How One Jewish Camp Helps

The “mean girls” issue is nothing new to Habonim-Dror, a progressive Labor-Zionist youth movement with seven summer camps across North- America. Modeled after the kibbutz system, Habonim-Dror camps are based on communal values, striving to create environments in which co-operation, social justice and self-fulfillment are more than just catch-phrases. This is not to say that there are no mean girls at machaneh (camp).

“However,” says Mark Epstein, education director at Camp Na’aleh in Shohola, Pennsylvania, “We try not to gender behavior problems. The key issue is having a healthy community, and trying to help individuals to negotiate their place within it, at any age or gender” Aviva Kutnick, Camp Director, adds, “In the outside world one of the only strengths that a girl can exhibit socially is meanness… dominant females get pigeonholed into that role. We try to channel that energy into more appropriate strengths: leading shira (singing) or a sicha (discussion).”

As an entirely youth-run organization, power is shared among peers, with a Mazkirut {camp directorate) under the age of 25. In North-American society, where social activities are usually restricted to same-age groups, it can be a very positive experience for young people to spend extended amounts of time with older role models. Madrikhim are more than counselors; the word in Hebrew comes from the root derekh, or road. Madrikhim are there to guide the ^campers, not just through daily activities, but through social problems and adolescent confusion. “Gender equality has always been part of the movement’s ideology,” says Danya Shapiro of Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Michigan. “Almost all of the machanot have “Take Back the Night,” or a “Gender Night,” as well as Chug Nashim, a women’s issues interest group. Seeing my madrikhot (female counselors) be positive leaders, and also having them be my personal friends, had a profound effect on me.”

“The media really encourages catty competition among girls,” says Shoshi Goldfus, a madrikha of 5 years at Camp Galil in Buck’s County, PA. “At Machaneh we have no TV, no internet, much less influence from a consumerist society telling girls to judge themselves and others based on what they own. Of course, they still have teen magazines, but we try to look at that as an opportunity for education. Madrikhim will often read those magazines with their kids and try to talk to them about what kinds of images are being absorbed. Creating that kind of social awareness helps girls to be less competitive.”

If we fear that girls are using their power in negative ways, perhaps we should stop regarding this as a social ill and begin looking at it as a symptom of a larger problem—a culture where all children, female and male, suffer from the patriarchal ethos of competition. Is summer camp a “solution” to the “mean girls” phenomenon? No. But providing an environment where girls can engage in that dialogue, rather than simply be the subject of it, is a great place to start.