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‘Commie Camp’ Documentary Captures Camp Kinderland’s Idealism, and Its Imperfections

Once a utopian getaway for children of socialists and left-wing organizers, the camp remains an essential haven for ‘weird Jews’

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Kinderland, 1951. (Courtesy Katie Halper)
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Not that camp was an unblemished utopia. The persistent idealism could be insufferable to a jaded teenager. (Halper cherry-picks campers who seem extra-enthusiastic about Kinderland’s social-justice message, but not every kid was thrilled about sitting through a civil-rights workshop on a sunny day.) And it merely tempered, rather than eradicated, the patterns and roles of the outside world. Mean kids weren’t tolerated at activities, but bullying still went on after bedtime. There were still cliques and sexual competitiveness and body issues. The official rule was that you had to share any candy or care packages your parents sent you (called kassa). This, of course, led to elaborate smuggling systems and late-night kassa-trunk raids.

Camp also came with its hypocrisies and contradictions. Us girls were tacitly excluded from playing basketball during “schmooze” (our after-dinner free time) and instead would idly watch the games on the steps of the sports shack, chatting about the players we had crushes on. Although not everyone was Jewish or white, and camp provided some financial aid, it was still pretty homogenous and seemed to get whiter with each price hike. I wrote my college essay about how camp’s bubble could feel suffocating and insular, leaving me thirsting for a place where not everyone agreed. In fact, I left the womb of Kinderland one summer to work at a camp for underprivileged kids; it taught me more about racism and poverty than Kinderland ever did, even as I craved Camp K’s hyper-nurturing environment. I remember having a mini-meltdown over “the bubble” during the 1999 Peace Olympics, sparking a laborious, tear-filled, 45-minute discussion with a male counselor and a tomboy in my bunk.

Yet, it was still the kind of place that encouraged having that 45-minute conversation—under a tree, or sunbathing on a raft in the middle of the lake. “I always hated the Olympics,” admits Sam Pitt-Stoller, one of the group leaders interviewed in the film (and a good friend of mine), who charges camp with being “very idealistic” and “not looking at all sides.” Yet he’s “always felt comfortable expressing those disagreements.” An essential caveat.

Nona with her friends Marianna and Ileana, in 1999
The author (center) with her friends Marianna and Ileana, who is now Kinderland’s development director, in 1999. (Courtesy of the author)

Commie Camp was filmed pre-recession, and it skirts around the severe financial issues Kinderland now faces. The camp has been having trouble recruiting enough kids to enroll each summer. It’s had to fundraise with increasing aggressiveness, launching an Indiegogo campaign early this year. Part of the problem is the sagging economy and rising expenses; the camp’s septic system and fire codes needed to be upgraded recently. One of the teachers from a major feeder elementary school in New York City just retired from the classroom. Perhaps it’s simply an ebb in the camp’s history; Kinderland shrank to a fraction of its size during the McCarthy era and eventually rebounded. But there’s part of me that worries it’s all slipping away as the last of the country’s native Yiddish speakers die off.

Artifacts like this documentary help quell my fears. There’s a line in “Zog Nit Keynmol” that loosely translates to: “We will carry it like a password from generation to generation.” Kinderland alums become activists and performers and writers and teachers, all with a shared sensibility, a shared language. It’s not Yiddish, but it’s just as evocative. And a lot easier to learn.

***

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‘Commie Camp’ Documentary Captures Camp Kinderland’s Idealism, and Its Imperfections

Once a utopian getaway for children of socialists and left-wing organizers, the camp remains an essential haven for ‘weird Jews’

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