On summer mornings, Maria Samiljan walks out of the JCC and sees her favorite summer sight. “I’m usually at the J from quarter of eight to 9:15, and it’s during camp drop-off, and the hill is packed, it’s bustling, and there’s so much great energy,” she said. “It’s my favorite part of summer, seeing that camp alive and well.”
That joyous, expectant, electric energy has been playing out all over the Northeast in recent weeks as thousands of children return to Jewish summer camps, something many North Shore alumni call one of the most positive experiences in their lives.
“It was the best thing my parents ever did for me,” said Evan Madoff of Marblehead, the owner of Evan’s Deli in Marblehead, who attended the JCC’s Camp Simchah and the West End House Camp in Maine in the 1970s. “I always said if I didn’t have to worry about making a living, I’d be there for the rest of my life teaching people to swim and sail and waterski.”
“It was the greatest experience of my life,” said Ken Sorkin of Marblehead, who attended Camp Simchah, and eventually became its executive director from 1971 to 1979. “If it wasn’t for that JCC in Lynn, I don’t know where I’d be. I made all my friends there.”
Camp friends, and the memories they provide, are one of the principal reasons why generations of Jews wax poetic about camp. “I made friends in my bunk, and my camp, and they’re still my friends today – they were in my wedding, you name it. Those are my best friends,” said Barnet Cohen, who grew up in Peabody and who attended Camp Tevya from 1981 to 1988. “Walking down from the boys’ area to the dining hall, you could see upwards of 75 people you knew, and it’s such a different atmosphere than elementary school or high school, where you’re much more reserved, and you’re focused on your studies. At camp, you’re focused on your friends.”
A seemingly limitless supply of friends leads to a seemingly limitless supply of memories shared with them. Sorkin remembers being called “El Sorko” when he dressed up as Zorro, and sleeping in a station wagon with a friend as a counselor during a Simchah overnight. Samiljan, who also attended Simchah as a young child, remembers feeling cozy while she played with friends inside the Camp Simchah lodge during rainy days. Madoff remembers jumping off the roof of the infirmary during color war as the entire camp howled with excitement. Reed Brockman, who lives in Marblehead and attended Bauercrest from 1974 to 1986, remembers writing plays and then performing them around a campfire. Carrie Berger, who grew up in Peabody, attended Simchah and Tevya, and was the executive director of Simchah from 2001 to 2009, she remembers the entire camp joyfully celebrating Havdalah each Saturday night as the sun set.
From Havdalah campfires to Hatikvah singalongs each morning, alumni say that camp helped instill in them a strong and proud Jewish identity. Data has shown that Jewish camps are a particularly effective way of ensuring a Jewish future. A 2011 study from the Foundation for Jewish Camp reported that adults who attended Jewish camp were 37 percent more likely to celebrate Shabbat, 45 percent more likely to attend a synagogue, and 55 percent more likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel.
“Whether it’s day camp or overnight camp, I think it’s because it’s a Jewish community, and you’re part of it all day, every day,” said Samiljan. “Jewish community is the identity of the camp, and you do things like Shabbat that stay with you, because it’s your fondest memories.”
Jewish camps infuse Jewish culture into the day in different ways. Camp Menorah, a recently-closed day camp in Essex, began each morning by singing Hatikvah, brought in Israeli counselors to teach Israeli culture and dancing, and hosted a “Purim in July” celebration. Camps like Bauercrest, Tevya, and Simchah hosted Shabbat services each week, and have campers recite Jewish prayers before each meal. Sorkin recalled naming Simchah bunks after biblical tribes. Notably, the Eli and Bessie Cohen Camps, a Wellesley-based organization that oversees Tevya, Camp Tel Noar, and Camp Pembroke, takes their oldest campers on the four-week Dor L’Dor trip to Israel.
Yet despite these benefits, Jewish summer camp attendance has waxed and waned over the years. In recent decades, some worried that the traditional Jewish summer camp was becoming obsolete as increasingly secular parents sought out more specialized camps, and college students applied for internships instead of becoming counselors. “In recent years, in addition to a lot of educational camping, you see a lot of specialty camping, so if I’m worried my little genius won’t get into college, I send them to a sports camp, or a music camp, or a computer camp,” said Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University professor of American Jewish History.
Yet data shows that Jewish summer camp attendance remains strong, and is even growing. According to a study by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, enrollment in nonprofit Jewish day and overnight camps has increased by 20 percent over the past decade. Last summer, 300 Jewish camps across North America hosted 180,000 Jewish youth. “Last year my daughter’s bunk was packed – there were bunkbeds in every slot, and there used to be singles,” said Michael Rosen, a Marblehead-based Tevya alumnus who now sends his daughters there.
But camps are still adapting to the current market in different ways. Berger reports that camps now offer more flexible time commitments, and many campers are staying for shorter amounts of time than they used to in order to attend different types of camps. Several camp alumni report that their children (many of whom attend the same camp they once did) now enjoy many more creative and varied activities, among them rocketry, robotics, and improv comedy. Judi Simmons, who was the executive director of Camp Menorah, said that to stand out in a crowded market, Menorah promoted its lake, and became “not an arts camp, not a sports camp, but really a water camp, with a Jewish focus” and was one of the only Jewish day camps able to offer activities like kayaking, canoeing, paddle-boarding, and tubing because of its location on the shores of Chebacco Lake.
“There’s still a lot of campers staying full summer and not going to the specialty camps or one week camps,” said Berger. “I think that’s because overnight camp is a place where campers can be themselves, they can be comfortable in who they are, they can participate in a variety of activities in a safe environment with great counselors and awesome friends. There’s a saying now: living ten [months] for two [months.]”