Summer Camp and Gender Roles

It has been said that psychology is the study of the obvious, and sociology the study of the painfully obvious. How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences, by Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture and Life, Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, $22), an ethnography of Jewish residential summer camps, part psychology, part sociology, doesn’t say anything that isn’t obvious to anyone who has attended one, or whose children have.

The book provides a general look at how Jewish sleep-away camps act as socializing experiences for children—an important subject given that, as the authors point out, some 83,000 children are served by these camps each summer. Sales and Saxe make two significant points. First, their research shows that “Campers spend more time with and have more access to their counselors at camp than they do with their parents at home.” Second, they find that the more the camping staff is disengaged from or disrespectful of Jewish activities, the less likely campers are to be engaged or respectful.

Sales and Saxe are also right to point out that Jewish summer camps are key arenas where children experience both total Jewish living and major growing-up events. But the authors interviewed no children or adults about the impact camp had on them. (They claim it would have been too difficult to get parental permission to interview campers who are minors.) Instead, the sociologists observed campers from afar and spoke with camp staff and administrators for their data.

This is a huge problem for the credibility of the book’s conclusions. The authors’ sunny, brochure-language view of camp feels unfounded because they lack first-hand data from campers. I enjoyed camp myself, both as a camper and a counselor, but I never felt that “camp is suffused with positive emotional expression,” as the authors describe it.

The real book that needs to be written is about the role of Jewish camps in socializing young Jews into heterosexual gender roles and sexual behaviors. Camp does not often offer a range of personal identity options.

There, peer acceptance becomes immensely important, and adherence to traditional gender roles is an anchor toward acceptance. Girls try on “girl” behaviors and attitudes: shaving their legs and underarms, putting on makeup, dressing provocatively, and experimenting with boys. This begins around nine, 10 and 11 years of age. Boys are similarly introduced to masculinity in the form of bullying, being called “gay,” the need to prove prowess in sports. My friend, a non-Jewish woman of Chinese descent from Potomac, MD, once told me, “I would never have learned anything about sex if not for my friends who went to Jewish sleep-away camp.”

Jewish camp also presents its own problems with respect to gender. The participation of young women in prayer becomes an issue fraught with anxiety, or rather avoided altogether The dynamics of prayer services and attendant gender-related behaviors and decisions that young men and women make deserve attention.

This book will be useful reading for those with no experience with the structural aspects of Jewish residential summer camping. It is not for those searching for a deeper, incisive look at what actually goes on with the kids.

Sophie Danis Oberfield is a teacher and writer living in New York.