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Notes on Camp

An argument for keeping summertime unplugged

Marjorie Ingall
May 03, 2010
A Jewish summer campers in the 1980, from Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell(Courtesy Roger Bennett)
A Jewish summer campers in the 1980, from Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell(Courtesy Roger Bennett)

Each spring, Jewish parents nationwide engage in the sacred and holy ritual of writing checks to summer camp.

Josie, 8 years old, is going to overnight camp for the first time this year, which has made me reflect on my own experiences as a child at Camp Ramah in New England. I loved the lake, the trees, the pine-fragrant bunks adorned with the vintage scratchitti of long-ago youths who’d presumably left camping behind for cholesterol-lowering drugs and the raising of future campers of their own.

I grew up in a different era, an age before cell phones and personal computing devices. In an era before MTV’s Unplugged, we were perpetually unplugged. As a kid in a small city, I rode my bike all over the neighborhood. I lounged with my friends in Swan Point Cemetery on weekends. We spent hours, unsupervised, in various garages and basements.

My own kids’ childhood is very different. They’re in organized activities all the time. They don’t roam like free-range fowl throughout the city. For Josie, one of the most fascinating things about this year’s marvelous Newbery-winning children’s novel When You Reach Me was its portrait of a latchkey kid on the Upper West Side in the ‘70s; in a book that deals with time travel and foretelling the future, the most astonishing detail for my kid was that the protagonist got to walk around New York City alone.

The most significant difference between my kids and me, though, is that they can’t imagine being unwired. I showed them a picture of Gordon Gekko holding his then-super-futuristic cell phone in the movie Wall Street, and they asked if it was a giant walkie-talkie. Josie recently quizzed me about Superman: What was a phone booth, and how did he change clothes in it? When I tell her we had to stand up and walk over to the television to change the channel and that we only had telephones attached to walls, she stares at me as if I’m speaking Urdu. I showed her Atari’s Pong, the antiquated video game we played on my TV growing up; she thought I was playing a joke. All you could do in this “game” was move a line, slowly, up and down, as a single dot ricocheted in slow motion around the screen? This was once considered fun? Josie and her friends play Toontown and Wizard 101 together, visually rich, hugely complex, multiplayer games with their own elaborate universes. They make plans to “meet” each other on weekends in digital glens and seven-story buildings in their avatar forms.

A couple of summers ago we visited friends in Fire Island. Eyeing my iPhone, an 8-year-old girl said, “Which generation?” I told her it was the earliest version and she rolled her eyes. “I want the new one, but my mom isn’t psyched for me to break my current contract,” she said airily, as bored as a Kardashian. “I’m totally getting it, though.”

So, is today’s sleepaway camp—with its lake, trees, cabins, chadar ochel, and drama and crafts bungalows looking exactly as they did generations earlier—an artifact, an artificial construct belonging to an earlier time, like some New World version of a Roman Vishniac photo? Is it ridiculous to expect kids to give up their iPods, handheld computer games, Facebook, Twitter, IM? Can we really trap them in this historical setting, like bug-spray-scented, cell-phone-less flies in amber?

My answer: We not only can; we should. Kids need unplugging. I’m no Luddite or technophobe, and I was among the snarling parents who objected when Mayor Michael Bloomberg went on his rampage to ban cell phones in schools after September 11. But in the summer—the last vestige of carefree childhood in a high-pressure, high-connectivity world—kids should be forced to interact face-to-face with each other, with their counselors, and with a sylvan world. It’s one of the last great communal spaces for kids.

Every camp has its own rules about the use of technology, of course. Some allow cell phones but let kids use them only right before Shabbat or right before bed. Others allow iPods in the bunk only. (In my day, at rest time, we were allowed our giant, awkward Walkmans that seemed the height of techie cool.) But whatever a camp’s written rules, compliance varies. One Jewish website is rife with whispered tales of texting in bathroom stalls.

“Each camp’s culture is different, of course, but for most part the undergirding value is that camp is a place in which community is built in real time and real space,” says Rabbi Eve Rudin, director of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. In other words, al tifrosh min hatzibur; don’t separate yourself from the community. The real community, not the virtual one. “When you’re plugged in to your headphones, you’re separated from the world around you,” Rudin says. “There can be appropriate times in the camp day to be separate and quiet—reading a book in your bunk, writing a letter, listening to music. For some camps, then, an iPod is acceptable. But we generally don’t encourage families to send valuables to camp.” Camp, she adds, should be a place where all kids start on equal footing, but “the reality is that parents don’t always want to abide by it.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Is connectivity really so important to the kid, or is it really about the needs and anxieties of the parent? For most kids, camp is a time to be in a completely kid-centric, immersive environment. Kids adjust to camp culture. They learn the camp rituals and songs (speaking of which, OyBaby’s new CD, We Sang That at Camp, is hilariously awesome). They fold themselves into the tradition; they don’t expect the tradition to adapt to them. But parents can be more obstructionist than helpful to the process. I’ve heard stories about camps with no-outside-food policies in which parents smuggle food in care packages, hidden in tennis balls. Websites like and help parents stay connected to their little darlings 24-7. In my day, we had to write home twice a week, and we could line up to use the pay phone outside the mercaz. And we walked uphill to the archery range, both ways.

There’s no doubt that camp is Good for the Jews. Research shows that teenagers report greater levels of connection to Judaism at camp, and campers are significantly more likely to send their children to camp themselves when they grow up. 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. Jewish camp alumni are 50 percent more likely to join a synagogue and 90 percent more likely to join a Jewish community center than their non-camp fellows. And camp’s world-unto-itself mystique is part of what makes it so indelible. There’s something primal about the physicality of it all, the intensity of friendships forged at camp. Movie nights feel more special when media is a rarity. Romance feels more thrilling. Shiurim feel less like school when they’re held among pine needles. You can’t Facebook that stuff. Well, you could, but feh.

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.