Fresh Air, Healthy Food and an Escape from the City: The Story of Jewish-American Summer Camps

Andre Schoolman
May 10, 2014

I go to a Jewish summer camp, and the day consists of wake up, breakfast, service on Fridays and Saturdays, sports such as basketball, running and the Israeli game of gaga, lunch, pool, and afternoon classes such as rocketry and ceramics. Showers, of course, then dinner and an after dinner program that more often than not has something to do with being a Jew. According to talks with family and friends, camp for me is very similar to what they experienced 40 or more years ago. But summer camps for Jewish kids didn’t always look this way. In fact, the typically healthy kids that I hang out with at camp, weren’t the typical kids when Jewish summer camps came into being.

For my Bar Mitzvah project, I have decided to take a look at the history of Jewish summer camps. As I did my research, it became clear that the founding of the camps fulfilled the Jewish mitzvot of tikun olam, making the world a better place, along with tzedakah, charity.

Jewish summer camps are an American invention. Taking the idea of camping from the Boy Scouts, which started outdoor sleep away experiences in the late 1800s, Jewish social leaders saw the “country” as a place for needy city children to get away from the heat of the summer and illnesses such as polio and tuberculosis.

Possibly the first Jewish outdoor camp was Camp Lehman, founded in 1893 by the Working Girls’ Vacation Society of New York. Around this time, Jewish social service agencies wanted to help the hundreds of thousands of poor Jewish immigrants who were flooding into the slums of the Lower East Side. Groups such as the Henry Street Settlement and the Educational Alliance started sending children away for two weeks to camps upstate. The Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City, for example, bought a small abandoned bungalow colony near Bear Mountain and sent 16 anemic boys and girls there for two weeks of fresh air, healthy food and mild exercise. The experiment was so successful that by the 1920s the Asylum sent every child in its care to the camp for two weeks in the summer. Boys went to Camp Wakitan and girls went to Camp Wehaha. The names reflect the trend of naming camps to sound Native American.

I’ll be talking about the camps that were in existence from the early 1900s until the 1950s, when the “modern age” of camping came into being – the kind of camps that my friends and I attend.

In the 1900’s, parents wanted to send their kids out of the city. Remember, there was no air conditioning, parents often worked six days a week and there was nothing for kids to do but play in the street. Even with the new subway system, the Rockaways or Brooklyn seashore were hours away. Some parents who had some money sent their kids to live upstate with another family. But the vast majority of poor Jews depended on the social service agencies and sent their kids to affiliated summer camps.

The campers were not only getting a few weeks of fresh air, they were also having an opportunity to enrich their knowledge of being Jewish and enhance their Jewish identity. According to author Jenna Weissman Joselit, “Jewish camps were suffused with a mystical, almost religious, view of nature. Hailing the outdoors as ‘God’s own temple,’ where the air itself was nothing less than ‘God’s own tonic,’ ” camp founders believed that nature could cure anything.

Unlike the air conditioned Academy bus with TVs and a bathroom that I take to my camp in the Poconos, kids in the early 1900s took a train, a ferry across the Hudson River, another train, then a horse and wagon to get to camp near Bear Mountain. The trip took eight hours, at least. It’s a one-hour drive today. Other kids took the train out of Grand Central Station up the Hudson River to Cold Spring, where one of the oldest Jewish summer camps in the Northeast, Surprise Lake Camp, is located.

Let’s take a look at the earliest Jewish summer camps. The camps were a series of simple wooden buildings or tents, with a common dining hall. There was a lake, with boys’ bunks on one side and girls on the other. One photo I have of my grandfather Joe shows him as a camp counselor, walking with kids past tents at the Irene Kaufmann camp outside Pittsburgh.

Activities at camps, as I said before, centered on the outdoors. The author Chaim Potok wrote that in his youth, the 1920s and 1930s, the fear of polio was so great that “people sent their children away to escape this plague.”

He wrote in a book that accompanied an exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, that on visiting day families were not allowed to get too near their children. Often they had to stand in a roped off area, so the healthy children at camp wouldn’t be infected by their families.

He wrote, “…and so, as I grew up, chief among the uses of summer camp was the saving of Jewish lives.”

One of the first Jewish summer camps was Surprise Lake Camp, founded in 1902 by the Educational Alliance. The goal was to take kids out of the dirty infected slum of the Lower East Side as well as give them a religious experience. The cost was $2 for two weeks, including transportation. In 1911, the 92nd Street Y became partial owner of the camp and the camp office was located in the Y for many years.

Because Surprise Lake was one of the few, perhaps only, Jewish summer camps for poor and working class kids, many of its campers and counselors are very famous. Eddie Cantor, the singer and silent movie star, was one of the first campers. Other famous campers include singer Neil Diamond, talk show host Larry King, actor Jerry Stiller and former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams.

Of course, getting healthy at camp was very important. But maybe more important to Jewish camps of the 1900s was the goal of making the kids feel more Jewish. In The Jewish Way of Play, author Jenna Weissman Joselit wrote that many camps tried to recreate the sheltered life of the shtetl – the Jewish small town. She wrote that in these camps, unlike the outside world, “Jews and Jewish culture predominated.” Campers learned Hebrew and Yiddish songs and ate kosher food.

In the 1900s to the 1950s, hundreds of Jewish camps were established across the US. And, since there isn’t only one type of Jew, there wasn’t only one type of camp.

Some camps only spoke Yiddish, like Camp Boiberik. Some spoke only Hebrew, like Camp Massad, which had a strong Zionist stand. Habonim, which was a Labor Zionist camp, wanted to train young people to be pioneers (halutzim) in Israel.

One of the largest Jewish camps was Cejwin, founded by A.P. Schoolman, no relation, in 1948. It closed in 1992. At Cejwin, campers learned about Reconstructionist Judaism and the importance of a Jewish homeland.

For some Jewish camps in the early years, it was very important to have “the right kind of campers,” according to the book The Jewish Way of Play.

While the earliest camps helped the Jewish poor, some new camps wanted to appeal to the Jewish middle class. “ ’We had kids from all the matzos,” said Bea Young, founder of Maple Lakes, referring to the children of the leading matzo manufacturing families.” (The Jewish Way of Play).

In a 1930 Camp Issue of The American Hebrew newspaper, (courtesy of Rabbi Peter’s collection), The Jayson Camps in Massachusetts said they were looking for “boys and girls from the finest Jewish families.” Camp Jo-Lee in Maine was “endorsed by most prominent leaders of American Jewry.”

Some camps were very political and being Jewish was second to politics. The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, a left wing Jewish group, founded Kinderland in 1923. But in 1927, Kinderland was taken over by the Communist-affiliated International Workers’ Order. Kinder Ring, which split off, was more Socialist.

Representatives of Jewish community centers in New York City and Westchester County founded Camp Wel-Met, in 1935, where my mother, uncle Mike, and mentor Marty went in the 1950s and 60s. Its real name was the Metropolitan Jewish Centers Camp Association. The purpose of the camp was to “encourage and provide for children and young people, recreational, health and character building opportunities through the establishment and maintenance of a summer camp for children.” (Camp history on web site). In the summer of 1935, 75 boys went to the first Wel-Met camp location on rented land at Lake Tiorati in Bear Mountain State Park. It cost $12 a week.

Today Jewish summer camps range from Orthodox to Reform, like my camp, Cedar Lake. An Orthodox camp like Camp Nesher for boys “combines an enriched Torah atmosphere with the best recreational programs,” according to its web site. For Orthodox girls, at Camp Shoshonim, girls wear mostly skirts and dresses while doing sports along with chesed (acts of kindness) and chinuch (education). Among the best known today is Camp Ramah, run by the Conservative Movement, which is co-ed and has sports as well as religious services. Ramah sets aside several hours a day for intensive Jewish study.

At Cedar Lake, which is Reform, there was a special Bar or Bat Mitzvah tutor available for campers who wanted to work over the summer. There were services Friday nights and Saturday mornings for about two hours and you had to wear white. Of course, there was kosher food, so no bacon or milk with meat. It wasn’t hard eating kosher food because there were still great meals like hot dogs and grilled cheese, but not at the same time of course.

The height of Jewish camp popularity was in the 1950s, but soon camps started to close because kids wanted to do other things in the summer.

Today, instead of going to Jewish summer camps, kids often go to secular camps, or subject related camps such as basketball camp, or math camp. But nonetheless, kids do go to summer camps during the summer to get out of the hot city, just as they used to back in the 1900’s when summer camps weren’t even very popular.

I have gone to Jewish sleep-away camp every year not because I am forced to, but because I want to enjoy my few months of no school, and nice, hot weather outside of the city. I have gone to this camp because I see something that I don’t see anywhere in the hot, do-nothing city. I see COMMUNITY, getting together, playing with friends my age, and having a good time. That’s why I have gone to camp.

My mom said her years at a Jewish camp were outstanding. She wanted me to have the same opportunity. My mom chose a Jewish camp because it was culturally familiar to her. She had sent me to the 92nd Street Y camps, again because of her comfort with the Jewish camp experience. While my mom is, obviously, a Humanistic Jew, she said exposing me to other forms of Judaism would be “good for me.” I’ve learned a lot about being a Jew at camp.

But, it is time for me to move on from summer camp. Now that I am almost 14 I have decided to do other things in the summer – a backpacking and kayaking trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club and computer class at Columbia. Camp has been a great growing experience for me, but it’s time to move on. Like it has been for kids for the past 100 years, Jewish camp has been an outstanding experience for which I am very thankful.