Secular Zionist Summer Camps

Red hot American summer.

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The Explosion of the Summer Camp Movement

After World War II, the United States experienced an explosion of summer camps, as members of the expanding middle class looked to enrich the social and recreational lives of their children, and buy some free time away from the kids. The New York Times was filled with ads for everything from tennis camps to social studies camps. The leaders of the secular Zionist youth movements soon recognized the immense recruiting and educational benefits of summer-long camp programs.

New camp sites, such as Hashomer Hatzair's in Perth, Ontario and in Newtown, Pennsylvania, were opened, now serving thousands of campers. The money to build new camps and sustain the old ones came from the World Zionist Movement and from the Israel-based rivals, Kibbutz Artzi and the Takam, the umbrella organizations representing, respectively, the Hashomer and Habonim kibbutzim in Israel.

In the 60s and 70s the Hashomer and Habonim kibbutz-style camps thrived, and other socialist and labor Zionist camps sprang up across the country. These were the years that some of the most famous camp traditions came together to define a unique culture. Happy campers were woken in the middle of the night to reenact the establishment of the first kibbutzim; they built rafts, bridges, platforms, and benches out of nothing but wood and twine; they worked for paper money on "Yom Capitalism," debating the strengths and weaknesses of the market economy through role play.

Changing Standards

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But every wax has its wane. In the 1980s and 90s, with a generally higher standard of living, American Jewish "helicopter parents"--named for their tendency to hover in as soon as their child is in some sort of discomfort--expected better facilities, credentials for proof of excellence, and highly trained staff.  

The socialist and labor Zionist camps had trouble adapting to these changing expectations. Run by kibbutzniks and youth, many of these camps fell behind in facility maintenance and renovations--and into negative deficit. As the Israeli kibbutz movements and the World Zionist Movement lost influence, the camps' annual stipends decreased. American Jews, accustomed to thinking of Jewish identity through a religious or denominational lens, did not rush to help the camps and their Hebrew culture movement stay afloat.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s the camps held on to the traditional songs, activities, and educational programs that made them unique, but they barely scraped by with few campers—often just above one hundred per camp. Camps in California and the Midwest merged with rivals or closed their doors as market realities changed. All around them, more "professional" Jewish and secular camps were turning profits with large numbers of campers and significantly higher tuition rates, and reinvesting  in new flashy facilities, programs, and brochures.

It's not just that the secular Zionist camps were unable to keep up with the times and fully professionalize their operations--they were often unwilling. They wanted to maintain significant youth involvement in all areas of decision making, and they wanted their camps to be small and intimate. It took two decades for alumni to take control of the camps, and raise their standards.

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Ariel Beery

Ariel Beery, co-director of PresenTense, is a boger magshim of Hashomer Hatzair of kvutzat Shomrat in the United States, and Garin Azmata in Israel.

Tal Beery

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.