A Place of Our Own:The Rise of
Reform Jewish Camping
Michael M. Lorge and Gary P. Zola,
eds., University of Alabama Press, 2006
Reform Judaism is not the only religious group in America to make the summer camp experience a vital
part of their effort to impart its values and beliefs to its children and adolescents, but perhaps no group
relied more on camp as an adjunct to home and community for this purpose. Summer camp became
an important part of Reform group identity, a bulwark against the attraction of assimilation into the
greater society and mere nominal Judaism.
This volume commemorates the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first Reform Jewish educational
camp in the United States – the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Essays by
the editors and Jonathan Sarna, Donald M. Splansky, and Michael Zeldin cover the development of
these camps within the socio-political and cultural context of American and Jewish life, and describe
the educational and spiritual philosophies that were implemented within Reform Jewish summer camps.
Just as organized camping has today become
a widely accepted social and educational
institution in America, so too has Jewish
camping become an established feature in
the lives of many American Jews. In 2003
Jewish religious movements (Orthodox,
Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist),
Jewish Community Centers, Zionist organi-
zations, Jewish youth organizations, and
various other Jewish institutions collectively
sponsored approximately 120 not-for-profit
Jewish overnight camps in North America.
In addition, hundreds of privately owned
camps now cater primarily to a Jewish clien-
tele. It has been estimated that fifty thousand
Jewish youths attend the nonprofit camps
on an annual basis, and an additional ten
thousand individuals serve on staff for these
camps. Clearly, Jewish camping is touching
the lives of a significant number of Jewish
young people in North America. Many con-
temporary leaders of American Jewry are
convinced that Jewish camping experiences
will contribute significantly to a young per-
son’s desire to participate in Jewish communal
life as an adult.
The history of Jewish camping is firmly
rooted in the soil of a distinctly American
phenomenon: the organized camping move-
ment. The beginnings of Jewish camping in
this country came as a by-product of the
social and ideological trends that enveloped
the nation during the Progressive Era. By
the end of World War I, an ardent group of
progressive Jewish educators began to realize
that organized camping programs could pro-
mote Jewish learning and strengthen the bonds
of Jewish identification. It was at this very
time that millions of first- and second-gener-
ation East European Jewish immigrants were
integrating into American culture. Whereas
many of the founders of the first generation
of Jewish camping sought to Americanize
Jewish children, the pioneers of the next
generation of Jewish camps – camps with an
explicitly Jewish ideological mission – were
determined to reinforce Jewish identity.
By World War II, Jewish camping – like
American camping in general – had become
an accepted feature of American culture.
Today, in addition to a steady proliferation
of private camps that serve Jewish clientele,
a diverse array of nonprofit Jewish educa-
tional camps have been established. Just
as America exported the idea of organized
camping around the globe, so too has
American Jewish camping been a model
for the creation of Jewish camping programs
throughout the world. In fact, when
American Sikhs contemplated the establish-
ment of their own educational camping
program, they used the American Jewish
camping program as their model.
Finally, Jewish camping’s historic relationship
to its American counterpart even extends to
the descriptive rhetoric that has been used
to characterize the institution’s overall signifi-
cance. In 1922 Charles B. Eliot, former
president of Harvard University, concluded
The organized summer camp is the most
important step in education that America
has given the world.” More than a half-cen-
tury later, Gerson D. Cohen, chancellor of
the Jewish Theological Seminary of America,
matched Eliot’s flattering sentiments when
he ebulliently remarked that Jewish summer
camp has constituted “the greatest contribu-
tion made by American Jews to modern
Jewish life.’’ The zeal that Charles Eliot and
Gerson Cohen share in evaluating the signif-
icance of organized camping is reflective of
a shared exuberance that has characterized
camping enthusiasts from the movement’s
earliest days. As Jewish camping in America
evolved and matured, it eventually assumed
its own unique character based on the recog-
nition that the proven successes of the
American camping movement’s ideology
could be tailored to serve a distinctly Jewish
mission, thereby making Jewish camping
a genuine hybrid of organized camping
in America.