July 19, 2019

Notes on Hebrew Camp

“In the summer of 1954, Morris Freedman went to camp—a Jewish summer camp. Nothing unusual about that, not at first blush. By the 1950s, American Jewish parents could choose from among any number of summertime options: Massad and Ramah catered to those moms and dads interested in immersing their offspring in a Hebrew-saturated environment, while Boiberik and Kinderland did much the same thing for Yiddish. Camp Haswell promised that its happy campers “will learn all about model airplane building,” while the Jayson Camps made sure to point out that it solicited “boys and girls from the finest Jewish families.”

What rendered Morris Freedman’s visit unusual was that he was neither a counselor or a camper or even the parent of one. Rather, Freedman was a Ph.D.-wielding journalist, an associate editor at Commentary, who had gone to camp—to Ramah in Connecticut—to take a look around at what he and his colleagues characterized as “one of the livelier and most promising” phenomena of the postwar Jewish experience.

Adopting the posture and sensibility of an anthropologist studying tribal culture, Freedman—at once quizzical and curious, absorbed and removed—spent nearly a week at Ramah, where campers were encouraged to “Wake in Hebrew, Dress in Hebrew, Study in Hebrew, Play in Hebrew, Dance in Hebrew, Dream in Hebrew.” He hung out on the porch with the camp’s director, musing about this and that; observed goings-on in the dining room and by the lake; bore witness to ceremonial moments, among them Shabbat as well as Tisha B’Av; and interviewed campers, counselors, and parents about their experiences.”

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