Like their parents before them, thousands of U.S. teens head to camp this summer. But for many, this R&R combines relaxation with religion.

Two generations of kids at Jewish summer camp.

Two generations of kids at Jewish summer camp. Joshua Glazer, shown right, and his mother, when she was about the same age. (Photos courtesy of Joshua Glazer)

I am awakened by the blaring guitar riff of Sweet Home Alabama and the loud yell of “Boker Tov, get out of bed!” by my counselors.

I slowly roll out of bed, brush my teeth and throw on a new pair of clothes. I plop myself down on a chair on our bunk’s front porch, or mirpeset. But where is the sound of car horns or jackhammers? Then I remember. I am at camp, surrounded by some of my closest friends, ready for another kayitz in the Berkshires.

This past summer was my last year as a camper at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleepaway camp located in the Berkshires, in the U.S. state of New York. I have felt more connected to Judaism at camp than anywhere else in the States: I pray every morning, celebrate and observe the Sabbath. I eat kosher for all three meals.

Camp is also where I have learned the most about Judaism and being Jewish, more than my Hebrew school ever taught me. It was here where I learned how to wrap the religious garb known as tefillin, to sing most of the prayers and to speak the little Hebrew I know.

My experience of going to camp is not unique. In fact, nearly 175,000 campers and staff attended Jewish day camps and overnight camps in 2022, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Why do so many Jewish families send their children to Jewish summer camps?

From crowded cities to summer camps

In the late 19th century, urbanization due to the Industrial Revolution and a population boom led to crowded city living.

According to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Jewish Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe, drawn by opportunity in the United States, settled in close-quarter tenements. Concerned about their safety from being inside all the time, antisemitism and diseases like polio, many parents sent their sons to the countryside for outdoor activities during the summer and to help assimilate into American culture.

Charities, often with religious ties, created overnight camps for poor urban children to escape challenging city conditions. This included organizations like the Salvation Army and the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA.

Despite not being explicitly Jewish, some early summer camps became a melting pot of Jewish culture and thinking, aided by the predominantly Jewish campers and founders.

More and more middle and upper class Jews began sending their kids to privately-run summer camps, while lower-income families continued to rely on charity-sponsored camps.

Diversity within a religion

Newly-formed Jewish summer camps had distinct values, ideologies and cultures, ranging from Zionism to Yiddish to Socialist; even Reform and Conservative movements began establishing summer camps in the 1940s.

Additionally, each camp flourished in its own Jewish practice: Conservative camps focused on stricter Jewish education and formal prayer, Zionist camps began teaching about the land of Israel and speaking Hebrew, while Reform camps focused on role-playing activities and guitar-led songs. 

Unlike using camp as an escape from city life, church camp stemmed from converting adults to Christianity during the period of western expansion in the United States. This was done through camp meetings and conferences.

According to an article by Nancy Ferguson and Jennifer Burch in Camping Magazine, in these outdoor gatherings people socialized, prayed together and shared stories and meals, while living in tents or covered wagons.

Later, Ferguson and Burch explained, the International Sunday School Association held a summer program in 1914 for younger children, patterned on the adult Bible conferences and meetings that had already succeeded.

The spread of Christian summer camps

As more kids started attending camps in the late 1930s, the Bible conference model was replaced with a more traditional camp model, with campers living in small cabins and added importance placed on group recreation, outdoor living skills, the arts and crafts and small-group Bible study.

Since then, church camps have been flourishing. Data from the American Camp Association indicates that there are nearly 900 camps from the Christian Camps and Conference Association and nearly 500 from the American Camp Association.

Additionally, the first Muslim camp in the United States was established in 1961 by Marghoob and Renae Quraishi. The Muslim Youth Camp of California has now been in operation for over five decades.

As I reflect on my own experience as a camper at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, I can see clearly why camp is so important for kids.

Camp is an escape from day-to-day life. It is a place with no worries or responsibilities. Not only that, but camp is where I created friendships I hope will last my entire life.

Camp also passes from generation to generation, from my mother to me. My mother would tell me stories about when she was a camper, reminiscing about the fun she had and how jealous she is of me being able to experience what she did back then.

Separate generations sharing a similar experience

This past year, I slept in the same bunk my mother did when she was my age, one generation ago. When I came home and told her about all of the memories I made, she laughed and smiled.

She pointed out the subtle differences between our shared experiences: Friday night services were in the stadium court, where we now play basketball, when she was a camper because the amphitheater where it currently takes place wasn’t built yet. She described it as magical. So would I.

Moreover, it was truly my mother who had the greatest influence on my decision to attend Ramah all of those years ago, and, at least in my age group, legacy is a driving factor in the decision to attend camp.

Faith-based religious camps create a community environment. Never before camp was I surrounded by hundreds of Jewish children, taught the prayers, instructed how to put on the religious garments or learned the history of the Jewish people.

The tradition of going to camp has been passed from generation to generation, and I hope the future generations get to enjoy the camp life I experienced.

Three questions to consider:

    1. How did Jewish summer camps get started?
    2. How do Jewish summer camps differ from those run by Christian organizations?
    3. What are the positives and negatives of teens spending summers with only peers of their own faith?
Joshua Glazer

Joshua Glazer is in his second to last year of high school at Avenues: The World School in New York, and studied abroad at School Year Abroad Spain in the fall semester, where he was a News Decoder Student Ambassador.

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CultureSwimming, soccer and…Sabbath services?