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Jewish summer camps are an American tradition rooted in World War II

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Some parents across the country are busy getting their kids ready for sleepaway camp. Maybe they're hoping their child meets a new friend, learns a new skill or just gets out of the house. Many summer camps, though, are rooted in a very solemn history. In the wake of World War II, American Jewish leaders founded them to keep Jewish culture alive. Deena Prichep has the story.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: 16-year-old Sadie Leiman is heading into her final summer at Camp Kalsman, on 300 acres in Washington state. She started going to this camp as a toddler while her mom worked there. And she's looking forward to seeing friends and being on her own, but most of all, Leiman's looking forward to Shabbat, welcoming the Sabbath every Friday night.

SADIE LEIMAN: When you're at home, if you don't have, like - I don't know - 400 siblings, which most people don't, Shabbat is a very private thing.

PRICHEP: But at Camp Kalsman...

LEIMAN: It's so many people just dancing and singing. And it's beautiful, and it's spiritual, and it's Jewish. It's just so fun.

PRICHEP: For a kid in the not-so-Jewish city of Vancouver, Wash., having that community and practice be the norm can be life-changing, which was kind of the reason this all started.

SANDRA FOX: As Jews had more options to assimilate and to become part of a broader American culture, Jewish summer camps became immersive spaces for maintaining a certain sense of Jewish culture.

PRICHEP: Sandra Fox teaches at NYU and chronicled the mid-century expansion of these camps in her recent book, "The Jews Of Summer."

FOX: The other thing that's going on at this time is that the Holocaust had just happened, and so American Jews were incredibly anxious about the future of Jewish culture and Judaism as a religion.

PRICHEP: And for Americanized Jews, summer camps were a way to hold on to and rebuild that heritage.

FOX: The idea really was to take the American summer camp and make it reflective of what Jews wanted their future to look like.

PRICHEP: Fox says that in attempting to maintain Jewish traditions, these camps created a whole new form of it. Bunk names and activities were tied to stories from Israel's founding, the same way other summer camps mythologized Native American stories. Talent shows like this 1963 hootenanny from Camp Massad in the Poconos featured Hebrew versions of popular songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Hebrew).

PRICHEP: And as camps tried to make history come alive, there were pretty intense role-plays. Flip Frisch attended Wisconsin's Camp Herzl in the 1980s and remembers getting up in the middle of the night to reenact an escape from Nazi Europe - not the usual summer camp color war.

FLIP FRISCH: You had to have these papers and carry them with you at all times and be transported by rowboat in the dark and the back of a van with the seats taken out - no windows - and older kids pretending to be police and, like, stopping you with flashlights in your face.

PRICHEP: Camps have largely abandoned these activities. But Frisch says more than these very memorable recreations, she was struck by just living everyday life in a way that tied her to tradition.

FRISCH: I can credit camp with my entire Jewish identity. The whole reason I stuck with Judaism was camp and the connections I made.

PRICHEP: A recent Pew Research Center study found 40% of Americans raised Jewish attended one of these camps. Of course, some people go for a summer and never return, but some are like Frisch, who became a camp counselor and program director and works at her synagogue and still sings the songs she sang at camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRISCH: (Singing) Let us light these lights and see the way to you, and let us say amen.

PRICHEP: The camps that created these moments were built around a common purpose, which raises the question professor Sandra Fox gets all the time.

FOX: Every talk I give - every interview I've done, people ask me if camp works, and it's an interesting question because the question I ask back is - works by whose metrics?

PRICHEP: The founders would likely be surprised by what Jewish camp looks like these days. Talk about Israel is a little more nuanced. Intermarriage is a given, but Fox says that as Jewish camps change, or perhaps because they do, they still produce kids who are active in their community and connected to tradition and are building some new traditions of their own. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deena Prichep