A 1949 advertisement for a JCC summer camp
A 1949 advertisement for a JCC summer camp

A century ago, Jewish summer camps promised ‘mental and moral strength’

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In 1919, a group of young Jewish men from San Francisco came back from the wilds of Ben Lomond, near Santa Cruz. They’d been at a summer camp, then a novel idea for the Jewish youth of the city. But it had been a great success.

“Athletics were indulged in and Nature-study formed an important part of the camp activities,” the Emanu-El (our original name) reported. “Fourteen of the boys learned how to swim and there was not a single case of illness during the encampment.”

So successful was the experiment, which was held under the auspices of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, that it was decided to do it again — the following year and every year. It was the beginning of Jewish summer camp in Northern California.

Jewish sleepaway camp, now held to be one of the staunchest pillars of Jewish identity in America, was part of the broader summer camp movement in the U.S.

A 1928 article in this paper situated Jewish camp firmly within the American camp movement and its physical and moral properties: “[I]t is universally known not to be a mere fad or desire for enjoyment, but a recreation and disciplining for the young boys and girls … Not only does the camp build physically, it acts as a great teacher to the mind and seldom fails to enlarge the spiritual life of the camper.”

And yet Jewish camp wasn’t just American camp, but rather went a step further as “an environment that combines a true Jewish atmosphere with a wholesome camp life that is dear to the heart of every American boy,” as we wrote in 1925.

Jewish camps started on the East Coast, and in 1905 we carried a note about 375 young men who enjoyed camp in Long Island. But it wasn’t until the second decade of the 1900s that the first camps in Northern California were held.

In 1925, there was a triumphant headline: “Jewish Boys’ Summer Camp of ‘Y’ and B’nai B’rith is Big Success: Reports Received Here Indicate that Experiment is to be the Beginning of a New Movement for the Jewish Youth of San Francisco.”

From a May 1977 notice in this paper about registration for Camp Ramah in Ojai.
From a May 1977 notice in this paper about registration for Camp Ramah in Ojai.

The camp referred to in the headline was Camp Tawonga, which grew out of that first YMHA camp — and Camp Tawonga is still a stalwart member of the camp scene. In 1925, the program combined “athletics, study of Jewish history, development of physical, mental and moral strength in the boy, and the inculcating of high principles of manhood and citizenship.” Girls were soon to be included in the Tawonga story, starting in 1926.

In 1930 Tawonga moved to the Lake Tahoe region: “Camp Tawonga, under the joint auspices of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew’ Association and the B’nai B’rith, has had a phenomenal growth in the past six years since its establishment and this new and picturesque site has been secured to furnish facilities for a much enlarged camp.”

But although Tawonga (which moved to its current Tuolumne River location near Yosemite in 1964) was the first local camp, it wasn’t the only one.

In 1952 we reported that “an ambitious project, contemplating creation of an out-of-town camp to afford religious and education activities to children of Northern California Reform congregations and like advantages to adults, now is in process of consummation.”

This would be Camp Saratoga, also known as the Camp for Living Judaism, later Camp Swig and now URJ Camp Newman (in 1997, Camp Swig moved much of its operation to the Santa Rosa area, and in 1998, the Saratoga property was sold).

The 1952 article noted that developer and philanthropist Benjamin Swig had bought 203 acres outside Saratoga, specifically intended as a camp for the Reform movement that “provides your children with the opportunity to rediscover the excitement of the eternal truths of Judaism.” (And they could hike.)

Then in 1955, the “Junior Bulletin” section of this paper ran an announcement. A new camp for Conservative families was opening in Ojai, emphasizing Hebrew (tuition was $200). This was Camp Ramah, which is also still hosting generations of happy kids in the mountains north of Los Angeles.

As the  popularity of Jewish camps grew, they began to specialize even more, with camps (or subset weeks of camp) developed over the years for Russian emigre children, Jewish kids of color, LGBTQ Jewish kids and others. (Jewish day camps sprang up as well, often under the auspices of the JCC movement, including Tiyatah, which wasnopened during World War II when Tawonga was closed.)

But even as the sleepaway camp experience became tailored to the issues of the day, some commonalities remained. They included a desire to sustain, or even create, an American Jewishness that would persist in children past their camp years. It was camp for life, in a way. And as parents and educators hoped, camp experiences stick.

URJ Camp Newman staff dance together on Shabbat before the return of campers, June 2021.
URJ Camp Newman staff dance together on Shabbat before the return of campers, June 2021.

Perhaps that was because Jewish sleepaway camp was never solely about having a fun summer vacation. It was about living Jewishly, with other Jews. At the same time it was creating its own kind of wholesome American Judaism, one adapted to life in the new country.

“If Judaism is merely academic, then it is not a way of life,” Saratoga camp director Samuel Kaminker told our paper in an article headlined “Camp Saratoga Teaches Religion as Every-Day Way of Life” in 1958. “And until it becomes a way of life then Jews can’t make their contribution to the American civilization or to Judaism.”

Or, as a freelance journalist — and camp parent — wrote in an opinion piece we printed in 1998, “Jewish summer camp signifies nothing less than the survival of American Jewry.”

“Jewish children need more than traditional Hebrew schools to maintain their affinity for Judaism; they need exhilarating, experiential Jewish activities,” she wrote. “And that’s exactly what Jewish overnight camp provides: a joyous, invigorating and uplifting few weeks of total immersion in Judaism, with memories powerful enough to last the entire year.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.