Transforming Jewish identity one camper at a time.
The 1940s saw great growth--and a shift. According to Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, Conservative movement leaders--with Reform leaders quickly following--began looking for ways to develop future leaders. That was the start of the movement of Camp Ramah--the camping arm of Conservative Judaism--and the rise of denominational camps.
In an essay in Lorge and Zola's book, Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna explains that before 1940, about two-thirds of all new Jewish camps were either philanthropic or community based. From 1940 to 1960, that number dropped to less than a quarter, while 40% had explicit educational and religious missions.
Many of these camps initially provided transformative experimental and experiential religious programs for teenagers. By the mid-1950s, however, the denominational camps were extending their programs to younger children in efforts not only to "transform" but also to "mold."
Ninety new Jewish camps opened during the 1960s, but then growth stopped abruptly. "There was stagnation of new camps from the late 1960s to the early 1970s until the mid-1990s," Silverman said. There are no clear explanations for these trends. Some speculate that the stagnation was related to the push to build congregations and day schools, and that the subsequent new growth is related to the redirection of resources to Jewish summer camping after studies suggested that camps are good investments for the Jewish future because they are effective at making Jewishness "stick" to kids.
View from the Present
The new century has brought a boomlet of camps west of the Mississippi, following the westward migration of many Jewish families. Today, "there are Jewish camps for everyone, for every diverse kind of Jewish family you can think of: interfaith, gay couples, couples of color. Some focus on sports, some are Orthodox; the Reconstructionist movement just opened a camp this past summer," Silverman said.
Hopes are high among enthusiasts that Jewish camping is poised for a new renaissance. "We feel there's going to be an inordinate amount of opportunity and new programs opening in the next five years," Silverman said. "We want 150,000 kids going to Jewish camp. We believe the Jewish community will look different in 15 to 20 years if they do."
What is it about Jewish camps that make them so successful at instilling in children Jewish identities so deep that they last a lifetime? "Each camp has a very strong and intentional culture, camp by camp. Camp's power to socialize young Jews--How do I be a Jew? How do I be a member of the Jewish community?--depends on this culture," said Amy L. Sales, co-author with Leonard Saxe of "How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences" (Brandeis University Press, 2003). Culture encompasses everything, from how the Sabbath is observed to never deviating from grilled cheese on Mondays.
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