I am a product of the Jewish summer camp movement. I attended Camp Ramahs in New England (Palmer, MA), American Seminar (Nyack, NY) and Glen Spey, NY between 1967 and 1970. They played a formative role in the development of my Jewish, spiritual and intellectual identity. My teachers and counselors taught me to think, they taught me to pray, they taught me to make friends, they taught me to develop myself creatively. To this day names like Louis Hartman, Stuart Kelman, Alan Mintz, Joseph Lukinsky, Robert Cover, Neal Kaunfer, Joseph Riemer, Jonathan Fenster, Daniel Matt, Raphael Artz and many others are etched fondly in my mind (and a few tyrants like David Mogilner and Seymour Fox, not so fondly).
They taught me to inquire about the world. Not just to ask probing questions, but to expose uncomfortable truths, to resist injustice wherever we found it, to questions our elders and the religious tradition. They taught us to be brave in this pursuit and to let the chips fall where they may. All of this left an indelible impression and created the adult I am. It is truly an amazing legacy.
Under Joe Lukinsky’s tutelage I rebelled against the course offerings at the Nyack Ramah and he helped me develop an independent study course in which I read some of the major tracts of Zionist thought and history, at the end of which I wrote a paper, some of whose ideas you’ll find in this blog. Rabbi Lukinsky encouraged me to send the paper to Prof. Ernst Simon, one of the co-founders of Brit Shalom, who actually wrote me a lovely reply on receiving it! Joe took a defiant, confused, and perhaps angry boy and turned him into a disciplined thinking Jew. For that I am eternally grateful. And without this Tikun Olam would not exist.
Fortunately for me, I attended these campus during the apogee of the student anti-war movement of the late 1960s, when provocative intellectual questioning was de rigeur. At no other time in the history of Camp Ramah would it allow a staging of Hair! (in English, no less!). Unfortunately, that production caused such a severe backlash among parents and perhaps the Jewish Theological Seminary staff who sponsored the camp, that they stopped sending their children and it closed down for a few years after that.
When the camp reopened it was shorn of the bold experimentation that characterized the Palmer Ramah of the past. Instead, it became a place devoted to rigorous adherence to Conservative theological Orthodoxy and sexual decorum.
I now have young children of my own, and naturally I think about what types of Jewish and camp experiences I’d like them to have. In fact, my oldest son last summer attended Camp Solomon Schechter here in the Northwest. But he surprised me this year when he said he didn’t want to go. He wasn’t able to articulate why and I didn’t probe, so I don’t want to assume on his behalf the reasons why he declined. But this camp, as good and earnest as it might be, is inculcating in children not just the good values we want them to have as educated American Jews, but also the impoverished consensus values of liberal Zionism so characteristic of the organized Jewish community.
This is what Allison Benedikt railed against in her essay, Life After Zionist Summer Camp, and what Mira Sucharov crowed about in her bit of toxic nostalgia, In Defense of Zionist Summer Camp, in Haaretz. I actually come down somewhere in between the two of them (though I’m more sympathetic to Benedikt) because unlike Benedikt, I think Camp Ramah did lay the groundwork for the bold, questioning Jew I am today. But unlike Sucharov I don’t believe the Zionist summer camps teach diversity or probing ideas as they might’ve in the 1960s. And if Sucharov’s essay is any indication, she’s still stuck in a time warp that prevents her from fully recognizing the dolorousness of so much of contemporary Zionist thought.
This summer my son will attend a local Mideast Peace Camp where he will hear different messages and learn a different value system than he would at a traditional Jewish summer camp. I will not encourage him to attend a Camp Ramah, though if he wanted to I would be willing to send him. I do not want to put him in a situation in which his political views would be in the minority and he might be pressured or ostracized to adapt to the majority.
I want my son to think for himself. I want to introduce him to as many different ways of looking at the Jewish world as possible. That’s why he attended Solomon Schechter and why he continues to attend Hebrew school. That’s why I expect he will pursue Jewish studies courses in college. But I will not allow my son to fall prey to the nostalgia for a liberal Zionist past that exists only in the minds of people like Sucharov and Gershom Gorenberg. Unfortunately, there is too much rote thought and acceptance of stale consensus views in the mainstream Jewish community when it comes to Israel. I want my children to go beyond this and see more of the world than the little window offered by today’s Camp Ramah. I want them to know Arab-Americans and Palestinians. Of course, I also want them to know their fellow Jews. But their relationships must not stop there as they so often do in the Jewish summer camp movement.