A Feminist Camp Counselor Unpacks Her Baggage
The summer after my sophomore year at Barnard, I had just begun to crack open this thing called gender, hearing and welcoming the exciting voices that are part of the canon of a women’s college curriculum . I learned a new language, that of Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, Judith Butler and Alice Walker, and became more fluent with every class discussion, every conversation with friends over potluck dinners of quinoa, Brussels sprouts bathed in balsamic vinegar, and vegan desserts. The glossy Barnard brochures had assured me that I would become the women I saw in the pictures: confident, well-read, transformed. Finally, after two years, it was beginning to happen.
Then, suddenly: Summer! In the middle of my college career, already feeling like a changed person, I was returning to a place that seldom changes, a place that I loved deeply—my Jewish summer camp. I’d gone to camp nearly every other summer of my life, so I knew the feeling of returning to a powerfully familiar location as someone new. With colorful braces when I was 10, finally without braces at 15, and with a different haircut when at long last my curls developed. Camp could always embrace superficial changes like these. As campers, we relish that moment when we step off the bus bearing these new parts of ourselves, knowing that friends will embrace us warmly whether our acne has cleared up or not. And counselors are taught to create a space where a camper can return year after year and be his or her truest self. But deep internal change is harder to accommodate in a space that must remain the familiar and idyllic home for the hundreds of campers who return every summer.
That summer after my sophomore year, my third on staff, I arrived with more than just a new hairdo and an updated wardrobe. This time I came with new ideas as well, and I found it far more difficult to ease comfortably back into a world where girls spent hours in front of a mirror primping for Shabbat, where boys shout “Go clean your kitchen” jokes at the girls across the dining hall, and where the sexual histories of campers past and present were documented on cabin walls in pink nail polish and Sharpie ink.
I had been transplanted from my haven at Barnard, where every class took an intersectional approach to history, sociology, and literature, where professors invited students to discuss everything from politics to prostitution, where my friends and I stayed up late talking about gender and Judaism until we realized our papers on the same subjects were due the next morning and hadn’t been written yet. In Women in Israel, we discussed the complications of women in the public spaces of a religious democracy. In American Women of the 20th Century, I uncovered the U.S. history that I’d never found in my high school textbooks, their pages shining with the feats of our country’s founding straight white men. In Sociology of Gender, I learned that gender is performative, something that is built in the social interactions of our everyday life. Through it all, I simultaneously learned how to recognize the ways I had been held back by my various identities, how to reflect critically on life experiences and interactions with peers, friends, and superiors, and—yes—how to check my privilege.
At camp I quickly became the token feminist on my staff, struggling to reconcile all that I had learned at college with certain stark realities of camp life: Living spaces were designed and assigned in accordance with the gender binary. All boys at our Conservative camp were required to pray in tallit and tefillin, while girls were given a half-hearted, non-obligatory opportunity to do so. The rampant heteronormative hookup culture fueled peer pressure, caused campers who had no interest in participating to feel isolated, and threatened the idea that camp is a safe space to try new experiences.
How could I be my truest self in a place that no longer seemed to embrace all that I believed in?
Now it’s two years later, and on the cusp of my graduation from Barnard I packed up once again for summer at camp, this time as a division head. My love for camp has clearly endured, but I haven’t stopped thinking about that challenging summer after my sophomore year. So this spring, in anticipation of the summer to come, I decided to better prepare myself for the transition into that world. On a sunny Shabbat afternoon, a few weeks before the end of my last semester, I invited friends and peers — a diverse group of campniks who spanned the Jewish and gender spectrums,–to reveal their own concerns and experiences similar. Sitting in a campfire-style circle on the main lawn of Barnard’s campus, surrounded by academic conversations and urban traffic, the feel of the grass beneath our toes seemed to bring us back to our respective camps, allowing us to relive similar frustrations, but also the pleasures and transformative power of camp. We started with a simple question: What is the one space in your camp where you have always been most aware of gender dynamics? In classic camp fashion, we went around the circle. One young man who had spent many summers at a Reform movement camp discussed the implications of showering with friends, recognizing now what he hadn’t as a boy: that this was an environment unwelcoming to potentially queer cabin mates. Another man chimed in that communal showering at his Conservative camp always seemed to him to be a “mark of true manhood,” a bonding activity, and he now regrets shunning friends who’d seemed uncomfortable with the ritual.
Ritual was a word that came up often, whether to describe moments of single-gender bonding – like “army night” for men and “spa day” for girls – or to discuss the gendered nature of specific Jewish activities and practices. A woman who’d attended Orthodox camp every summer interpreted the gendered clothing restrictions for children of all ages as body-policing, at times even slut-shaming. Several women expressed their frustrations at being one of just a few females at their camps to wear tallit and tefillin every morning. I was one of these women at my own camp, which espouses egalitarian principles, and I still struggle with the idea of ritual obligation, and with the fact that girls who take on the mitzvah report feeling immediately othered, and a little alienated from their peers, starting that very first morning when they show up to services ready to wrap themselves in prayer along with the guys. That afternoon on the college lawn, in a space we’d created for ourselves that never seemed to exist at camp, we hashed it all out. No one was the token anything.
Through all these topics, we kept coming back to role modeling. How do we extract from camp these damaging social structures without destroying the sacred, necessary realities of tradition and familiarity? How can we bring all that we know into our jobs as role models in this specific context, in a place with certain established values, religious and otherwise?
Here is the paradox: While camp is theoretically a place where children are free to explore all aspects of their identity, and where every child’s unique personality is meant to be celebrated, it is also a place that strives for sameness: in Jewish ritual and values, in behavior, in a shared agreement to live life in a certain way for eight weeks of the year, with the hope that campers will bring those values home with them come August.
One woman joining us on the grass that day spoke about being aware of a clear divide among her campers. There were those girls who seemed made for camp: they presented as straight, they enjoyed the daily activities of camp, they were outgoing and funny, they participated in the prevalent hookup culture, and all the while benefited—albeit passively—from the intense and totally immersive Jewish environment. And then there were the other girls: shy, quiet, girls who preferred reading on their bunk beds to gossiping over manicures, girls who slept through the night instead of sneaking out to the boys’ side of camp, girls for whom counselors had to work hard to insure their summers were fun, fulfilling, and safe. “Who am I a counselor for?” this staff member asked. “Am I a counselor for the kids who live and breath camp, who are maybe the camp ideal? Or for the kids who don’t easily conform to the sameness camp tries, in some ways, to achieve?“
I’m taking her questions along with me on my way up to camp this year. Given camp’s unique power to take children out of their habitual environments for two months out of the year, to give them the space to grow in a place free of parents, school pressures, and limitations on living engaged Jewish lives, these questions are especially important..
In this liminal space, we focus heavily on giving children a taste of ideal Jewish living: we discuss the weekly Torah portion in circles similar to the one my friends and I created just weeks ago, we pray in beautiful natural environments, we sprinkle Hebrew into every conversation, and we strive to create a kehila, a community of meaningful relationships.
Just as we strive to open up our youngsters to new modes of Jewish practice, we also have the opportunity to use the transcendent space of camp to challenge other limitations the modern world places on us, not only as Jews but also as gendered beings in a binaried culture. At camp this summer, and every summer, I want us to gather in circles to ask the questions that matter. Let us diversify our notions of gendered ideals within Jewish tradition. Let us think critically about the messages conveyed by dress codes, obligation, and same-sex bonding activities. Let us create positive changes instead of the tired sexism so common among camp experiences.
This summer, I’m adding these ideas to my packing list, along with a well-worn Barnard sweatshirt: Be the counselor who does not assume heterosexuality of your campers or their parents. Be the counselor who pushes for more meaningful gender-based activities.. Be the counselor who welcomes open conversations about Jewish practice, who is honest about your personal journey with ritual. Be the counselor who can mediate sensitively those situations that unintentionally shut out some campers. Be a leader.