Experts Explain How Jewish Summer Camps Have Evolved Over Years

Many Jewish families and communities have fond memories of Jewish summer camps. It is important to note, however, that the Jewish summer camps of today were not always these summertime programs.

Over the decades, summer camps have ranged from excluding Jewish people to protecting and supporting Jewish children during times of war.

Summer Camp Was Once Closed To Jewish Children

Jewish professor, Jonathan Krasner from Brandeis University, said minority communities were left out of summer camp activities in the early years.

He explains, “While some camps were officially nondenominational, many were restricted, meaning Jews, Blacks, and other marginalized people could not enroll.”


First Jewish Summer Camps

Krasner says, “Private and institutionally-affiliated camps were for middle-class and wealthy kids. And, fresh air camps were for children of immigrants and other at-risk populations.”

Immigrant children benefited from fresh air camps. Krasner writes that parents saw the value in relocating kids from overcrowded, hot city neighborhoods to nature, fresh air, wholesome food, and play.

Jewish Summer Camps Change After World War I

Krasner says, “After World War I, a new type of Jewish summer camp developed, the Jewish culture camp.” They weren’t just summer camps for fun and cultural exploration. During World War II, some were safe havens for Jewish children.

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Jewish Summer Camps In A New Era

In 1947, when the first Camp Ramah opened, it marked the beginning of the second generation of Jewish summer camps, according to Daniel Olson.

He says, “There were camps organized using Hebrew, using Yiddish, teaching socialist values or being early Zionists — supporting Jewish state-building in Palestine.” Even 75 years after that first summer at Camp Ramah, so close to the end of the Holocaust and World War II, Olson says, memories of those atrocities are still vivid.

Summer Camps For Jews Today

Despite the third wave of camping centered on individuality, Jewish summer camps remain integral to the Jewish experience in the U.S. and internationally.

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow heads Foundation for Jewish Camp’s innovation and education department in New York. A new phase has begun for Jewish summer camps, paving the way for the tradition to continue.

Olson says, “It’s been a lot of learning. Inclusion of disabled people has been part of Ramah for over 52 years, and many other Jewish summer camps are also providing disability inclusion.”