Summer Camp: A Personal and Objective History
November 22, 2014
The sound of the morning bugle, ghost stories, a swim in a too cold lake, bug juice, scoring the winning basket in a big hoops game, socials, and most importantly great lifelong friends. That is what sleep away camp is about for many of us here today, myself included. Many people, especially Jews from the Northeast, take this summer experience as a given and a rite of passage. How did this come to be? This wasn’t always a common way to spend the summer. So how did we get to this point? I’m going to now share with you some of the history of camping and how and why it became prevalent among Jewish people. Then I will talk about two camps that are meaningful in my family’s history and finally why I love camp so much that I already know being a counselor is going to be my first job.
Sleep away camps date back to the beginning of our country, when they were a place to meet for religious meetings. In these days, people also often sent family members away to spend a summer working for a friend or relative.
Though the practice of sending kids away from home in the summer had been around for a while, sleep away camps as we know them today started forming in the second half of the nineteenth century in New England. Frederick Gunn, a Connecticut schoolmaster, in the summer of 1861 during the Civil War marched his class of forty students to the shore of the Long Island Sound. They pitched tents, pretended they were soldiers in the war, swam in the lake and told stories around the campfire. They were building character and creating life lessons and memories. The Gunnery Camp continued in this way until 1879.
Other early camps focused on academics, or giving women a chance to express themselves more freely than at home for example by wearing knickers instead of ankle length skirts at all girls camps. Glad they don’t have those at Lenox. One common element of these early camps that remains today was liberal usage of Native American lore. Fresh Air Fund camps and YMCA camps also started at this time, some as early as 1870, which increased the number of people going away for the summer, especially from the cities of the Northeast where industrialization had created very crowded conditions. Luther Gulick, who ran New York City schools’ physical education program, founded Camp WoHeLo, which stood for work, health, and love. He introduced physical activity and mental well-being and development as a central part of camp life.
By the 1930s camps had grown in popularity and the social development part became central. Many counselors were social workers, and camps starting separating themselves based on different approaches such as the role of individuals versus groups and whether to emphasize skill development or social interaction. Joe Kruger, who founded in 1929 and ran for 55 years a camp many of us here know called Mah-Kee-Nac said he “made his reputation on the non-competitive.” Nowadays many camps emphasize special skill development such as sailing, basketball or gymnastics. And even the more traditional, generalist camps focus more on activities than pure personal development considerations.
The history of Jewish camps in the US is in many ways parallel to the history of all summer camps. The first Jewish camps were started in 1902; one on Surprise Lake in New York and two Tamarack camps run by the Fresh Air Fund in Michigan. Like the other American camps mentioned, these camps were run by charity organizations primarily to give city kids a chance to experience a summer where they could focus on outdoor activities. Then in 1907 the first for profit Jewish camp was founded: Androscoggin in Maine, where it turns out Rabbi Peter Schweitzer went as a kid!! This camp did not actively promote Jewish activities, but it had Jewish owners and more than 80% of the campers were Jewish. Several researchers have used this percentage as the definition of a Jewish camp and Androscoggin fits what many of us in this room today know as a typical summer camp. These camps have created a deep sense of cultural kinship among Jews in America.
In the decades that followed, Jewish camps grew quickly in popularity. They generally fell into two categories: for profit camps catering to more wealthy families and camps run by charitable organizations to aid poorer kids. Another factor that led to the growth of Jewish camps in the 1930s and 1940s was the polio epidemic. As this disease affected many kids in urban areas, where many Jews lived as recent immigrants, escaping the cities in the summer became very important.
The post-World War Two years brought on tremendous growth in Jewish camping. These years also brought new types of Jewish camps that were more focused on promoting particular aspects of Jewish life. For example, there were Zionist camps that mirrored the rise of kibbutzim in Israel. Among them was Massad, a network of Hebrew speaking camps that trained American Jews to be pioneers in Israel. In 1947 the Conservative movement of Judaism opened their first camp, Ramah, in Wisconsin. That same year, Camp Swig in California was the first Reform camp.
Now all kinds of Jewish camps exist. Some actively promote Jewish education and keep kosher. Other camps have classes and other ways of developing Jewish values and identity among their campers. Still other camps have no religious aspect on the surface, but still largely cater to Jewish kids and therefore support the expansion of Jewish bonds and identity.
NOW – let me tell you about two camps that have played an important part of the history of my family: Scatico and Lenox. Camp Scatico has been owned and operated by the Holman Fleischner family since being founded in 1921 by brothers Jack and Nat Holman. Nat is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and Scatico remains the only camp ever owned by a Jewish celebrity. The camp was also was one of the first to go co-ed, in 1934 when it moved to its current home in Elizaville, New York. David, Jack’s grandson, has been the director there since 1984. He told me that they never considered themselves a religious camp. However, he explained that they do light candles and say blessings in the dining rooms on Friday nights. The girls’ and boys’ sides also then have separate “services” after dinner, which are spiritual and not religious in nature. About three quarters of the campers are Jewish, and about half the staff. In David’s view, camping remains a very powerful force and tradition in the Jewish community in the United States.
Most importantly, Camp Scatico was where my mom, Uncle Billy, Aunt Heather and their cousins Jackie and Douglas went. My Uncle Billy recalls that camp was where he learned to get along with others, even people he didn’t like so much. He also remembers going to his first rock concert as part of a Scatico summer, a Guns ‘N’ Roses and Aerosmith double bill. Rock on Uncle Billy. My aunt Heather remembers camp as a place where she increased her self esteem. She was General of the Grey Team for color war, wrote the alma mater for her team that year, and was MVP on the tournament winning softball team. My mom also thrived at Scatico; she made many friends and became a leader. She too led the Grey Team. My mom mostly remembers the friendships she made and the life moments like shaving her legs for the first time and sneaking over to boys’ side. Yes – camp is a place where you learn to grow up and become independent. Camp is also a place where you learn about the importance of tradition. My mom still remembers the blowing of revile and taps; the job wheel, trading stationery and the annual rituals like tribes, carnival and the campfires. And the singing of the same songs from year to year. In fact she still sings them.
My Grandpa Barry still sings his camp songs too. But his are Camp Lenox songs. LENOX CHEER example. He went there for many years and it is where Carly and I now spend our summers. I asked my Grandpa Barry what he remembered most about camp and he said the counselors, friends and being color war captain in 1953. I can tell you his captaincy is a true fact, because I see his name on the plaque in the camp dining room whenever I eat.
This past summer I interviewed Rich Moss, the Camp Director, to find out more about the camp’s history. Camp Lenox was founded by the Selverstone family in 1918. One of its distinguishing characteristics was the first outdoor dining room set right on Shaw Pond. In 1964 Monty Moss purchased the camp from the founding family. Monty was a teacher and he wanted to run a sports camp in the summer. From the beginning Monty, known as “Coach,” emphasized high quality sports instruction and skill building. He also pioneered the inter-camp tournament scene, with his Pittsfield basketball tournament being one of the first major camp tournaments in Western Massachusetts. Even today pretty much everyone at Lenox paints their face orange and black to cheer on the players in Pittsfield.
While Lenox has continued to emphasize sports over the years, some big changes have taken place since 1964. Most notably in 1985 Lenox became a co-ed camp. This came about largely due to requests from parents who wanted their daughters to attend. Today the girls’ side is just as vibrant and important as the boys’ side. Not only do the boys and girls mix every day, but the various age groups do too. Lenox prioritizes having the older kids interact with the younger kids through activities such as Twilight League and Sundown league, and by having a communal dining room where everyone eats together.
Rich, Monty’s son, became the director of the camp in 1985 and now runs it with his wife Stephanie, though Coach is still there every summer. The camp was never directly about promoting Jewish education but Jewish life has always played some role in camp and today the camp continues to offer Shabbat services every Friday night. While they are not a huge part of the camp experience, I can tell you the challah is really, really good. We also play Ga-ga, the Israeli game. At my camp most of the kids are Jewish. For me, this is very different than the New York City public schools I have been attending where the population is very diverse in all aspects. In thinking about this, my main realization is that I look at people for who they are, and don’t think of them any differently based on their religion.
I have now gone to Lenox for five summers and it’s the thing in my life I like the best, outside of Mom, Dad and Carly, of course. One thing I like about camp is that it teaches me skills that will help me develop into a grown up. For example, people need to be able to speak up and look out for themselves. This past summer I had stitches in my head from a flag football collision, and several weeks later I felt one of the stitches was becoming uncomfortable. I told my group leader and after a visit to the health cabin it turned out there was an infection. It was very minor, but the point is I had to take care of the situation myself instead of expecting my parents or a teacher to take care of it for me. Another life skill I am learning at camp is the need to be aware of other people. For example, even if you are a slob at home, in the bunk at camp you have to be neat and not let your stuff take over everyone else’s space.
Another special part of camp is the memories each camper creates. I can think of little silly moments like in my first year when my bunkmates and I all bought stuffed animals at the canteen and would then hang out with the animals each night. One kid even got his nickname, Moose, from his choice of animal. Other memories, good and bad, are key moments from big sports games. On the plus side I remember when my team won Twilight League a few years ago. On the downside this past year I was goalie and gave up the winning goal in penalty shots in a big team handball game with most of the camp watching. But learning how to deal with stuff like that is all part of what makes camp what it is. And some memories are special private inside jokes; for example, for anyone here today from bunk 22, all I want to say is “Kim Kardashian.”
What is most special about camp, however, are the deep and lasting relationships you form when you spend seven weeks away together every year in an isolated setting. They say if you have a friend for seven years they are a friend for life. I’m not sure if camp changes that timing at all, but I do know that the relationships you form when away from home for so long become really meaningful. Whether it’s a counselor I keep in touch with during the winter or texting my camp friends late at night to share something, these people mean so much to me. Camp Lenox is definitely one of the most important and best parts of my childhood so far.