The History of Secular Zionist Summer Camps

Red hot American summer.

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.

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.

The eldest of the movements, Hashomer Hatzair, was established in North America in 1923 by movement alumni who emigrated from Galicia, Poland. Later in the 1920s, Habonim Dror was established much in the same way. Both movements purchased land to teach farming and self-reliance to teenagers preparing for upcoming expeditions to build the Jewish state.  Hashomer Hatzair was affiliated with the socialist parties in Israel, and Habonim Dror with the labor parties. Though they often found themselves competing for recruits and influence in the leftist Zionist circles, together these two movements were central to a Hebrew culture movement emerging world-wide, celebrating cultural Judaism and Hebrew language, song, and dance.

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


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.

The Future

In the early 21st century, Habonim Dror remodeled its operations–investing in long-term professional camp directors, strengthening camps’ boards of directors, and raising significant capital from alumni. Hashomer Hatzair, almost a decade later, has also begun a significant shift toward professionalization, tougher strategy, and new special programs. In both movements, money is now largely managed by adults, but educational responsibilities remain in the domain of the camps’ youth leadership.

The 1980s and ’90s also saw a significant reduction in aliyah throughout the Jewish community, and among socialist and labor Zionists as well. As more youth movement graduates remained in North America, armed with leadership skills and characteristic idealism, more assumed leadership positions in the organized Jewish community. With a greater number of sympathetic administrators in top organizations, many movement members are anticipating a revival. The Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation are also helping to revive Jewish camping in general, and lending expertise to the secular Zionist camps as well. The camps, eager to curb their decline, have been looking to these more established organizations for help–in some ways compromising the ideal youth society in order to preserve it.

While the socialist and labor Zionist camps may find themselves in a tough position in the 21st century, they also have hope for the future. As the Zionist movement has shown in the past, if they will it, it is no dream.

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