Summer Camping in the United States
In the winter of 1945, Elsie Reich and her husband Harry bought seven acres of land in Salisbury, Connecticut. She had “pawned her diamond ring” and convinced him to borrow money against his business to finance this purchase. The deed of sale lists Harry Reich as the owner of the grounds. But Elsie Reich managed the property. She employed homeless people recommended to her by a New York City clergyman. Their names were Joe, Turk, the Swede, and Dutch.
In the spring of 1946, Reich drove “her men” up from the Bowery to Connecticut. They constructed cabins and carved out a waterfront in exchange for room and board. Berkshire Hills Camp opened that summer. It provided Jewish children with “amusement, recreation, entertainment and instruction,” and Elsie Reich with the prospect of financial independence.
Neither the camp nor Reich’s activities were unique. Berkshire Hills was one of thousands of summer camps (which literally millions of children attended) established in the American Northeast (a directory published in 1949 listed 1,783 for New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine). And Elsie Reich was only one of the many Jewish women who became involved with summer camping in the first half of the twentieth century.
Summer camp became an American institution in the aftermath of World War I. It evolved within a society that was concerned with children and believed in reform. In the early 1920s, social commentators and ordinary people claimed that “crass materialism” and “cheap amusements” were turning American youth into juvenile delinquents. These claims echoed throughout the decade and were augmented with a fear of “idle hands” and “latchkey children” during the Great Depression and World War II. The radio series “Are These Our Children?” articulated these anxieties. This weekly show reenacted the stories of “real life young criminals” and located their vice in overindulgent mothers, un-chaperoned leisure, jazz, and cigarettes.
Summer camp was presented as a cure for these social dilemmas. Camp brochures and news releases pledged to prevent delinquency and vowed to transform “physically and spiritually illiterate” boys and girls into “able bodied” and “morally upright” American citizens. The plan for fulfilling the pledge and vow centered on educating the “total child,” his or her body, mind and soul, in an environment that made “learning fun.”
Initially, summer camps thrived in cities as well as in the countryside. The former were built on the rooftops of “neighborhood centers.” They provided adults and children with sports and educational activities, like “instruction in sewing and fancywork like basketry,” on a daily basis and within walking distance of home and work. The latter, called “resident camps,” offered working women and men, mothers with young children, and boys and girls, the opportunity to live and learn, for two weeks to two months, “close to nature” in the woods.
Unlike the “traditional” summer camps that targeted children living in cities, the federal government’s early camping endeavors focused on children living on farms. That government sponsored and sanctioned “4-H camps,” organized to cultivate the child’s agricultural skills, were successful is reflected in the institution’s phenomenal growth. The number of 4-H camps doubled between 1924 and 1930, when 250,000 children were “keeping our nation strong” by learning how to “raise blue ribbon breeds … and bumper crops from our seeds” at the 2,400 4-H camps.
Summer camp programs developed during the New Deal era show other ways that the federal government used camp to strengthen the nation. The Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) and the National Youth Administration (NYA), for instance, sponsored camps across the nation. Government press releases explained that the summer camp provided children with a “new deal” on life, while instilling them with nationalistic fervor. Campers’ letters and diaries verify this claim. One young girl described her experience at an NYA camp as “refreshing and invigorating.” It gave her “new courage, new determination and new confidence” in herself and the nation. These sentiments were probably shared by her peers, eighteen thousand of whom attended federally funded summer camps in 1934 alone. That New Deal administrators believed in the individual and national benefits of the summer camp is reflected in their internal memos and plans, as well as in their published praises of the institution. Programs like the one titled “Educational Camps for Unemployed Women,” proclaimed camp an effective means to “restore [American youth to] better physical condition [and] a better mental attitude,” and that the camping experience would enable campers to “take their place as responsible, well-informed citizens.”
Directly after World War One, and throughout the 1920s, urbanization and modernization seemed to threaten the morality of American youth. In the 1930s, amidst the Great Depression and on the threshold of world war, issues of mental and physical fitness were at the forefront of discussions on citizenship and survival. Throughout the interwar years summer camp, presented as “the great school out of doors,” was seen as a means to promote the health of the nation. That a uniquely Jewish summer camp movement developed during this period must be understood both as an expression of national trends and as reaction to a growing nationalism. Referred to by historians as nativism, this nationalism expressed fear and hatred towards people deemed not-American, including Jews. This prejudice resulted in social policies and immigration legislation that hampered Jewish-Americans’access to elite educational institutions and social clubs, effectively barred Jews from entering the country, and undoubtedly shaped the lives of some Jewish children in America.
Leaders and individuals in the Jewish communities throughout America designed camp life to address the concerns of the nation in general and Jewish people specifically. Camp activists addressed accusations made by racists like E. A. Ross that Jews were “weak and limp” and a cause of “racial decline and degeneracy” with diet and exercise programs, like “milk call” and “color war,” that promoted the campers’ physical fitness. The activities developed a “muscular Judaism” which paralleled the “rugged Christianity” developed at Christian camps. Perhaps more important than the outward display of prowess, however, was the inward development of ethnic pride that helped children cope with the antisemitism that defined their young American lives.
Summer camps also strengthened the Jewish child’s sense of self by providing an ethnic interpretation of American life. Camp activists did this through the activities and programs that structured camp life. Typically, the camp day started with flag-raising ceremonies. Often, the ceremony began with the national anthem and ended with the singing of Hebrew songs. Jewishness was then woven into the fabric of daily life. Hebrew place names, symbols, stories and plays textured the camp’s physical and cultural landscapes. A mezuzah, for example, was hung on the doorways, while the Star of David was placed over doors and worked into fences. Jewish illustrations and clippings were posted on the walls of camp buildings and bulletin boards. Bungalows and cabins, like the camp itself, were often given names that had Jewish historical significance.
The camp milieu was also “made Jewish” through time. The Jewish calendar set the pace of summer life. This meant, for instance, that Saturday, rather than Sunday, was the Sabbath. The summer weeks and months were defined by Jewish and American holidays and celebrations like Tisha B’Av and the Fourth of July.
Throughout the season, and like their Christian and non-denominational counterparts, Jewish summer camps joined in the nation-wide celebration of a Colonial Indian that lived in the country’s collective imagination. Male and female Jewish campers were encouraged to draw strength, pride and even beauty from their American Indian heritage. While Jewish boys were encouraged to develop the athletic skill of their Indian “ancestors,” camps for girls awarded Indian feathers to campers that displayed desired characteristics. In 1932, for instance, Ruthy B. received a “green feather for good posture” and described her achievement in a letter to her parents as “simply grand.” Her joy stemmed from acquiring an esteemed trait and the feather itself, which helped her look and feel more like the mythical Indian she was emulating.
Jewish institutions of a variety of ideological stripes perceived the resident summer camp as a means of mediating between ethnic and American identities. The desire to rear moral American citizens while instilling specific ideas about Jewish culture fueled their camping activities. The physical location and isolation of the camp, deep within the woods and away from the child’s family and community, offered an unparalleled environment and opportunity to convey and instill values and ideals. Less ideological reasons, those grounded in matters of sickness, health, and safety, also informed camping endeavors. Sickness flourished in urban centers, especially during the hot summer months. Children from working class families were often left to fend for themselves during the “vacation” from school.
Both the cultural possibilities and health-related concerns compelled Jewish Federations of Philanthropy to support and establish culturally Jewish resident camps. Other Jewish organizations became involved with summer camping for similar reasons, although with different emphases. The Central Jewish Institute of New York City, for instance, established Cejwin Camps shortly after World War I. Bertha Schoolman was an instrumental figure in its operation. The camp was conceived as an “educational enterprise, not just a fresh-air place for poor children.” By 1961, thirteen hundred children attended Cejwin summer camps. They were divided by gender and age, a division which fostered a sense of independence in Cejwin’s female campers.
Zionists, Hebraists, Yiddishists, socialists, and communists all viewed the “total environment” of the summer camp as an unparalleled venue for the transmission of values. Dr. Samson Benderly, head of the New York City Bureau of Jewish Education, established the first Hebrew-speaking camp in America in 1927. It was followed by Camp Massad in 1941, Camp Yavneh in 1944, and Camp Ramah in 1947.
Camp Ramah was established in Wisconsin by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). The camp, an expression of Conservative Judaism, became a movement. Six Ramah camps soon dotted the American landscape. A prominent JTS educator, Sylvia Ettenberg, articulated the common goal shared by the Ramah summer camps. According to her, the camps hoped to bridge the gap between “what the school was teaching and what the Jewish child was experiencing in the home, by providing a new milieu which could act as a surrogate home.”
The new traditions that helped bridge the gap also served to redefine traditional gender roles. Ramah camps educated women to become Jewish leaders; it is not surprise that many veterans of the camps became prominent feminist activists. The notion of egalitarianism in religious ritual, for instance, was introduced at Camp Ramah. In 1972, the camp directors issued a report endorsing aliyyot for women and their chanting of the Torah and prophetic portions. The report also suggested that camp directors be granted the right to hold ancillary services where post-bat mitzvah girls could have aliyyot and function as shelihot zibbur [leaders of the service].
The Reform Movement also instituted a network of summer camps that defined and conveyed Jewish culture. Unlike their Conservative counterparts, however, these camps were not Hebrew-speaking. Camps under Orthodox auspices, such as Camp Massad, were Hebrew and Zionist-oriented, as were the Hadassah-sponsored non-denominational Young Judaea Zionist summer camps. Like the Conservative and Reform camps, the more traditional Orthodox and Young Judaea Camps provided opportunities for girls to study Jewish texts and culture alongside boys.
Evidence of summer camp’s life-long impact echo in the claims that the summer camp experience was “crucial in forming [the ex-campers’] ideologies and love of Israel”; is reflected in the numbers of ex-campers that moved to Israel in their adult life; and can be seen in the private collections of art and memorabilia, and photographs of camp life. Barbara Levine’s display of family photographs illustrates this point. Levine framed the picture of her bat mitzvah at Cejwin Camps. The sixty-year-old image hangs on a living room wall, among snapshots that mark the turning points in her family history and chart the course of an ethnic-American life.
Not all explicitly Jewish summer camps were religious or Zionist in their orientation. Yiddish cultural organizations such as the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute and the Workmen’s Circle also became involved with summer camping. They saw the institution as a means to perpetuate yiddishkayt, a secular Jewish culture developed by radical working class Jewish workers in the needle trades, and thereby prevent Jewish assimilation into mainstream America. In 1919, the Shalom Aleichem Folk Insitute promoted a Jewish identity in America by establishing camp Boiberik within the framework of yiddishkayt. According to ex-campers, “The Yiddish language and culture that defined the camp perpetuated Jewish identity and values and sustained a warm and spirited ethical community.” In 1926, Camp Kinderland was founded on Sylvan Lake in New York State, when its organizers separated from the Workmen’s Circle to become part of the Communist led non-Partisan Jewish Workers Schools. Here, the children in their thirty-six bunks were, in Irving Howe’s words, “dutifully herded into thirty-six little Soviet Republics.” Yiddish culture was mobilized to teach communist ideology. Mildred Siminoff attended the camp in 1931 and remembers the communist context of daily life where she “got up ever morning to the pledge of allegiance to the Communist flag.” Although the camp was “proudly secular,” Siminoff nevertheless “felt it was a Jewish camp because most of the children were Jewish.” That she learned to identify being Jewish with being communist speaks to the camp’s success in collapsing the two identities.
In 1927, the Workmen’s Circle built Camp Kinder Ring across Sylvan Lake from Kinderland and on socialist principles. Rather than being united by their shared Jewish constituency, however, Siminoff recalls that, “there was a lot of rivalry between the camps because we were the communists and they were the socialists.” Anne Bernstein shares the memory. She attended Camp Kinder Ring in the 1930s. According to her, Kinder Ring campers, “hated communist Kinderland.”
Jewish women promoted and participated in all varieties of Jewish camps, ranging from the secular to the political.
Female staff members crafted and conveyed “Jewish” traditions that shaped the experience of childhood, ranging from dining ceremonies to the religious rituals that took place in the woods or on the lake. In the summer of 1934, for example, “Miss Sunny conducted services” while “Miss Jean kindled the Sabbath candles” at Camp Council. And like “Aunt Mickey” at Camp Woodmere, they told “moral” tales after conducting the Sabbath prayers. Campers’ letters and memories reveal that these “invented traditions,” “instilled a proud Jewish identity that lasted beyond the closing of camp itself.”
Camp owners and organizers rallied support for their business ventures by presenting summer camp as a “public family” of motherly and fatherly directors and staff. This familial (and therefore familiar) presentation was embodied in the “camp mother.” Like Ruth Steinbach Steppacher, known to Woodmere campers as “Aunt Dolly,” the camp mother prefaced her name with “Aunt” and treated the campers as if they were her own children. These women “dried tears, sewed buttons,” and were the object of the campers’ love and affection.
Female counselors were encouraged to relate to “their” campers in a “motherly way.” Letters written to their own mothers show that they took this directive to heart. Marie Rothschild was a counselor at Camp Tripp Lake. In the summer of 1921, she and two other counselors took a group of campers on a canoe trip. Although they suffered from an “unmerciful sun, hunger, dirt and fatigue,” these dedicated young women “wouldn’t say die.” They tended to and inspired their campers, and returned to camp “dead tired but thrilled at the trip” and “singing hymns of Joy.”
Camping women assumed the role of “female fathers” as well as nurturing mothers. Sometimes, the two roles converged. Miss Kuhn and Miss Goldsmith, two Sunday school teachers, directed life at Camp Woodmere throughout the 1920s and 1930s. They signaled the beginning of the day by “ringing the old school bell.” And with “high-heeled shoes and pursed lips,” they oversaw the daily activities. Miss Shulamit was the head counselor at Berkshire Hills Camp in the 1940s. Like the “directresses” of Camp Woodmere, she inspired deference and sometimes fear. “Aunt Minnah,” on the other hand, embodied both “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics. This camp dietitian is remembered as imposing yet nurturing. She was “gutsy enough to buy from the meat man,” claimed one ex-camper, “yet loving enough to comfort any home-sick camper.”
Although the camp’s fee and the family’s income informed a parent’s summer camp choice, the camps’ ethnic family profile and promise motivated mothers, fathers and guardians to overcome financial barriers. Some applied to philanthropic organizations, or the camps themselves, to defray the cost of summer camp. Others worked at camp without pay so that their children could become campers for the summer season. Working at summer camp enabled working class women, like Ruth Steinbech Steppacher, to simultaneously go to work and tend to their children’s leisure, health and safety during the summer vacation.
In a series of oral histories given sixty years after her first summer at Camp Woodmere, Steppacher’s youngest daughter, Mildred Bonwit, described her mother’s history of work at summer camp, and how that history affected Bonwit throughout her life. Ruth Steppacher worked at Camp Woodmere in the 1920s as the “camp mother.” Rather than receive wages, Steppacher’s children, Mildred among them, were admitted to the camp free of charge. Mrs. Steppacher, or “Aunt Dolly,” was a camp employee through the 1940s. During the course of the decades, she advanced to become an assistant director, director, and finally, the owner of Camp Woodmere.
Mildred Bonwit followed her mother’s footsteps. She first appears in the camp’s brochures as “baby Bonwit.” Twelve years later, she is pictured as the recipient of the camp’s “Honor Girl” award. In the late 1930s and into the 1940s and 1950s, she is featured as a favorite counselor, a camp director, and finally, the owner of Camp Woodmere.
The camp histories of Elsie Reich and her children are similar. Reich worked at Cejwin Camps as a cashier in the canteen and as an accountant in the 1930s. Like Steppacher, her children were admitted to the summer camp in exchange for wages for her work. Like Steppacher’s children, they also grew up at summer camp. Reich went on to establish and direct her own camp, called Berkshire Hills. Her daughters and son were campers in their childhood, and counselors, directors and owners in their adulthood.
Essential differences between Steppacher’s and Reich’s decisions to work at summer camp draw attention to the class based, and deeply personal, reasons for women’s work at summer camp. Ruth Steppacher was widowed and poor. She accepted the job at camp because it was her only means for providing her children with a summer vacation in the country. Elsie Reich, married and upper class, was motivated to seek work at camp by her fond memories of camping. According to Reich, she wanted her children to experience the “utter joy I had as a camper at Camp Rhineback” in the 1920s. Reich justified her work at camp, to her husband, children, and extended family household, as a means to “watch over the children” while they enjoyed summer in the country. Her children, however, suggest that more was going on. According to them, working at summer camp was a socially acceptable and ethnically sanctioned way for their mother to distance herself (literally) from an unhappy marriage and home.
Like the individuals who worked at summer camp, the camps themselves had class profiles. Camp Woodmere, for instance, was among the summer camps for wealthy Jewish children that were established far from urban centers and deep within the Adirondack Mountains. Although some campers were granted scholarships to pay for the travel expense and summer fees, most hailed from upper class backgrounds. That they nevertheless identified with less affluent camps, however, speaks to the existence of a community of Jewish summer camps forged by a shared Jewishness. This ethnicity is partly reflected in charitable behavior that, in turn, confirmed existing class structures. The “Plea Chorus,” performed at Camp Woodmere, shows how this worked. The Woodmere campers performed a play for visiting parents. At the end of the act, the children bowed their heads and took off their top hats. Members of the audience then filled the hats with coins. The money collected was donated to Camp Council for poor Jewish children located in Pennsylvania.
The significance of the performance of philanthropy is in its development of self-esteem, not nominal fundraising capacities. The campers’ display of charity was seen and recorded by their parents. Mothers and fathers witnessed their benevolent selves in their children’s behavior. They then exhibited this benevolence by “filling the actresses’ hats to the brim.” This generated good feelings about themselves and each other that strengthened ethnic solidarity while confirming class status.
Jewish support of Jewish summer camps took many forms. In addition to the many Jewish women who worked as directors, counselors, or dieticians at camp, some supported and shaped summer camp from afar. Social reformers and educators, like Jennie Franklin Purvin, presented lectures and wrote articles that encouraged parents to send their children “off to camp.” Purvin also worked as the “camp adviser” of Mandel Brothers Department store. Her skill at recommending appropriate summer camps for individual children earned her the gratitude of satisfied parents and the praise of the department store from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. The president of Mandel Brothers described Jennie Purvin’s work as a “great contribution” to the store’s “prestige and reputation,” as well as to its camp and sporting goods sales.
Purvin made financial contributions to individual camps as well to the department store. The few dollars she donated to Camp Council in 1924 were eclipsed by the “main building, large dining porch and store room” bestowed by a female philanthropist a few years later. Nevertheless, her donation testifies to the myriad ways reformers and philanthropists embraced and developed summer camping throughout the decades.
When Elsie Reich opened Berkshire Hills Camp in 1946, she was perpetuating a female tradition that had existed for thirty years. In 1916, Miss Kuhn and Miss Goldsmith founded Camp Woodmere. The “fundamentals of good citizenship” structured life at this summer camp. Democracy, patriotism and a Jewish-American identity were conveyed on the fields, within the cabins, and around the campfires that were central to the camping experience. Elsie Reich carried these ideals and customs into the second half of the twentieth century.
Throughout the century, Jewish women justified their camping activities in terms of extending their child-rearing duties to a more public sphere. This enabled them to journey to summer camp without posing a threat to traditional gendered boundaries. The histories of the women in this survey provide a general sense of how and why women worked at and supported Jewish summer camps. The histories of their camping activities, in turn, suggest that they challenged, as well as confirmed, contemporary ideas about male and female behavior. Camp’s very location in “the wilderness” illustrates this point. The wilderness has featured in historical narratives as a male territory. Be it virginal or savage, it is often described as an object that is either conquered or tamed by men. Camping women ventured into the woods. Neither conquering nor taming it, they transformed pieces of the “great out doors” into prototypes of the American home. In the process, they redefined gendered norms in Jewish American culture, and steered the course of their own lives.
Several surveys of Jewish camps and campers have been completed in recent
years. These include:
Tobin, Gary A., and Meryle Weinstein. Jewish Camping 2000 (2000).
Keyser, Ariela, and Barry A. Kosmin. The Camping Experience, 1995-1999: The Impact of Jewish Summer Camping on the Conservative High School Seniors of the “Four Up” Study (2001).
Sales, Amy, and Leonard Saxe. Limud by the Lake: Fulfilling the Educational Potential of Jewish Summer Camps. The Avi Chai Foundation (2002), and How Goodly are thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (2003).
Survey results indicate that there were about eighty-two thousand campers attending 191 Jewish camps during the summer of 2000, seventy-six private and 115 non-profit. The non-profit camps (which increased to 127 by 2004) are sponsored by the synagogue movements, NCSY (Orthodox), Ramah (Conservative), and the Union for Reform Judaism; by the Zionist organizations, Young Judea, Habonim Dror, Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir, and Bnei Akiva; by individual congregations and schools; and by Jewish federations and other organizational entities. The surveys also depict the positive effects of Jewish camping experiences on Jewish identity.
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Joselit, Jenna Weissman, and Karen S. Mittleman, eds. A Worthy Use of Summer: Jewish Summer Camping in America (1993).
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, “Philanthropy on Display: The Educational Alliance and its Fare” (May 1998).
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Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York (1986).
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How to cite this page
Mykoff, Nancy. "Summer Camping in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/summer-camping-in-united-states>.