By Daniel Brenner
When I envisioned attending The Power of Jewish Camps conference, convened by Brandeis University’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, my visceral camp associations—bug juice, fudge brownies, Deep Woods Off, and the smells of hormonal factories in full output mode—came into consciousness. “No,” I told myself, “this is not a conference at camp, it is about camp. It will just be an academic conference.” What I didn’t expect was both a thoughtful political analysis of the role of summer camp in Jewish life and a delightful exploration into the artistic diversity of Jewish summer camps.
First, the political analysis.
Here’s what I gathered from listening to Dr. Riv-Ellen Prell, professor emerita of American Studies at the University of Minnesota:
There were legitimate social “revolutions” that took place at Jewish summer camps in the 1960s that had larger implications for college campuses and for America in general. The “American Seminar” was a movement of summer camp educators and Jewish college students at Camp Ramah in the 1960s who championed civil rights and took it upon themselves to foster local initiatives that took young campers out of camp and into local communities, building bridges to African American and Native American communities in particular. Counselors learned skills that they later used to mobilize college students and graduate students. Prell also spoke of the generation of Jewish camp counselors and educators who spoke out against the war in Vietnam. Today, she argued, there isn’t the same large-scale revolutionary movement among young people, although she said that there is some energy in the IfNotNow work in summer camps.
I appreciated her insights on the role of summer camps in the 1960s and it made me think about the other social movements that weave their way through summer camp: I’m thinking about the intersection of environmentalism and summer camps, feminism and summer camps, and the area that I am working in now with Moving Traditions; thinking about power, gender codes, touch, sexuality, romance, and healthy boundaries in summer camps. (In his closing remarks to the conference, Dr. Jonathan Krasner emphasized the need for more exploration of this kind—so I look forward to the next conference!)
And now a word about the musical diversity of the conference: We heard from Joshua Jacobson of Northeastern University a jaunty rendition of Oklahoma! in Hebrew, we were treated to a quiz about Debbie Friedman by Judah Cohen of Indiana University, and then we had a truly breath-taking presentation from Asya Vaisman Schulman of the Yiddish Book Center about the songwriting of girls in a Hassidic camp.
In addition to these delights we were treated to sessions on Hebrew, Shabbat, Israel and further research, all of which gave me much to think about and bring back to my colleagues.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner serves as the chief of education for Moving Traditions.
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