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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?

Dvora Meyers
June 30, 2011
The cattle car at Camp Stone.(Avi Thomas)
The cattle car at Camp Stone.(Avi Thomas)

“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?”

Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn.