Jewish Sleepaway Camps

A couple enyoing and relaxing by the lake.

“JEWISH SLEEPAWAY CAMPS are for the counselors,” a rabbi once told me. He said it without winking, but the winking was implied.

Apparently, at Jewish overnight camps, making out is as much part of curriculum as making lanyards. I wouldn’t know. I did not attend a sleepaway camp of any variety, and therefore never had the pleasure of cutting my teeth on some boy’s braces after tefilot.

However, I’ve developed a keen interest in this Jewish sleepaway camp “hookup culture,” as my soon-to-be-teen is a soon-to-be-camper. Will he experience his first kiss this summer? (No idea.) Will he tell me about it? (No way.) Will it matter? (Enormously.)

The reason for the rabbi’s comment is that by turning a blind eye to romantic dalliances between teens, we are—we hope—contributing to the continuity of the Jewish people. The older the teen, the more intense and, hopefully, formative the experience. Think about that for a moment: The adults of our culture have collectively agreed to encourage teens to mash their mouths together out of sheer existential fear.

As ridiculous as that sounds, what person reading this doesn’t understand that fear deeply? The same rabbi who hinted at camp hookups has recently toured the world, exploring vestiges of lost Jewish cultures in lands as exotic as China and (until recently) as Jewish as Poland. In one poignant tale he describes waiting for a half-hour at a synagogue before a sympathetic docent explained to him that he was the only Jew in the place, and therefore would not find a minyan with whom to pray.

All across the globe vibrant Jewish communities have been wiped out by war, pogroms and indifference. It’s no wonder that we’ll turn to anything, even the heady aromatic mix of bug repellant and hormonal sweat, to save us from extinction.

And it just might work. A 2001 study found that adults who attended Jewish overnight camps as teens are more deeply engaged in their faith than those who did not. They are more likely to marry within the faith, they are 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month and 30 percent more of them donate to Jewish Federations. An entire section of the Camp Ramah alumni website is dedicated to camp marriages. (One of the entries is titled “Summer Lovin’ Had Me a Blast.”)

Now, don’t misread this. I am not sending my son to sleepway camp because I want to become a grandmother by Passover. My kid is still a kid, and I assume he will come home as one. But I do like the idea of his finding fellowship, companionship and possibly even romance within the Jewish community. I like the idea of him strengthening his bonds to his faith and to Israel in a nurturing environment.

I want him to have fun, evolve and learn something new about himself. Jewish sleepaway camps are for the counselors, and my son is just a camper. For now.

Mayrav Saar is a writer in Los Angeles.


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