The Jews of Sum­mer: Sum­mer Camp and Jew­ish Cul­ture in Post­war America

By – June 4, 2023

For any­one who attend­ed Jew­ish sum­mer camp, this book is sure to evoke nos­tal­gia. But even for read­ers who have nev­er par­tic­i­pat­ed in this part of Jew­ish Amer­i­can life, San­dra Fox’s new study of its impact will both raise and answer many ques­tions. She frames Jew­ish camp­ing with­in the larg­er con­text of post­war cul­ture, ana­lyz­ing dif­fer­ent approach­es to Jew­ish expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing while school was not in ses­sion. Thor­ough and absorb­ing, each chap­ter pro­vides new insights into how camps reflect­ed and influ­enced trends in Jew­ish education.

While edu­ca­tors had dif­fer­ent motives for estab­lish­ing Jew­ish sum­mer camps, Fox empha­sizes the coun­ter­cul­tur­al nature of Jew­ish camp­ing. As greater assim­i­la­tion and eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty became fea­tures of Jew­ish life, the chal­lenges to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty became more intense. Camp was viewed as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to counter con­formist sub­ur­ban cul­ture and inef­fec­tive after-school pro­grams with an immer­sive alter­na­tive, where chil­dren and teens could expe­ri­ence a more organ­ic vision of Judaism as a way of life. Ide­al­ly, campers would return to their com­mu­ni­ties pre­pared to become lead­ers in their Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. Fre­quent­ly, how­ev­er, edu­ca­tors con­front­ed social changes that they were pow­er­less to reverse, as well as campers who chal­lenged their goals.”

Fox builds her argu­ment with metic­u­lous detail, dis­tin­guish­ing the larg­er camp­ing move­ment from its spe­cif­ic Jew­ish sub­cul­tures, which held dif­fer­ent aspi­ra­tions for their pro­grams. While camps pro­mot­ing Yid­dish believed they could counter the recent dev­as­ta­tion of Europe’s Jews, Zion­ist camps saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to assert the cen­tral­i­ty of Israel as the key to Jew­ish sur­vival. The more pro­fes­sion­al­ized char­ac­ter of the Con­ser­v­a­tive movement’s Ramah camps adjust­ed to meet chang­ing expec­ta­tions, even­tu­al­ly allow­ing campers and coun­selors more oppor­tu­ni­ties to assert their auton­o­my and gain greater free­dom. In most camps, a rever­sal of the age hier­ar­chy evolved, with young adult coun­selors hav­ing more direct influ­ence over campers than the old­er com­mu­nal leaders.

Fox’s approach is not the­o­ret­i­cal; numer­ous quotes and anec­dotes sup­port and enliv­en her account. She explains the dis­turb­ing effects of role-play­ing activ­i­ties, where campers reen­act­ed pogroms and Holo­caust sce­nar­ios, and com­pares the sched­ules of Zion­ist, Yid­dishist, and Reform and Con­ser­v­a­tive camps Rich descrip­tions of dif­fer­ent Shab­bat obser­vances, includ­ing their role in large­ly sec­u­lar Yid­dish camps, are par­tic­u­lar­ly fascinating.

One chap­ter, Sum­mer Flings and Fuzzy Rings: Camper Romance, Erot­ic Zion­ism, and Inter­mar­riage Anx­i­ety” deals with the unavoid­able fact of inter­mar­riage and assim­i­la­tion. Fox con­fronts the effects, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, of view­ing camps as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to sup­port rela­tion­ships, and even­tu­al­ly mar­riages, between young Jews. There were clear­ly dan­gers that emerged from this mis­sion. LGBTQ campers and coun­selors felt mar­gin­al­ized, for exam­ple, and the poten­tial for sex­u­al abuse was all but inevitable.

The Jews of Sum­mer is an essen­tial and engag­ing addi­tion to schol­ar­ship on Jew­ish camp­ing. Sum­mer is an appro­pri­ate sea­son in which to read it — but any time of year will yield the same rewards.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

San­dra Fox’s The Jews of Sum­mer deliv­ers a fresh per­spec­tive on the post­war his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jew­ish sum­mer camp. Fox views the sum­mer camp expe­ri­ence as a dynam­ic set of nego­ti­a­tions between the objec­tives of camp lead­er­ship and the inter­ests of youth­ful campers. Through this lens, she uncov­ers Amer­i­can Jews’ com­ing of age as they adjust­ed to mid­dle-class norms, strug­gled with Holo­caust mem­o­ry, and man­aged fears of assim­i­la­tion. Rich with pho­tographs and descrip­tions of camp activ­i­ties, this vol­ume is a delight­ful way to learn more about post­war Amer­i­can Jews and an excit­ing exam­ple of what the method­olo­gies of social and anthro­po­log­i­cal his­to­ry can offer the field of Jew­ish studies. 

It should come as no sur­prise that this engag­ing vol­ume has already gen­er­at­ed a sub­stan­tial audi­ence both inside and out­side of the acad­e­my. Cer­tain­ly schol­ars are excit­ed about this study’s promise as a teach­ing tool, and the many peo­ple who expe­ri­enced Jew­ish sum­mer camp or heard about its impact are also find­ing much to learn in its pages, even if they are not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the lat­est debates and trends in Jew­ish stud­ies. This is the rare book that can tru­ly speak to non-aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ences even as it makes a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the field.