Jewish Summer Camps

JNS.org covers the North American Jewish summer camp experience, including interviews with former and current attendees of Jewish summer camps and counselors, overviews of activity programs, as well as other relevant feature stories, op-eds and advice columns. To select another topic, choose from the other content “categories” in our navigation bar.

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Colorado's Ramah of the Rockies after several years of planning and considering, invited more than 20 Jewish-Mexican campers, three counselors and Bet El spiritual leader Rabbi Leonel Levy to spend two weeks from July 20 to Aug. 2 at the camp, joining bunks, taking part in traditional camp activities and sharing some traditions of their own. The exchange program is part of an effort by the camp to build bridges between American and Mexican Jewish youth, writes reporter Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman.

Growing up, the fact that Jewish author and nutritionist Dawn Lerman preferred fresh seafood and vegetables to soggy SpaghettiO’s for dinner somehow irked her mother, making her feel unappreciated and angered. Lerman was not your typical kid, and her parents—a 450-pound dad and a flamboyant stage mom—were not your typical parents. The combination of their unique quirks and habits was often toxic and unsettling. So for Lerman, the thought of going to overnight camp, where she wouldn’t need to worry about what diet her dad was on or if she would have enough money for food, was a welcome relief. Yes, she actually went to summer camp not for the activities, but for the food. Lerman reflects on her camp experience and provides a recipe for fruit-infused bug juice.

Scott Michaud is a hard-working lawyer 51 weeks out of the year. But for that final week, the 58-year-old is more at home on the trail than in a courtroom. “It was my daughter’s idea,” says Michaud, who splits his time between homes in Colorado and Florida. “She told me, ‘Dad, you need to go to overnight camp.’” Since his children had been Ramah campers, the adult camp at Ramah of the Rockies outside Denver seemed like a good choice. “I’m a lawyer, but these are billable hours for my life,” he says. With some 10 million kids packed off to overnight camp each summer, lugging duffels crammed with bug repellant, sunscreen, granola bars, baseball caps, and t-shirts, some anonymous genius must have taken one look at today’s tightly wound adults and prescribed a cure: that same brand of getaway filled with walks and whittling, singing, and s’mores. “To me, camp is Jewish. It’s Jewish in that sense of community we need more and more of as we age...It’s something grown-ups need as much or more than kids do,” says Tammi Leader Fuller, who runs Campowerment for women at Florida’s Camp Shalom.

Every summer has a story, and the best stories often happen in Israel. Whether it’s through Ramah, NCSY, NFTY, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Birthright, your local synagogue, or plenty of other trip providers, a summer in Israel can mean a lifetime of memories for Jewish teenagers. But what happens to those memories of sunrise of at Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, hiking the springs of Ein Gedi, or taking a camel ride through the Negev desert when there is a heightened security situation, Palestinian intifada, or war in Israel? Amy Cooper—national associate director of Conservative Judaism’s Ramah Commission camping arm—says the itinerary might change, but the trip goes on. “The kids have been hearing about this Israel experience since they started camp, whether it be day camp at [age] 5 or overnight camp at 8,” Cooper tells JNS.org. “We have never cancelled one of our trips during any summer, including any of the recent intifadas.”

Eighteen-year-old Bernie Kozlovksy spent from sundown to sunrise on a boat with 16-year-old Sonia Rosenbaum in 1972 at the NCSY overnight camp in northeastern Maryland. Forty-three years later, including 39 years of marriage, Kozlovksy attributes his successful relationship with Rosenbaum to the spark that formed during that summer experience. Today, the fire is still burning at Jewish summer camp. Dating and marriage are byproducts of summers spent banging on the table during birkat hamazon, engaging in loud and intense games of color war, and celebrating Jewish culture with Hebrew plays and campfire songs. According to “Camp Works,” a report released in 2012 by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, adults who attend Jewish overnight camp are on average 10 percent more likely to marry within the Jewish faith than their peers. 

As much as campers (and their parents from afar) would like to focus exclusively on fun in the sun this summer, upticks in anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish institutions around the world mean that security at Jewish camps should be a top concern for camp administrators, according to Jewish organizations and security firms. “In general, the Jewish community, just like any other community, places great value on our children and our educational system, but I think that we have to be more proactive in our security approach,” said Joshua Gleis, president of the Gleis Security Consulting firm.

For those who attended the Jewish camps of the previous generation, summertime likely invokes memories of smelly old bunks and rickety dining halls. But now, in what has been described as a new golden age for Jewish summer camps, those camps have received a massive facelift. What has allowed for this transformation? One of the players behind the scenes of the process has been JCamp180, a philanthropic organization dedicated to helping Jewish camps meet modern challenges. Founded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the initiative matches funds that are raised by the camps themselves and also provides camps with consulting services from mentors, who focus on areas including fundraising, governance, strategic planning, and technology.

It is thrilling to watch Jewish history and contemporary Israeli issues come alive for Jewish children, and it is inspiring to witness their transformations into prouder and more committed members of the Jewish community. This is the power of informal Jewish education. But we must come to terms with the reality that the kinds of Jewish educational techniques that truly make a difference are not self-sustaining. We owe it to our children and ourselves to make sure that informal Jewish education always receives the funding it warrants and deserves. After all, the future of religious Zionism and Torah Judaism may very well depend on it, writes Alan Silverman, the longtime director of Camp Moshava.

The 70-year-old, post-Holocaust taboo of expressing anti-Semitic views started to break down over the last several years in Hungary, where 100,000 Jews live among a population of 10 million. Stoked by the rise of the neo-Nazi political party Jobbik, that flame has been fueled to greater heights during the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas. But roughly 100 miles from Budapest, on a 17-acre patch of land between a forest and a lake in rural Hungary, lies a summer camp that for 25 years has given young Jews from central and eastern Europe the strength to be proud of their religion and to shape their communities.

JNS.org interviews both on the summer camp experience. “Performing at Jewish summer camps is an extraordinary experience,” Nelson said. “Helping build an identity, helping kids find safe space where they can be spiritually and socially open in a Jewish environment, for me, this is as fulfilling as any other work that I do because it provides life changing experiences for them.”

As the summer of 2013 approaches, directors of Jewish camps discuss the integration of learning and living with JNS.org. “I do what I do because I have the chance to change lives, positively,” said Molly Hott, director of the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC camp in New York. “The impact that camp can have on a child or a teen is significant. You discover yourself at camp. I hope that summer after summer I can enable that same discovery for others.”

For those of us who ever went to summer camp, we vividly remember our first night in a bunk, first scary story, first campfire, and for some, our first kiss. But for nine children from the southern Israeli city of Sderot—which is often battered by Hamas rockets—their first summer camp memory in America was a peaceful night. Diana Burmistrovich, who attended summer camp with those Israelis, recounts the experience in an oped.

In summer camp, the same songs are sung every year almost religiously, traditions are obeyed almost ritualistically, and previous generations are responsible for passing down myths of years past. But Diana Burmistrovich had a much different experience than the rest of her friends—Russian math camp, run by Jews. The camp was occupied by students who had realized the war against parental will and math lessons was best fought together, she writes in an oped on her time there.

JNS.org humor columnist Leo Margul applies his networking knowledge to your time at summer camp. After taking Margul's advice, you’ll leave camp with not only lifelong friends, but also some solid references for your resume, he writes.