In the postwar decades, American Jewry experienced growing affluence, suburbanization, and greater social mobility than ever before. As they climbed the educational and professional ladders, most happily embraced their new standing and the material and psychological comforts that came with it. But these dramatic socioeconomic transitions also provoked deep anxieties among communal leaders, who worried that Jewish cultural authenticity would not survive the ease of affluence, particularly when it came to raising and educating their children. This chapter foregrounds the growth of educational Jewish summer camping in the postwar period within its moment in American Jewish history and addresses the book's focus on youth, gender and sexuality, and the lived experience of going to camp.
Many historic conditions set the stage for the postwar rise in Jewish educational, nationalistic, and religious summer camping. As Jews climbed the socioeconomic ladder, many came to worry that their new status threatened the future of Jewish life in the United States, arguing that affluence and acceptance had negative impacts on Jewish authenticity. At the same time, Americans increasingly problematized youth, first with a panic over juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and then over the politicization and rapidly changing youth culture of the 1960s. These trends, with the backbone of a longer legacy of American camping dating back to the turn of the century, coalesced to allow Jewish summer camps to rise in number and importance within American Jewish culture writ large.
Despite their ideological differences, the founders of Jewish summer camps shared a central hope about the power of Jewish camping: that immersing children in Jewish lifestyles for one or two months of the summer would yield a more authentically Jewish generation, curbing the decline of Jewish culture as educators understood it. This chapter describes how this underlying impulse guided camp life in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Through the content and flow of camps' daily, weekly, and monthly schedules, camp leaders projected and enacted their fantasies on campers, inflecting every hour with their specific visions of ideal Jewishness. Taking the reader through the details of the average weekday and Sabbath, this chapter brings the totalizing intensity of camp life into full view.
From the beginning of American summer camping, progressive educational philosophies have been important to the enterprise, with camp leaders arguing that play and recreation proved vital to social development and education. Jewish educators of the early twentieth century adopted these ideas, aided by the heavily Jewish professions of social work and social science. The games they had campers play, however, took on new forms and purposes in the postwar decades. Through role-playing games, sociodramas, and color war, play at educational Jewish camps highlighted the intentions and fantasies of leaders: that through simulating historical and contemporary Jews from other parts of the world, campers would feel inspired to become more like them, assuming what educators saw as more "authentic" forms of Jewishness.
In the immediate postwar decades, Jewish educators faced a question: How should they broach the recent Holocaust within camp life? Across the ideological spectrum, educators came to use the Jewish holy day of Tisha B'Av or alternative, secularized memorial days as their moments for remembering the Six Million, and for marking a host of other Jewish historical tragedies. Their differing political and religious standpoints infused the days with different messages and goals, but their camp-wide programs proved remarkably similar. Teaching the suffering of Jews past, educators came to believe, functioned as extraordinarily powerful in their work toward transforming youth, capable of underscoring the relevance of their camps' nationalist, religious, and linguistic ideologies in unparalleled ways.
Postwar American Jews were overwhelmingly monolingual, embracing English as their lingua franca. As Jewish educators sought to turn the tides of what they saw as a decline in Jewish authenticity, however, they came to see Jewish languages as vital in their efforts. Integrating Hebrew or Yiddish into camp life, they hoped to not only connect campers to their Ashkenazi roots or the Hebrew culture of the nascent State of Israel, but to transform them into Jews they envisioned as more ideal or authentic. The fantasy of the Hebrew- or Yiddish-speaking camp quickly clashed with the broader linguistic realities of the Jewish community and campers' lack of enthusiasm. And yet such tensions would ultimately lead to new uses for Yiddish and Hebrew in the 1960s and beyond, reconstituting symbolic engagements with language into vehicles toward expressing political affinities and new ways of identifying with Jewishness.
As camp leaders laid out the missions and ideal trajectories of their programs, they understood that their success required getting campers on board. Jewish educators created camper governments, newspapers, and camp-wide voting assemblies, hoping to make campers feel as though they had the power and agency to have an impact on shaping their own experiences. But adolescents inevitably arrived with their own desires and aspirations for their summers, expecting freedom within the camp environment. In negotiating power and place in the camp milieu, the interactions between generations often proved tenuous. And yet the groups also found ways to converge on paths forward, fostering camp life and shaping their political, linguistic, and religious ideologies in tandem with one another.
While campers struggled with staff over the limits of their freedoms, such limits did not stop them from fostering lively and complex youth cultures. Dating, romance, and sex all came to play central roles in camper culture, with adolescents expressing their interests in the opposite sex in newspapers, inside jokes, songs, and in their fights with staff for more freedom. Their desires to engage in sexual and romantic relationships inevitably challenged adult leaders to consider what freedoms and privileges campers should have, a loaded question in a time between growing sexual openness on the one hand and a loud condemnation of youth's liberal sexual mores on the other. As camp leaders came to invest greater energy in curbing intermarriage, however, their evolving missions and this youth culture met in the middle, with educators finding their own reasons to allow a romantic and relatively sexually free environment.
In the immediate postwar decades, Zionist, Yiddishist, Conservative, and Reform movements made very similar cases to American Jewry: that camping not only had the power to produce healthy young Jews, but to ensure the next generation would carry Jewishness into the future. As the revolutions of the 1960s wound down, these camps faced several social and economic challenges, causing many to close. Those that remained open came to reflect several evolutions in American Jewish life. This chapter addresses the trajectories of Jewish camps from the 1970s to the present, contemplating what Jewish camping's more recent developments tell us about its more distant past, and what its past tells us about its present, focusing on four lenses: the continuity crisis, gender and sexuality, the expansion of Orthodox camping, and the evolution of American Zionism.
In the postwar period, Jewish camps of various ideological stripes set their sights on transforming the younger generation according to diverse visions of Jewish authenticity. While they differed according to "which attitudes to be indoctrinated," Jewish educators agreed that the summer camp was a powerful transformative force and believed in it as a cure-all for their perceived communal ills caused by social mobility, modernity, and affluence. This conclusion restates the purposes of the book's focus on camp life, underscoring the role of youth, the importance of going beyond narratives of success, and the ways postwar camps shed light on new challenges Jewish education face today.