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Jewesses with Attitude

A Day at Camp

Last week, I got an e-mail from a Jewish Women's Archive member, which was, in part, an ode to Sara Blum, the founding director of Camp Navarac in the Adirondack Mountains. And, since it's July and since I spent last weekend with my band of camp friends, I'd be remiss if I didn't write a little bit about summer camp.

Camping has a long history for American Jews. An American Jewess article from July 1895 worries about the idleness of all the children in Chicago who didn't get to go out to the countryside during the summer, and according to the Forward, "the first known Jewish camp was, of all things, a girl's camp, founded in 1893 by the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society, located in New York." The camps established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries aimed at getting children out of their hot, crowded, inner-city, immigrants neighborhoods and helping to Americanize them. Around mid-century, camping took a turn towards being a place for young Jews to develop a positive cultural identity - to get their Jewishness to "stick." Today, hundreds of North American camps serve more than 60,000 kids per year.

Camp nostalgia abounds. Meatballs (1979) and Wet Hot American Summer (2001) satirize the highs and lows of a day at camp; this spring, the authors of Bar Mitzvah Disco put out Camp Camp, a volume of kitchy pictures and essays about the Jewish summer camp experience; some of the Camp Navarac girls from the 1950s and 1960s remembered Sara Blum's annual reading of The Little Engine that Could throughout their long careers.

But camp is not such a great place for everyone, girls especially. Elisa Albert, the author of The Book of Dahlia, has likened Jewish summer camps to The Lord of the Flies, and columnist Marjorie Ingall remembers worrying whether or not she'd have a boyfriend, and how she would deal with the mean girls before she packed off every summer. I remember watching, both as a camper and a counselor, as the pressures of camp life - desired or failed romance, skimpy tank tops, and freedom from parents' watching eyes - led many girls in my bunk down the road towards eating disorders. Maybe the rule keeping me out of the boys' bunks shielded me from similar problems in their male world, but somehow I don't think so. The intensity of a life populated solely by adolescents has the potential to heighten not just the joy of girls' friendships (which is camp's greatest strength), but also the insecurities that being a teenager brings.

Leaders of the American Jewish camping movement hope to enroll 150,000 kids in Jewish summer camps in the next five years. I hope they'll be led by someone like Sara Blum, about whom our member wrote:

"She taught all of us - at the all-girls' camp - that we could be individuals, leader, and to follow our hearts. I have a friend (I was a counselor at Navarac when she was a camper) who lives near me. When we get together, we always com back to talking about Navarac and what an incredible teaching (and fun) experience it was and how it made many of us the resourceful, independent, self-sufficient women we became as grown-ups."

How to cite this page

Rabinoff-Goldman, Lily. "A Day at Camp." 15 July 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 2, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/summer-camp>.

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