How American Jews became camp-passionate

Under the trees and by the lake, we were creating a new American Judaism. Who knew?

A female carries the Torah during a service at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Penn., in the summer of 2016. Photo copyright Foundation for Jewish Camp

Yesterday, as a I got a medium iced latte to go on Main Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, I turned around to look at the street scape, and I realized that I first saw that place fifty years ago.

Of course, fifty years ago, lattes had not yet been invented.

1969 my first summer at the Reform movement’s Eisner Camp.Eisner Camp.

1969 was the summer of the moon landing (we all camped out in one of the large program buildings and watched it happen).

From being a teenaged camper, I graduated to becoming a waiter, and then a junior counselor, and then a counselor, and then a song leader (learning from the gifted and prolific Cantor Jeff Klepper) — and then, years later, a unit head for the teenagers. 

Years later, my own sons would follow suit — starting at Eisner in the day camp, then becoming full campers, and ultimately, staff members. 

I look back at my summers at camp with fondness, nostalgia, and just a little bit of whimsy. All of my closest friendships emerged from Eisner. 

As does some sociological analysis. 

First, why do so many Jewish kids, of a certain social class, attend summer camps?

Hunch: perhaps it comes out of summer bungalow colony culture, in which Jewish families learned to escape to the country.

Second, what does Jewish summer camp say to us about what it could mean to be an American male?

In those days, Eisner was not very sports-oriented. To the best of my memory, we had one sport — soccer.

Because there was such a lack of emphasis on sports, it meant that non-athletically inclined Jewish boys (OK, me) did not feel intimidated. 

We had other outlets to be “real” boys — like Israeli dancing, theater, and playing guitar. For me, this was a welcome contrast to the testosterone zone of my Long Island high school, where my lack of athletic prowess made me, well, a geek. 

Eisner’s emphasis on Judaism, Jewish values, Hebrew, Jewish singing, and Israeli dancing offered many of us high school geeks a necessary haven — a summer Zion of gender — that allowed us to be what we wanted to be. 

And, what we could not be in our high school environments.

Third, how did Jewish summer camps change American Judaism?

Fifty years ago, on the first erev Shabbat of July, 1969, I experienced something that totally changed my life. 

One song. 

It was Michael Isaacson’s “Lecha Dodi.”

It was a strong rock melody and beat. 

It blew me away. 

Before that Friday evening, the only Jewish liturgical music I had ever heard was the uber-Protestant “Come O Sabbath Day” and other anemic melodies. 

This electrified me.

It made me want to improve my guitar skills, learn Jewish music — ultimately, to write some Jewish music. It was the musical language that I, and countless other teens, understood. 

It changed our lives. 

Fast forward. 

Yesterday, I visited with Rabbi Dan Freelander, one of the Reform movement’s senior statesmen and leaders.

He, too, is a graduate of Reform youth programs. He and his life long friend and partner, Jeff Klepper, are Kol B’seder. They have been responsible (along with others, especially the late, lamented Debbie Friedman) for the aesthetic revolution that transformed Reform Judaism, and beyond.

As we discussed the Reform movement, we re-learned something.

In those early years at camp, we were pushing the limits of the tradition that we had received from our parents, rabbis, and cantors. We were doing nothing less than our Reform ancestors in Germany had done — marrying the words with a contemporary sound. We were bringing it home.

A “summer style” Judaism was emerging.

Except, it would not only exist from July 4 to Labor Day. It would enter the sanctuaries and classrooms. It would mean the creation of new Jewish educational strategies — the flourishing of informal and immersive Jewish education. It would mean that we could now experiment with creating total communities and total Jewish environments. 

We never realized it at the time, but we were experimenting with the creation of a new American Judaism.

Jewish summer camps trained Jewish leaders — for all Jewish movements, and for all Jewish organizations. Conservative Judaism’s Ramah camps birthed the havurah movement, which ultimately produced The Jewish Catalogue — and Jewish feminism, liturgical renewal, and even Jewish radicalism. 

Jewishly-speaking, summer is a dead zone. It is not only because many synagogues shut down or radically curtail programming and services. 

It is also because there are almost no holidays, with the exception of Tisha B’Av — which, by the way, Jewish summer camps discovered and revived. 

Why? Because nothing agricultural happens during the summer. Autumn and spring — those are prime time.

So, what will future historians say about summer in American Judaism?

That it actually created todays’s American Judaism. 

Yes, it’s hot. 

And, we heated up the tradition.

And, it still sings. 

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