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In the Zionist Camp

I have conflicted feelings toward Israel, but I love my daughter’s progressive, tolerant, anti-bullying, anti-materialist—and, yes, Zionist—summer camp

Marjorie Ingall
June 28, 2011
Josie at camp last summer.(Jonathan Steuer)
Josie at camp last summer.(Jonathan Steuer)

I have my shpilkes about Israel. I am no more likely to attend an Israel Day Parade than a Justin Bieber concert. I hesitate to talk about Israel with my children, and I feel a visceral anxiety upon seeing an Israeli flag. I oppose attempts to remove pro-Palestinian books from school reading lists and libraries. Tablet Magazine’s readers have called me a “latte-swilling,” “spoilt,” “knucklehead” “hypocrite” (it’s like a Zagat review of horridness!) One said: “Thank you for helping me understand why most of my family burned in ovens while American Jews like yourself stood by doing nothing.”

Now get this: I’m sending my kid to a Zionist summer camp. For the second summer in a row.

How did I get from point A to point B? (And at a time when Zionist camps are—shall we say—less than popular in certain parts of the Internet, no less!)

It started with a lot of research—I wasn’t going to send my precious Jewish snowflake to just any overnight camp. First, the camp had to be Jewish. That was non-negotiable. Research shows that Jewish camps are a superb way to cultivate a kid’s positive feelings about his or her Jewishness. According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, 66 percent of Jews who attended Jewish camps considered their Jewish identity “very important,” as opposed to 29 percent of those who never attended a Jewish camp, and Jewish camp alumni are 90 percent more likely to join a JCC than their non-Jewish-camping compatriots. Sure, we might make a methodological argument that the kind of kids who are sent to Jewish camps are predisposed to feel better about Jewishness than those who aren’t, but let’s just go with this: Camp is way more delicious than shul or school. I stole a first kiss behind the chadar ochel (mess hall), performed in Hebrew plays, sang my heart out in Hebrew during zimriya (songfest), competed fiercely in that terrifying nighttime game where were issued passports of actual Holocaust-era Jews and had to flee our Nazi counselors to freedom on the tennis courts. (Trivializing of tragedy? Perhaps. Indelible? Certainly.) I have camp friendships that are hugely meaningful to me nearly 30 years later. Camp Ramah in New England filled me with far more warm feelings and sense of Jewish community than anything else I experienced in childhood.

But I wanted my own young children to go to camp close to New York City, where I live. (I am a Jewish mother; I live to fulfill the stereotype of being neurotic and smothering.) But when I started looking for Jewish sleepaway camps in a two-and-a-half-hour radius from the city, I found a terrifying amount of princessery, camps filled with unnervingly sophisticated, spoiled kids with Shabbat dresses more expensive than my entire family’s wardrobe. I found parents who ignored cell-phone bans and sent contraband candy to camp elaborately hidden in tennis-ball canisters. When I asked for other spoiled-campers stories online, my Facebook page lit up. I heard about camps with “no bottled water” policies, because parents were sending so many cases, some camps ran out of storage space. I heard about girls so obsessed with straightening their Jewish hair and worrying about how they looked in a bikini that they flatly refused to swim. I heard about pale pink Shabbat shoes with spike heels (to be worn in the grass and mud!). I heard about kids packing enough technology (iPods, iPads, handheld gaming systems) to rival the contents of J&R and enough jewelry to rival Tiffany. My friend Dan reported overhearing the following exchange:

Camper 1: “My dad works for the largest blah blah blah in the country.”
Camper 2: “Your dad works for somebody?”

Perhaps worst of all, in poking around campers’ online message boards, I found kids saying approvingly that their camps were beloved by cool kids like themselves, but weren’t enjoyed by geeks.

Do you know where these vile youths don’t go? They don’t go to Zionist camps. Zionist camps like the one at which we’ll be dropping my daughter this week, Zionist camps that embrace geekery. Her camp makes kids do chores. It does not have spiffy bunks or a lake. The kids dress like shlumps. They are unspoiled and lovely. The camp has a super-strict anti-bullying policy. It is haimish. It felt like family immediately.

When I got married, I had a very DIY wedding in the woods. We counted on friends and family pitching in. Do you know who the most helpful and spirited were, by far? My cousins who went to Habonim Dror Moshava, a socialist Zionist camp that stresses the values of kibbutz: shared labor, cooperation, social justice, and a cultural love of Judaism. Some of my family members failed to do the weensy minor tasks I asked of them, but my cousins were whirling dervishes of chopping, grilling, serving, clearing, singing Birkat Hamazon. When I grabbed my cousin Abe, mayim-stepping by with a plate of veggies, to say thanks, he grinned, “No worries, cuz. Socialist Jew camp. It’s what we do.”

Now, would I be uncomfortable if Josie’s (and soon to be Maxie’s) camp was advocating dehumanizing Palestinians and supporting tikkun olam only if it applied to Jews? You bet. Camp has a privileged place of kid-centric-ness, away from parental eyes, so I cannot say for sure that my child was not subjected to Clockwork Orange-like brainwashing sessions about the evils of intermarriage. But given that the camp’s own literature discusses the values of diversity and pluralism, and that it is not affiliated with any particular branch of Judaism, I’m guessing no. There are attractive Israeli counselors there, yes, but I’m guessing their perspectives on Palestinian statehood vary from hard left to hard right, just like actual Israelis do. At Josie’s camp, social action is a huge part of the curriculum: The kids research different charities—not all Jewish—and decide which ones to support. They do volunteer work. Josie came home singing “Ani v’ata n’shaneh et haolam”—you and I will change the world—and she meant it. I am a world-class mocker of things, and I don’t think that childhood sentiment is mock-worthy.

The upshot: If American Jewish identity is to be something more than silver-and-blue wrapping paper instead of red-and-green wrapping paper in December, Zionist summer camp can be a parent’s best ally.

Last year, Josie returned from camp as joyful as I have ever seen her. She belted out the songs I’d sung at my own camp. Her Hebrew had improved by leaps and bounds. She made us Israeli salad, refusing all offers of assistance, dicing tomatoes and cucumbers into tiny pieces. It took her 45 minutes. (We learned to plan ahead when Josie was making Israeli salad.)

The Zionist camp Josie attends fosters what I think is a particularly American sort of Zionism, one that says that Jews are a people defined by both religion and ethnicity. It isn’t boosterish. It allows for nuance. Even an 8-year-old can understand nuance. And even an 8-year-old can understand Jewishness is more than demanding an Elsa Peretti Star of David necklace for your bat mitzvah, because everyone at camp has one.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.