Summer camps were first introduced to North America in the 1880s, and were part of the back-to nature movement like urban parks, residential suburbs, resort hotels, and other examples of controlled and domesticated natural environments. All these institutions were created to provide relief from the supposed degradations of urban life, that children were seen in greatest danger from. For example, charitable camps founded by organizations like the YMCA were aimed at working class boys, whom reformers saw as a possible threat to the social order. The YMCA felt a summer of outdoor adventure would help civilize them.
The first camps were mostly simple outposts in the woods near a lake. But as the camp movement evolved, the camps began to offer a wider variety of activities and facilities. The industry's peak occurred during the 20 years following WW II when roughly one-sixth of American children attended summer camp. Today, there are an infinite variety of camps -- art, sports, adventure, computer, horseback riding, academic, those for children with disabilities, and non-profits like Surprise Lake and Fresh Air Fund camps -- meeting every interest and need.
Camps today provide a much wider range of activity than the ones I attended and worked in during the 1950s. Those camps usually offered swimming, arts and crafts, nature walks, sports, and the culmination of the camp season, "color war," an ultra-competitive series of singing and sporting contests between red and white teams that many campers loved.
One summer, when I unhappily was working as a counselor at a camp parading its affluence with state-of-the-art sports facilities, I had to help prepare the campers for color war, which struck me then as a joyless and sometimes sadistic experience. Winning at all costs was the governing principle, and for that week the campers were consumed by that quasi-militaristic rite. It seemed to me that color war was the perfect initiation ritual for what adult life would be like (a world of winners and losers) for these children of mostly upper middle class strivers and conspicuous consumers.
I myself had been a camper for only one summer. That happened after many years of going for long summers to kokhaleyn (rooming houses) with my parents. The kokhaleyn were usually set on Catskill chicken or dairy farms that working and lower middle class Jewish New Yorkers escaped to from a sweltering, air conditioning-less city. The kokhaleyn could be physically uncomfortable -- one of them had a filthy communal kitchen, and masses of mosquitoes and flies buzzing about and stuck dead to spirals of flypaper slowly turning in every room -- but they were also a haven for a young, sports-loving bookish boy, who liked (or was just used to) being alone. I especially loved a hidden clearing -- my oasis -- near a clear, narrow, stone-filled river, where I would lie on my back reading Dickens and Dumas and watched sunlight stream through the maple and oak trees.
But as I grew older, the natural world stopped beguiling me, and I became tired of solitude. I began to long for friends to have genuine talks with, girls to dance and flirt with, and just personal experiences to stir me in a way that I couldn't put into words.
I was 14 when I decided to go to camp. I was intellectually intense, though far from sophisticated, and I was emotionally inexperienced. The camp, Habonim, was located in Red Hook, New York, and was part of a Jewish Socialist-Zionist cultural youth movement. My father was a Zionist, but I had never given too much thought to Israel, nor did I belong to a Zionist youth organization.
The camp had a kibbutz-like feel. We spent every day caretaking -- picking up trash, cleaning the bathrooms, and setting up the softball field. In the evenings we enthusiastically performed Israeli folk dances like the Hora, and, in full voice, sang Jewish and Israeli songs like "Shalom Haverim Shalom" and "Mayim Mayim," and I lightly necked with a couple of the girl campers.
The athletic facilities were ramshackle, but I took pleasure in playing a lot of softball. What I liked best was the hour each day given over to discussions of Jewish history, and Israeli politics. I was already deeply interested in politics, and loved exploring what Israeli social democracy meant and what the ideological differences between their political parties were.
One of the main concepts of Habonim's ideology is that of tikkun olam --a Hebrew phrase that means "mending the world," which originated in the early rabbinic period of Judaism. The movement was committed to ideals like socialism, social justice, Zionism, and pioneering, all of which attracted me that summer. However, my time at the camp was abruptly cut short by one of the campers getting polio, and I tearfully left for my parents' bungalow colony.
I worked at other private camps in the years that followed, as waiter, dishwasher, and counselor. However, much of my time doing these jobs left a bad taste in my mouth, for the camps felt crassly materialistic and anti-intellectual. But Camp Habonim's legacy was mainly warm memories of dancing joyously, talking passionately about politics, and belonging to a community that was committed to idealistic ends.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com.