Identity Politics at Summer Camp

“Here's where I learned to be a Jew and a woman”

“At camp I learned not only Israeli folk dances and how to sing Birkat Hamazon [grace after meals], but also how to share clothes, shave my legs, and ask a boy to dance/’ Recently, Jewish camps have gained attention in the ‘Jewish continuity” debates, as a framework which gives youth a strong sense of Jewish identity. Just as Jewish overnight camps recognize and capitalize on their role in fostering Jewish identity, so too can they recognize their influence in the formation of gender identity.

Whether the ideological platform is secular, Conservative, Jewish arts-and-culture- oriented. Federation-sponsored, Reform, Socialist Zionist, Orthodox, Yiddishist or Labor Zionist, Jewish coed overnight camps provide a unique opportunity for Jewish youth to experience living in a completely Jewish environment. Jewish camps not only give kids a chance to have fun, learn new skills, and be away from home, but also to make deep connections and build friendships with other young Jews.

Like the army or kindergarten, camp is a unifying and socializing force, bringing together youngsters from different backgrounds to learn common values, customs, and social norms. “At school, I was one of ten Jews in a class of five hundred, so being at camp was wonderful. I finally felt I was part of a whole instead of an oddity,” says a female camper from the Reform Movement’s Joseph and Betty Harlam Camp in Pennsylvania.

But Jewish camps teach not only Jewish identity but also gender identity. Jewish girls at camp learn not only what it is to be Jewish but also what it is to be female. The question is: do camps cam/ on and reinforce familiar stereotypes, or do they consciously work to change traditional gender roles?

Jewish overnight camps are summer homes to teenage campers and counselors who are beginning to explore their sexuality. What kind of messages are Jewish camps sending about dating and relationships? When situations of possible harassment arise are they covered up? Treated with sensitivity? Used as educational opportunities? At camp, kids ore all over each other, sharing bunks and bathrooms. What is being taught about respecting each other’s boundaries and personal space? About respecting difference and diversity in the midst of community? Do camps e real issues and dilemmas which face teens today: AIDS and AIDS prevention, date rape and sexual assault, sexuality, sexual pressure and sexual preferences, body image and eating disorders, gender roles and stereotypes? Are camps teaching boys and girls both survival skills and menschlichkeit?

The best Jewish camps, successful in creating a close-knit community, are the ideal environments for confronting these sensitive issues, How so? First, there is continuity. At many camps the counselors were once campers, and the same campers have been attending for years, fostering viewing each other as individuals rather than as stereotypes. “From age six until eighteen, camp was the center of my life. Even my school year was scheduled around camp, planning for the next summer or how we could all see each other during winter or spring breaks,” says Tammi Indianer, who went to Camp Blue Star, a privately owned Jewish camp in North Carolina.

Second, because camp is an intense experience-with participants spending twenty-four hours a day together, for weeks or months-trust, respect and cooperation are highly valued. Camps are, in fact, one of the few places left in modern life where people function as a tribal society; a variety of people live and work together, focusing on the good of the community instead of on individuals or dyads. At camp, individuals are accountable for their own behavior and also responsible to the group.

Third: camp counselors are in an excellent position to educate younger Jews informally. Madrichim [counselors] often sleep in the same bunk or tent with campers, in addition to their daytime contact. And in those informal moments, over breakfast, on a hike, waiting for a shower, counselors have tremendous influence. Because of the safe intimacy a good Jewish camp environment fosters, campers often look to their counselors for guidance and support in ways that they don’t turn to their parents and teachers.

Lastly, Jewish camps provide an opportunity to address issues of sexuality and sex roles, respect and equality, within a context of Jewish values. If the counselors and campers are Orthodox or religiously observant, the halakhic view of sexual conduct can be taught and reinforced. For example, at Camp Ramah in the Poconos there is an educational unit entitled “B’zelem Elohim,” [In the Image of God], which focuses on how we should treat our bodies and each other, tying in sex, drug use and body image. Here’s what camps teach about:


Perhaps Judaism itself is the area where the greatest steps have been taken towards gender equality. Most camps, either by their denominational affiliation or in their literature, make it clear whether and how often they have religious services and whether they are egalitarian— that is, include girls as full and equal participants. Most religious services in non- Orthodox camps (this article is based on information gathered from a variety of non-Orthodox camps) are egalitarian. Camp services con be more progressive and experimental than home congregations. For example, at Camp Ramah in California, girls ore encouraged “to try roles and actions they wouldn’t normally do, like wearing tallitot and t’fillin,” says Melanie Berman, Programming Director.

Some camps consciously incorporate the experiences of women and girls into their Jewish curriculum. At Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire, sponsored by Hebrew College of Brookline, Massachusetts, morning classes have focused on the Book of Ruth and other women in the Bible, and at Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, affiliated with the Reform movement, a group of girls, led by a feminist counselor, created their own Rosh Hodesh [new moon] rituals.


The steps which a camp takes towards education about gender stereotypes and sexual equality depends on the awareness, ideology and commitment of the administration and counselors, and may vary from summer to summer, bunk to bunk. Says one counselor: “One year we happened to hire a woman sports specialist instead of a man, and it changed the girls’ entire outlook on sports. Then they really wanted to play basketball and not just sit in on the sidelines.”

Camps, because they are separate from the outer world, can create a totally new environment, one where girls and boys can be relieved from some of the gender roles they face in their usual lives. “Camp was different than P.E. classes where boys had to run more than girls or do more chin-ups. At camp I was encouraged to play soccer with the guys,” says Indianer. At some camps, the kids live in tents, with less access to electricity and mirrors, and less pressure for girls to spend time on their appearance. “The counselors got together and decided that there would be no make-up and no mirrors allowed on the three-day canoe trip,” says Riqi Kosovske, a former madricha at Olin- Sang Ruby Union Institute. The safety created by camp con free girls from concerns and fear they face in the outer world. “In Boulder I could never walk outside alone at night, but at camp I could,” says Amy.

Boys at camp, too, have the chance to fake risks and break out of sex-role constraints. Danny Shapiro, who was a counselor at Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute says of his campers, “Boys who would never hug a guy at home or display verbal affection let their guard down at camp and felt comfortable showing that affection.”

However, camp programs and curricula can—sadly—reflect antiquated sexist attitudes found in the world at large. “One evening program was a ‘Bottle of the Sexes.’ The boys had to wear blue and the girls had to wear pink,” says a female counselor from Camp Young Judea in New Hampshire. “I told my campers to wear purple in protest.”

Some camps hove a long tradition of commitment to gender equality and building women leaders. “I attended camp from age six through my college years, 1930-1945” says Selma Berrol. “Surprisingly, in view of the times, they discouraged us from primping and flirting, stressing the development of our skills and independence instead.” Other camps have changed over time. “When I was a camper in the 1980’s we had programs like beauty contests and Mr. and Miss Israel. We didn’t used to think about it,” a counselor from a Jewish camp in Pennsylvania recalls. “Now we don’t do programs like that because counselors are becoming more politically aware.”

More and more, camps ore developing programs specifically focusing on gender issues and stereotypes. At Camp Kutz, the Reform Movement’s national teen leadership camp, in Warwick, New York, teenagers were separated by sex into small groups to meet regularly and discuss a range of topics including peer relations, familial conflict and body image. In one session they were given the words “Jewish man” and “Jewish woman” and discussed their own stereotypes and images. Another camp has planned an evening program for senior campers to analyze the damaging anti-Semitism and misogyny behind the “JAP” stereotype.

Habonim Dror Camp Galil, in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, had on elective group called chug nashim [women’s group]. Open to female campers age 13-16, this chug discussed feminist texts, visited a local Planned Parenthood, and organized a “Take Back the Night” evening activity for the entire camp. “Take Bock the Night” began with a march around the camp with signs saying “End Violence Against Women and children.” The march ended in the dining hall, where the campers settled onto the floor to listen to anti-violence readings, sing peace songs and write anonymous notes about their experience with violence and sexism. The notes were collected and read aloud and then thrown into o gigantic “Sexist Garbage Can.”


The majority of camps respond to the topic of sexuality/sex/sexual assault in any of three ways:

• by running programs during staff training to explicitly educate counselors about detecting sexually abused children and to condemn “shnookie between chanichim [campers] and madrichim [counselors]” as one counselor put it;

• by attempting to reduce or eliminate sexual activity between campers and sometimes between counselors;

• by denying that sexual assault, sex, and sexuality exist at camp as significant issues at all.

The first category, addressing sexual abuse during staff training, is often motivated, if not mandated, by legal reasons. One camp director says of a tri-state conference on sexual abuse: “We’ll be having our lawyers and insurance people there.” Legally, camps ore obligated to report any suspected cases of abuse to the local authorities. Training sessions, often a week long at the beginning of the summer, teach staff how to detect on abused child along with first aid, discipline techniques, and child development.

Counselors ore also given guidelines for appropriate displays of affection between staff members, as well as warnings forbidding sexual contact between staff and campers. Some camps teach counselors how to distinguish friendly ways of touching a child from touch that is inappropriate and invasive. “A lot has changed since I was a camper,” one counselor recalls. “I remember sitting on male counselors’ laps—it wasn’t seen as a problem. Now, we talk a lot about girls not sitting on male counselors’ laps, about limiting teasing and tickling, and other areas where touch can become ambiguous.”

Outside of the staff training, camps usually deal with sexuality by trying to chase it away with rules and policies intended to contain and reduce sexual pressure and tension. David Frank, Director of Education and Programming for the UAHC youth division, explains about Camp Kutz: “We have 160 teenagers together, away from their parents, with a tremendous amount of access to each other, and the camp has 0 responsibility to the kids and the parents to establish what are appropriate levels of sexuality at camp.”

Most camps try to ovoid addressing the topic of sex in any meaningful way, with a “just say no” attitude. A camp director says: “We not only tell the girls they can say no, we tell them that they should say no.” Not only does this approach not leave room to deal with the issues faced by girls who already are sexually active, it also does not teach girls how to respond to sexual pressure, or how to protect themselves both verbally and physically if they are ever faced with sexual assault—nor does it deal with a boy’s role of responsibility.

By far the most common response to sex and sexual assault at camp is denial that it happens at all. Rape and sexual assault do happen at Jewish camps. Female campers and counselors alike report, “don’t use my name but. . . I was forced to have sex with a ‘guy friend’ when I was a CIT at camp,” or “when I was a counselor a girl told me that she had been gang raped in the woods at camp,” Jewish camps are not immune to the problems facing our larger society. One out of every three women will be raped in her lifetime, and the majority of rapes occur before the age of eighteen; a third of all rapes occur between ages I 1 and 17 according to U.S. government agencies and published sources. This is a crisis situation which only recently has begun to receive a small fraction of the attention it deserves.

Even at camps where counselors have reported cases of sexual assault, camp directors deny that sexual assault occurs at their camp. “We are a tight-knit camp,” said one assistant director. “We don’t have a need to educate about rape.” When asked if she had ever thought of addressing date rape or sexual assault in her staff training, another camp director replied, “what they do on their own time is their own business.” Camp directors, blinded by denial, disbelief, and fear, have been reluctant to develop rope prevention educational programs or to take swift action when a child shows signs of being sexually abused or complains of sexual harassment. A counselor from a camp in the Midwest reports that “when girls were complaining about a male counselor pinching their butts the administration hardly paid attention. There were no other channels for handling that kind of complaint.”

Positive sexual experiences happen at camp too. Many agree with Stacey, who says that “camp friends, the guys you’ve known for years and feel totally comfortable with, are the best people to be learning about sex with.” Off the record, counselors, ex-campers, and even camp directors will tell you that there is sexual activity at camp. One camp director said “Yes, it’s happening. We stifle them but it doesn’t inhibit them.” Alumni from a wide range of Jewish co-ed overnight camps tell stories about kisses, crushes, gay and lesbian experiences, making out, and making love. “My boyfriend and I used to make out in the Hebrew kita [classroom],” says one ex-camper from Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute, “but don’t give my name,”

Perhaps because of the controversy surrounding sex education, condom distribution, and AIDS education, or because of their own confusion about their responsibility or right to teach sex education, most camp directors try to stay clear of the topic and pass the buck. At Camp bless Kramer in Malibu, California, staffers are trained “not to discuss personal experiences. If a camper has a question we can get the doctor or nurse to discuss the topic,” says Michelle Shiper, Director of Operations. “They probably get that kind of education in school,” says another camp director. “They don’t need to learn it at camp.”

But camp counselors tell a different stop/. They speak of kids being confused, misinformed, and hungry for information and honest discussion, even in this age of increased publicity about sexual behavior and AIDS. “Boys would come up to me and ask about my relationship,” says Danny Shapiro, “I’d try to talk about the nature of a relationship, beyond just the status of having a girlfriend or getting some action before ‘lights out,'” Counselors are there in the front line of day to day activities, conversations, and teenage drama, and act as role models, confidants and mentors, “A girl came to me and told me that her boyfriend was pressuring her to give him a blow job and she didn’t want to but didn’t want to lose him and didn’t know what to do,” says a counselor.

Although still few in number, more and more camps are beginning to have formal programs for either staff or older campers with discussion or speakers on “teen issues” such as sexuality, gender dynamics, sexual assault, sexual preferences, safer sex, AIDS, and substance abuse. For example, training programs at Camp Ramah include a section on AIDS education, and staff at Camp Yavneh are trained to watch for eating disorders among girls. At Camp Towanga, in Groveland, California, roleplaying situations at staff training have included a kid having a crush on a counselor, a male counselor pressuring a female counselor to have sex with him, and a counselor telling another counselor that he is gay. These role-plays are intended to educate the counselors not only as counselors, but as people grappling with these issues themselves, at camp, at home, and on campus.

Some camps are able to move past denial and use incidents as educational opportunities. At one camp a group of boys was putting marks on the wall near their beds to represent kisses from different girls. The entire camp community immediately responded to the incident with definite disapproval, leading to a camp discussion. Girls spoke about how it felt to be objectified and boys spoke about how they too felt victimized by this “game.” Together, the kids and counselors discussed: Is it just a game? It is harmless? What ore the implications of such behavior?

The recent publicity about sexual harassment has touched camps. Three large Jewish camps will do educational programming on sexual harassment for the first time this summer. Camps are paying more attention to charges of harassment. At one New England camp, when a female camper complained that a male staff member had stolen her hat, shoved it down his pants and mode lewd comments, the camp director sent him away that same day. “It’s important to send a message of what’s okay and what’s not,” declared the camp director.

At Camp Towanga, there is absolutely no “raiding.” Deborah Newbrun, Associate Director, explains to the staff that “we can never know about anyone’s experience with touching and so we must be very careful about crossing people’s boundaries.” This rule not only creates a space which may be more comfortable for children who have been abused, but also teaches about the importance of consent, especially when it comes to touch.

Sometimes the campers themselves bring on increased awareness; Camp Kutz began doing more intense “sensitivity training” when campers themselves noticed an increase “in gay-bashing and verbal hostility, a reflection of a backlash against feminism in the outer world.” At Habonim Dror Machane Bonim, located in Five Rivers, Michigan, “the campers, living six to a tent with communal showers, brought up in open forums issues of boundaries and space including a sexual edge,” says former madricha Deb Waxman. “The kids saw that summer as the groundwork for their upcoming year together on kibbutz and wanted to become aware of their dynamics and to work to modify treatment of each other.”

At some camps, the initiative for feminist and anti-violence programming comes from camp directors and administration. But often, the programming is the initiative of individual counselors who bring their feminist passions and organizational skills with them. Many feminist counselors are able to adapt programs they have used on college campuses to the camp environment. “One woman who had been working with anti-violence organizations at the University of Oregon did a workshop on sexual harassment, teaching the connections between cat calls and rape,” says Waxman.

However, in situations where the responsibility for a feminist agenda is left up to individual counselors, the counselors are sometimes left to struggle with administrators or their peers. “I had clashing interests with a counselor who felt that we were cluttering up Zionist ideology with our social action issues,” says one counselor.

Jewish camps can begin to take advantage of their unique educational opportunity by using the slew of educational materials on teen issues—including videos, pamphlets, games, and curricula— that have been developed for classrooms and youth groups, community centers and afterschool programs. For example, Alternatives to Domestic Violence, an agency in Hackensack, New Jersey, runs workshops in the public high schools, teaching teenagers about sex role stereotypes, dating violence, communication skills, and personal rights by having them role-play potentially abusive situations. In Brooklyn, NY, The Center for Anti-Violence Education has a program called Action for Young Women’s Empowerment, which teaches teenage girls self-defense strategies for dealing with sexual assault, date rope, and violence at school or at home.

Jewish camps build a strong sense of Jewish identity, pride and leadership. It’s no surprise that many of the women leaders in Jewish feminist life—scholars, rabbis, writers, and innovators—have backgrounds that include Jewish camping. We now have an opportunity to integrate into the Jewish camp experience a more inclusive feminist agendo, drawn from the larger women’s community and from the insights and texts of the current wave of Jewish feminism.


1. Jewish camps can learn from existing programs and adapt them to a Jewish and camporiented framework. For example, a discussion on Tish’a B’av [the Jewish holy day marking the destruction of the Temples] as the loss of a safe place, can lead to a discussion of personal boundaries and safety; learning about the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising can be connected with a discussion of self-defense that con include one’s right to defend oneself in a harassment or assault situation; and a pre-bar/bot mitzvah age group can question what it means to become a “Jewish man” or a ‘Jewish woman.” The same energy, creativity, and thoughtfulness that we put into programs for youth on anti-Semitism or Israel can be put it into programs on self-esteem and communication, on tolerance and on respect for each other.

2. Ask questions People who care about camps, such as parents or alumni, can have a major impact on camps. You can voice your concerns openly to the administration and to camp committee or board members. All of these parties can be influenced—show them you are concerned, speak to other camp parents or concerned alumni, and encourage campers to to speak up at camp. Ask questions;

Staff: Who is in charge? Are there women administrators? Is there comprehensive staff training? Are areas like sexism, defection of child abuse, and eating disorders covered? Who are the counselors and how are they chosen? Are they appropriate role models?

Programming: Are the religious observances at camp egalitarian? Is there differential treatment, especially in traditionally sex-linked activities (ore the boys forced to do sports while the girls are excused?) What kind of programming goes on—is if explicitly sexist or homophobic? Is there any feminist programming?

Socially: What kind of social pressures and social situations are there at camp? Are there dances in which ten year olds are encouraged to bring dates? How do they deal with dating? Are condoms available to older campers or counselors?

3. Parents: try to identify counselors who support your vision and encourage them. Show your appreciation for the feminist counselors who are out there in the trenches and in the bunks. Checkout our suggestions for feminist materials to bring to camp on visiting day (along with the picnic basket and homemade brownies) or to send to your favorite camper or counselor. 

Hadar Dubowsky is an alumna of Barnard College and a variety of summer camps. This summer she can be found in the arts and crafts room at Hobonim Dror Machane Galil in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.