the deputy Director of Programming and Museum Historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History recently told me that the section of the museum’s permanent exhibit dedicated to summer camping is easily one of the biggest draws. A section of the museum’s website is devoted to Jewish summer camps and guests are invited to upload their own camp photos and share memories.
When I was researching the origins of Jewish culture camping for The Benderly Boys I was struck by the central role that overnight camps played in the Jewish identity formation of my informants. Decades after the closure of Cejwin Camps, the oldest Jewish culture camp, hundreds of alumni remain connected through an online discussion group and social media. A Camp Massad Facebook group has almost 600 participants. Another venerable overnight camp, Modin, which still thrives in Belgrade, Maine, recently held a 90th anniversary reunion gala at a swanky Manhattan venue with over 500 former campers in attendance. And a 1998 reunion of the oldest Yiddish-speaking camp, Boiberik, drew 450 alums and merited an article in theNew York Times.
I suppose my father’s memories of camp were not all bad. The summer I turned ten, he and my mom signed me up for a month at Camp Massad. I spent three glorious seasons at Massad Bet and would have returned. But dwindling enrollment compelled the camp to close, in 1979, the same year that the Boiberik campgrounds, in Rhinebeck, New York, was sold to a meditation center. Cejwin, which paved the way for camps like Massad, was shuttered a little over a decade later, in 1991.
Various reasons have been given for these camps’ decline. My guess is that the phenomenon can largely be explained by their failure to keep pace with the rapid socio-economic advancement of the Jewish community. As much as I loved Massad, the truth is that the camp facilities were terribly outdated by the 1970s. I doubt that they were ever in mint condition. But whereas an earlier generation was willing to write off overgrown playing fields, dilapidated communal shower houses and leeches in the lake as symptomatic of the camp’s rugged charms, such blemishes could not be overlooked by middle class kids thoroughly acclimated to the creature comforts of suburbia. Certainly not when there were other well-manicured, flashier alternatives competing for the same clientele.
Moreover, the ideological core of these camps — their devotion to Zionism, Hebrew or Yiddish language and culture — did not tug as deeply at the heartstrings of the third generation. By and large, their parents left their immigrant ideologies in Brownsville and Roxbury when they moved to Great Neck and Newton.
My hypothesis is borne out by the opposing fates of Cejwin and Modin. Established within a few years of one another (1919 and 1922, respectively) and sharing some of the same founders, the former catered to a working class clientele and placed Jewish culture front and center, while the latter attracted the children of professionals and businessmen, enticing them with bourgeois activities like horseback riding and (later) waterskiing. In the 1940s and 50s, Cejwin was teeming with campers and seemed to be in permanent expansion mode. But in the long run, Modin’s formula had greater longevity. The same summer that Cejwin closed, the current owners of Modin relocated their high end camp to a first class facility on the picturesque Belgrade Lakes with a state-of-the-art fitness center and recreation pavilion. The 2011 brochure features panoramic views and happy children of privilege, sailing, windsurfing, white water rafting and wall climbing.
Even Orthodox Judaism had gone bourgeois by the 1970s. In the 1980s I worked at Camp Raleigh, the “sports camp in a Torah environment.” Raleigh boasted private showers in each bunk, a gleaming swimming pool, and a pastry chef who’s creations could rival anything one might find at the nearby Grossinger’s resort hotel. A colleague and fellow member of the Massad Diaspora mockingly referred to Raleigh as “Camp Fress,” from the Yiddish word for pigging out. But camps like Raleigh and Seneca Lake embodied the American Jewish zeitgeist of the late twentieth century, the Age of Fress.
Twenty years later, there is a new trend in Jewish camping: the boutique or niche camp. In 2010, the Foundation for Jewish Camp created a camp incubator that facilitated the launching of five non-profit specialty camps, with names like Adamah Adventures and 92Y Passport NYC. The incubator experiment was so successful that plans for a second incubator are well underway. According to the American Camp Association, the Jewish interest in specialty camps mirrors a larger trend in American camping. Rabbi Eve Rudin, a veteran Reform Jewish camp leader and former Director of the Department of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp is positively bullish on the new specialty camps: “Before specialty camps, young people had to chose between their area of interest and their Jewish interests. Too often, they chose to opt out of the Jewish community in order the gain the skills and mentoring they desired. In these new settings, young people can lead Jewish lives, have Jewish experiences and still receive the sophisticated training and opportunities in their areas of interest.”
Individual Jewish summer camps may come and go and the trappings and programs of these camps may adapt to changing times. But the idea of Jewish camping is as fresh and as full of promise for Jewish identity building and personal growth today as it was when the first Jewish culture camps were founded almost a century ago. My daughter will be attending one of the new specialty camps, Eden Village, a religiously pluralistic camp in Putnam Valley, New York, focusing on Jewish environmentalism and organic farming. Like her counterparts twenty, fifty and ninety years ago, she is breathlessly counting the days until summer.
I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary school. For eight years I learned Hebrew (Modern and biblical), participated in Shabbat onegs and wrote and performed Torah-related songs and plays. I learned every Jewish prayer by heart, wore only below-the-knee skirts and painstakingly studied Talmud in Aramaic in a rabbi’s study. I was impressively Jewish. And then I went to a secular high school and, except for going to temple on the high holidays, attending Passover Seders and lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, I became unimpressively secular. It wasn’t until I met my Catholic-raised husband that I started actively observing Judaism again.
On our first date I told him that if we were to ever have kids, raising them as Jews was nonnegotiable. That’s right, our first date. Religion had come up in previous relationships and I had learned to be firm about what I wanted at the start to avoid surprises later. He nodded and said he would be comfortable with that. Ben believed in the general ritual and ethical guidance of religion even more than he believed in the specifics of his religion. Apparently the extent of two people’s religious belief can affect compatibility more than the religions themselves.
The first thing we decided to do was learn about Judaism together. We signed up for a four month Union for Reform Judaism course. I joked that I could teach it, but once it started I was surprised at how little I already knew. Reform Judaism was everything I had sifted from my Orthodox education without the orthodoxy that had felt so oppressive to me. The liberal politics, reverence for nature and inclusiveness of the community paralleled my own belief system, and Ben and I marveled at how time and again, the laws of Reform Judaism were laws we would create for ourselves if we were creating a religion from scratch. Our class was white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay and straight. We were all there, not by obligation, but by spiritual choice.
Perhaps because of my Orthodox background, I had always been dismissive of other branches of Judaism. I had also become so fixated on the technicalities of being Jewish (matrilineage, for example) that I forgot that religion is a philosophy, and we don’t automatically know or believe in a philosophy just because we’re born into it. If I had simply married another unobservant Jew, we wouldn’t have had to earn our Judaism, it would have already been part of our identities. But Ben and I worked for it, reading, debating and journaling every topic, theme and ritual, from the holidays, to the state of Israel, to the afterlife. I had always assumed that if I were to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish he would take on my religion as his own, but I never realized that in that process of learning about Reform Judaism I would take on a new religion as my own too.
We don’t belong to a synagogue. My husband and I have defended this in various ways over the years. We wouldn’t go enough. It costs a lot. We’ll join when our daughter is old enough to go to Hebrew School. But beneath all these justifications – at least for me – there’s a less practical, more spiritual concern: the synagogues we visit don’t feel like home.
I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of a small, tightly-knit community of Jews, all of whom went to the only synagogue in town. The synagogue had originally been a church, but to me, as a child, it was perfect. I knew the smell of the wooden pews, the sound of the rabbi singing (there was no cantor), the feel of my tights on the basement rec hall tiles. My mother had been taking me since I was six months old and more than anything else, I felt known and loved there, especially by the older people who ruffled my hair and kissed my cheeks.
There was one man I loved more than all the rest: Maurice, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who sat with me at services every Saturday morning in the two years leading up to my bat mitzvah. I loved Maurice’s soft voice, his accent, his kind eyes winking at me as we turned the pages of the prayer book together, and the beautiful Sephardic tunes he sang.
A few years ago, the Gloucester synagogue burned to the ground. I felt devastated yet distant – we were living in Brooklyn at the time – and didn’t dare go visit the spot until the rebuilding of a new temple had begun. Finally, this past summer, the new synagogue was completed. It’s about as different as it could be from the old one: modern lines, a soaring roof line, sand-colored bricks that evoke Israel.
The room in which we performed – with high ceilings and white walls – felt somewhat sterile at first. There was a different feel to the place, a different smell, a different quality of light without the old stained glass windows. And then, as people began to arrive, there were different faces. Many of them I knew, but many I didn’t, and more importantly, many people whose faces I longed to see were gone, including Maurice.
These absences hit me hard as I got up to introduce our performance. I tried to say something – “I’m thinking of the people who aren’t here tonight, too” – but I choked up. In the audience, people nodded – many eyes filled with tears. It seemed nothing more needed saying. Clare and I began to play and the room filled with a kind of electricity, coming not only from us but from the audience, too. People held hands, and swayed, and listened with such an intensity they seemed to make their own music.
By the end of the night, I felt comfortable in this new place. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It wasn’t home. And somehow knowing this made me feel free. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughter to a synagogue near where we live now, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the unfamiliar faces, the strangeness, didn’t make me want to run away. I liked the service. I liked the people. I could see how, with a little time, it might become a place where we belong.