The end of the school year is upon us, and across the country, many parents are packing their children’s trunks for summer camp. The world of Jewish camping began as a reaction to urbanization. Those interested in “social welfare” and the health of the children, promoted summer getaways so children could experience nature and fresh air. Such was the goal when, in 1893, the Jewish Working Girls Society of New York opened Camp Lehman (later called Camp Isabella Friedman).
Originally, Jewish camps were only for Jews simply because society at that time was more culturally segregated. However, the positive potential of these all-Jewish environments was soon recognized. For instance, in 1927, Camp Achvah opened as the first Hebrew-speaking camp. Other camps, such as Camp Cejwin, surrounded children with the Jewish culture that was being lost in the American “melting pot.” One of the most famous of these Jewish cultural camps was Camp Massad in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
In the middle of the 20th century, the trend in Jewish summer camps began to separate along denominational lines. The first Camp Ramah, the camp of the Conservative movement, opened in Wisconsin (near Chicago) in 1947. The first official camp of the Reform movement, UAHC Camp-Institute opened in 1950, also in Wisconsin. Both of these camp movements continued to grow. There are currently 8 Ramah camps in North America and 13 URJ Camp-Institutes. In the late 1950s, Chabad joined the camping world when it opened Camp Gan Israel, which has grown into the largest chain of Jewish camps in the world. Summer camps are also very popular among the Orthodox, but as there is no umbrella organization within Orthodoxy, they remain mostly independent institutions.
In addition to the overnight camps, the Jewish camping world includes many independent Jewish summer camps, as well as hundreds of day camps (often affiliated with Federation-JCCs). Jewish camping has proven so powerful a tool in giving children positive Jewish identities that the Foundation for Jewish Camp was created in 1998.
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