July 9, 2009
If summer camp is so great for Jewish kids, why not Jewish adults? It’s a question I ask myself every year at about this time, sitting in a hermetically sealed office and trying to ignore the aural memories of cicadas high in the trees, the crunch of car tires on gravel, and the slap of screen doors.
For much of my childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my family rented a bungalow on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Townspeople referred to it as the “Jew camp” — the regulars were Jewish schoolteachers and administrators from the New York metropolitan area lucky to have most of the summer off. Families would rent the same musty bungalows year after year (we were part of the “beach crowd”); they were clapboard, un-air-conditioned shacks with iron bedsteads, wheezing Frigidaires, and large wooden shutters that swung down to keep out the rain.
You didn’t go to the “colony” for the accommodations; you went for the people. The kids went to day camp, while the fathers fished or played golf and the mothers sat in a circle of Adirondack chairs on the “campus,” smoking, knitting, and playing cards. Rotating committees were in charge of evening entertainment, like mock bar mitzvas in the social hall (off-limits to the kids) and Israeli dancing. There was exactly one telephone, in the “main house,” and if your parents got a call someone would stand on the porch with a megaphone and yell out their names.
The men gathered for services on Friday nights, but that was about it when it came to religion. The colony was Jewish the way Brooklyn was Jewish, or Miami Beach, or Tel Aviv. It was Jewish in the way people spoke, in the roots and jokes they shared, in their foibles and obsessions. In this world apart, Jewish was the default, and its imprint was as indelible as the seashell shapes we pressed into plaster “fossils” in the arts and crafts room.
Of course, the world of the bungalow colonies crumbled not soon after — falling victim to, among other things, our parents’ growing affluence and cheap airfares. By the time I became a parent 20 years later, it was the rare family (outside of the fervently Orthodox communities, that is) who wanted to spend their vacation with a familiar “crowd” in the mountains or at the beach. Maybe two or three families will find a place together, but vacations today are mostly nuclear affairs.
It’s a pity, considering the claims we make (with justification) for Jewish summer camping. “Camp is a place where Judaism happens. There’s no competition,” Brandeis University social scientist Amy J. Sales told a local audience recently. “It’s just built into the life of the camp. Camp is so isolated, and it is in this bubble that community can take hold.”
Sales’ 2003 study with Leonard Saxe, How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences, was part of a wave of data and initiatives singing the praises of camp as a catalyst for Jewish identity-building.
Sales and Saxe see the summer camp model — informal, emotional, most of all communal — as an antidote to what ails the American-Jewish community.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp, founded in 1998 by New Jersey philanthropists Elisa Spungen Bildner and Rob Bildner, has grown to a $22 million nonprofit that aims to make camp “a critical element of every Jewish young person’s education.”
But why stop with the kids? The bungalow colony was essentially a family camp, where parents and kids grooved on the informal, the emotional, and the communal. It was a Jewish bubble, isolated from the pressures of the suburban worlds we inhabited 10 months out of the year. (When we bring back the secular bungalow colony, I’d like to enforce the One Telephone rule. Leave your BlackBerrys at the front office.) You can take the Jew out of the city, but you can make a Jew in the country. And I am speaking figuratively here, although who knows what some fresh mountain air and tiny cabins might do for the Jewish fertility rate.
Some camps do offer family weekends and encampments. I’ve been on the one run by New Jersey Y Camps and it was a blast. But the culture of the bungalow colonies was Socialism Lite — it depended on the contributions of the collective, who came together every summer to fashion a good time and a Jewish identity out of lawn chairs, tennis rackets, charcoal briquettes, and trips into town for soft-serve ice cream.
I’ll take it as an encouraging sign that Jerry Silverman, who made a splash as executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, was just named as president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for Jewish federations. Silverman has written, “We need to take what we’ve learned about developing emotional Judaism at camp and use it to construct a ‘road map’ to engagement and success in the Jewish community.”
I’ve got the map right here, Jerry. It leads up Route 17 into the Catskills, or you can take the New York State Thruway north past Lake George.
Either way, take me with you.