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Camp Lessons

Between color wars and singalongs, some Jewish camps include Holocaust education in Tisha B’Av programming. What does that mean for Jewish identity?

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The cattle car at Camp Stone. (Avi Thomas)
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“Jewish people love summer camp,” comedian Donald Glover, star of the NBC series Community says during a standup routine. “They all went to the same summer camp. Which is weird, because if I was Jewish I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a camp.”

Glover might find even weirder the ways in which some Jewish summer camps address the Holocaust.

Camp Stone, a Zionist Orthodox camp in Western Pennsylvania, part of the Bnei Akiva movement, might be the most direct. It possesses an unusual set piece—a cattle car, constructed to look like a World War II relic, which the camp dedicated in 2009. The car was the brainchild of Yehuda Rothner, the camp director, and rests on train tracks built from German parts, circa World War II. Sitting on the periphery of the campground, the car contains exhibits created by campers 12 and older; one group hung butterflies commemorating the Terezin poem, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” The wooded area around the monument is designed for quiet introspection. The railway tracks, Rothner notes, lead off into the forest, into nowhere. “The lesson of the unit,” he explains, “is that senseless hatred leads into the abyss.”

Yet even if the tracks lead nowhere, the kids’ thoughts are guided in a specific direction. A sign leading to the railcar reads “M’Shoah L’Tekumah,” from Holocaust to rebirth. According to Rothner, that rebirth is the founding of the State of Israel. “Machaneh Stone has one of the highest aliyah rates of any camp,” Rothner says of his alumni. “That’s where they realize that [Israel] is where they need to be.”

At Camp Sternberg in Narrowsburg, N.Y., my summer home for nine years, the Holocaust was invoked on Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of the Temple. Many former campers recalled watching a Holocaust film to occupy us until the fast was over, but Sternberg’s purpose was not simply to pass the time; the camp leaders wanted us to cry. Specifically, they wanted us to shed tears for the widows in ancient Jerusalem that we hear about in Eichah, the scroll of Lamentations we read on Tisha B’Av. Since the destruction of the Temple was too distant an event for us to connect to, we were told to think about all the calamities in Jewish history, specifically the Holocaust. “If you can’t cry for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, then think about the Holocaust,” we were told by camp counselors as we sat on the tarred floor of the gym. “That wouldn’t have happened had the Beit HaMikdash not been destroyed.”

If Sternberg presented the Holocaust as a continuation of Jewish history, then Camp Shomriah takes the opposite tack, emphasizing youth action and responsibility. Shomriah, with locations in Perth, Ontario and Liberty, N.Y., is part of HaShomer HaTzair (“youth guard”) movement, founded in 1913. (Mordechaj Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was a member.) On Tisha B’Av, Shomriah campers watched reenactments from tragic eras in Jewish history, ending with the Shoah and the refrain, “Never Again.” Karen Isaacs, 25, a Jewish educator who attended Camp Shomriah into her teens, recalls being told to pretend that the campers were being held captive by the Nazis. “You’re in the Warsaw Ghetto, what are you going to do?” she says the kids were asked.

The campers sensed that one answer was preferred. “You know before you started the simulated conversation that the people who were right were the people who decided to fight back,” she said. At Shomriah, you didn’t want to be the camper who hid in an attic.

Some are skeptical of Holocaust education at summer camp. “It’s interesting that we’ve created these utopias where people belong,” says Rabbi Avi Katz-Orlow, education specialist at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “But what Holocaust education is reminding people is that we don’t belong in a place.” He wonders if some educators are using the Holocaust because it can be “expedient to say how Jews died as opposed to working with you to figure out how a Jew can live.”

Camp Tawonga, in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, takes a more integrated approach. The Torah scroll the camp uses during Shabbat services is originally from Czechoslovakia and was stolen by the Nazis. At the start of each camp session, the origins of the scroll are explained to the campers as they sit in an outdoor amphitheater, and the wide-ranging conversation opens up to talk about the history of the trees of neighboring Yosemite, and the Tuolomne River, which runs through the campus, and then back to the history of the bimah, on which rests the rescued scroll. “Using this Torah as a Torah was much more meaningful than looking at it as an artifact in a museum,” said former camper and staffer, Dave Castle, 30.

And, ultimately, what matters is what the campers take away from their summers. Akiko Yonekawa is the former director of Southern California’s Camp Alonim, which doesn’t teach about the Holocaust. “I don’t think Holocaust education asks campers anything about themselves. It asks them to identify with people from the past,” she said. “What does it mean to be 12 on the West Coast?”

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Terre Foreman says:

I think that camp is the WRONG place to teach about the Holocaust. When a child comes to camp you do not know what they have learned before and you are just “dropping” them into the Holocaust. You have no idea what has been said or not said in that child’s family. What if the child has a non-Jewish family member who lived in Germany during the wall. Are they prepared to handle that situation. No one knows everything that a child is going through and how that will make them react to this.These “activities” seem to be one size fits all activities that are not keyed to a child’s age or developmental stage. No child should participate in a simulation activity like the ghetto one mentioned. Are experienced Holocaust educators creating these activities or are they just done to promote the organization’s particular religious/political spin? This is NOT good education.

steve mostofsky says:

The 9th of Av or Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, its the saddest day on the Jewish calendar and the on which many Jews remember every expulsion, destruction, pogrom and the Holocaust. Camp is the perfect place for Jewish children to learn about our difficult past while learning how we continued as a people when most of our oppressors vanished from the face of the earth.
the weekend after Tisha B’Av known as Shabbos Nachmu because the haftorah that is read contains G-d’s consoling words to the prophet is celebrated with music and joy in every Jewish camp and teaches Jewish children how we always rise from the ashes to celebrate life anew,

Ummm- why is this article-worthy?
A significant part of the mission of many Jewish summer camps is Jewish education, both the religion and the history. The Holocaust is obviously a huge, powerful piece of that, and with Tisha B’av coming in the summer, it is not surprising that this is a component of the educational offerings. 1/3 of the world’s Jews were systematically eliminated, and a Jewish educational program should not touch it? Ridiculous.
As for Yonekawa’s statement- what? The Holocaust doesn’t ask children to examine themselves? How about questions like- what would I have done? How should this inform my Jewish identity? How should this inform my charity/philanthropy efforts today? Could this happen today, and if not, why not? How does this affect my views on the importance of having the State of Israel.
If we treat the Holocaust a mere history lesson, a gross injustice will have been done.

greeneyeshade says:

Joanne Jacobs, my favorite education blogger, wrote a column years ago for the San Jose Mercury-News describing a Hanukkah presentation at her daughter’s, if I remember, Hebrew school. (The girl is now a practicing lawyer, which dates it.) At one point some of the kids lay on the stage and others flipped them over with their feet. What was that supposed to be? the audience was asked. Somebody suggested, “a death camp?”
The answer was supposed to be latkes. Jacobs wondered what kind of Jewish education the kids were getting if they’re taught to assume “if it’s Jewish it must be genocide.” Still a good question.

FTW says:

Right On,LB…I could not have said it any better…

Bill Pearlman says:

I had a terrific time in camp. ( camp betar ) Upstate NY. I’m not saying that the holocaust isn’t important and isn’t significant. But lets face it, its not exactly an incentive to be Jewish. Particularly for young kids. A little more focus on the positive aspects of being Jewish might be more in order here.

The same question should be asked about the practice of twinning with a Shoah victim at kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs. Why would we want to welcome our young ppl into the adult community of Jews with a macabre reference to genocide? Better to twin with a living child in Israel who can’t afford a bm.. Holocaust education is abused by some Jews to justify our mistreatment of the Palestinians. (the whole world hates us no matter what we do, so we can do whatever we want and don’t have to answer to anyone bc we are the real victims!!)

Bill Pearlman says:

Doc, enough with the palestinians. They are the most coddled group on the planet. If their “oppostion” was any country but Israel they would be a dim memory.

Not Michael says:

It does Zionism a disservice to constantly make references to the Holocaust as rationalization for the Medinat Yisrael. Zionism — the notion that there should be a modern, democratic Jewish polity in the Holy Land — does not need to apologize for itself. It was born in the era of Romantic nationalism in Europe, and it was nominally accepted by a vote at the U.N. in 1947. Israel has a philosophical and legal right to exist. [I am not taking about any individual policies undertaken by the Israeli state, just its existence as a country.]

But constantly to justify Israel’s existence because of the Holocaust is to ignore the complex and admirable history of Zionism, esp. before 1939. Moreover, it allows anti-Zionists to question Israel’s existence. (e.g. “Why did the Jews get a state in Palestine? The Palestinians weren’t responsible for the Holocaust. Why shouldn’t the Jews have gotten their state in Bavaria after 1945?”)

Ultimately, the sort of heavyhanded programing, undertaken by Camp Stone and even March of the Living, is both brainwashing towards the participants and politically problematic.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Tish’ah B’av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and educating children on the Holocaust in any context can always look inappropriate or even grotesque. On the one hand that does help this kind of story write itself. On the other hand, the stories I’ve heard about Camp Stone do tend to place it in a ridiculous class of its own. Picture a group of campers preparing a paper maché lamb to be burned as a sacrifice at their model temple, a bunch of Amish kids laughing at them hysterically.

herbcaen says:

Readint Tablet, under the leadership of concubines Alana Neuhaus and Anna Breslau, is sufficient punishment for the Three Weeks. They could be the Pied Pipers of Birkenau, leading to crematoria outfitted with catalytic converters to reduce the carbon footprint of the Jewish people.

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Camp Lessons

Between color wars and singalongs, some Jewish camps include Holocaust education in Tisha B’Av programming. What does that mean for Jewish identity?

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