Questioning My Home Away from Home: My Experience with Politics in My Summer Camp Community
February 25th, 2018
Waking up is the same every day when I’m there: get dressed, brush your teeth, aimlessly bump into your friends while rubbing the sleep out of your eyes, and go pray.
Since I was nine years old, I’ve been spending 4-8 weeks at a Conservative Jewish Summer Camp right on the border between New York and Connecticut. I’ve grown there in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, mainly because of the friendships I’ve made and the counselors who have helped me figure out what it is that I want in a role model. Trust, humor, and a sense of community are what have reinforced my love for camp every summer. But as I’ve gotten older, I am beginning to understand how my innate political passions as well as stances change my camp experience. My parents have raised my sisters and me as Jews, in secular Prospect Heights. They’ve taught us to always associate the religious with social action, reiterating time and time again that it is our duty as Jews to always stand up to and question the injustices around us. However, I often find that when I get to camp every summer and begin to adjust, the part of my Jewish identity which is most important to me, social justice, becomes less of a priority to me. At my camp, it’s not a welcomed principle. Instead, what matters are things like the clothes I wear and the music I listen to. I accredit this to the generally homogenous culture that my Conservative Jewish summer camp allows.
It’s ironic, really. When I dive into the most concentrated Jewish experience of my life, the most important Jewish thoughts slip away.
After the 2016 election, I considered not going back to camp. The events of November 8th made me upset and angry. Of course I wanted to spend my summer there, but I couldn’t handle being in a place where this sort of thing isn’t important. How do you live for two months in an environment where one of the things most important to you is deemed irrelevant? Irrelevance occurs out of an avoidance to talk about anything serious or political. Summer camp, to most, means living in a bubble, away from any pressure or scrutiny, especially when everyone at your camp is exactly the same. But when push came to shove, I came back around because I knew in the long run I’d have an unforgettable experience. However, this summer I made a promise that I wouldn’t stay quiet. When I was packing for camp, picking out the special things in my room I’d take with me, I thought, Okay Minna, give ‘em hell.
But when summer rolled around and it came down to the actual conversations, things were harder than I expected. I would be shot down without question in a conversation on the hammocks outside of my friends’ bunks. The back and forths I’d have with my friends that hurt me the most were the ones where I added something to the dialogue and was greeted with dismissal or derogatory language. “Really Minna? This again?” was a frequent response when I’d begin to talk about an issue in what one of my peers had said. Still, from snide remarks on Planned Parenthood to criticisms of the “Leftist Media,” I wanted to voice my own side of things.
One experience comes to mind where I felt the heat for the first time. It was like all of my fears for the summer were staring me in the face, and baring their teeth. It was around the fourth day of camp. I was with my friends on the porch outside their bunk, waiting to be called for dinner, when they mentioned in passing that one of our friends had brought a 2nd amendment flag to be hung on the posts of their bunk. As I became increasingly confused by what it could mean, (What did it say? Where did he get it? Why?) this boy came into sight from across the field where the boys’ bunks sit. “Hey Matt,” I began. “I heard about your 2nd Amendment flag. Want to talk about it?” He responded with a smug grin, as if he’d been waiting for me to take some sort of bait. “Sure,” he said, looking at me levelly. “I just think it’s funny, you know, because we deserve the right to own guns, to bear arms.” As you could gather, I was dealing with quite the comedic genius.
“Wait, is it a joke or do you actually believe that?” I asked, genuinely trying to understand what I would encounter by engaging in this conversation.
“I think it’s a funny joke, because it’s true. What about you, Minna? Do you think it’s funny?” Matt prodded.
“No Matt, politics aren’t funny. It actually reminds me of the election. It’s not a joke.”
At this, Matt looked at me with sudden disappointment and discomfort. “Really, Minna. . . you’re really going to make this about Trump?”
The disbelief and discomfort with my connection to the contentious 2nd Amendment to our current political climate was clear.
I walked ahead, ready to eat whatever it was that was waiting for me in the mess hall.
In a later conversation with Matt, which I had in preparation for this piece, I asked him a few questions about why it is he brought the flag to camp, what he planned on achieving. When I asked him about his initial motivation, he responded: “the only thing I can say is that I brought the flag as a joke and then played devil’s advocate for fun.” This was the type of nonchalant handling of the 2nd amendment I was uncomfortable with initially. I prodded him for more information, such as why he picked that specific flag. If he wanted to be provocative he could’ve gone with something “Pro-Life,” or Pro-Trump, to name a couple. Was he drawn to the 2nd amendment in terms of a debate he wanted to have? To this, he responded, “No it was the cheapest and in my mind the funniest option second to the Soviet Union flag, that I also brought.”
As camp really got into full swing, my tension with Matt increased, provoked by Trump-related conversations on the grass where we would specifically discuss his policies on Israel. Matt would boast his allegiance to Trump’s plan for the Middle East. I said to him that he was allowed to show support for a candidate who had a plan for Israel which he agreed with but who also was not a sexual predator, bigot, and not to mention Anti-Semite. “You know, that, right?” I’d say. But, as always, I was forced into a corner where my only way out was to pick a side: proud Jew, or proud Liberal. The truth of the matter is my political identity is so much more than a one word label. However, neither of the bases of my growing political sense, Camp or Brooklyn, allowed me to have a more nuanced way of self-identifying.
My relationship to politics in connection to my being a girl in a co-ed summer camp did not hit me until the eye rolls stopped and the “don’t be such a bitch” began. When I corrected people’s simple mistakes, like them cheating at a game, I was greeted more than once, by Matt in particular, by a loud, “Fuck you, Bitch,” or, the crowd pleaser, “Suck my dick!” If it was a joke to him, it wasn’t funny. He towered over me at 6 feet 1. To have that shouted at you is intimidating and threatening. It didn’t matter that I thought I could handle myself. When push comes to shove, it changes the game to have derogatory and hostile sentiments shouted at you, especially in my own “safe place.”
When I would bring something political up, by the 2-week mark, it had turned into a game for my peers. Who could provoke and excite me fastest? Matt was chief at this game. He’d stand up and say something outrageous, which everyone knew was just a way to get me angry. I felt sad and frustrated. By the time we were halfway through camp, I felt that I’d put my wrong foot forward, that I’d screwed up by being too assertive. By sticking up for what I believed in, I was being received in these situations as bitchy, easily offended, and sensitive. But I’m not rash. I think about what I say before I say it, and I care about what I believe in.
Women experience this everywhere, being seen as bitchy or loud-mouthed just because we’re talking about something we’re passionate about -- but my experience at a secluded co-ed summer camp only allowed this worn out, unfair trope to fester and grow. Everyone who comes to camp comes for the same reasons: you’re a young Jewish American, looking for a place to cultivate and love your identity. I’m so thankful to my camp for letting me have a space like this. But the compatibility which emerges from the unifying factor of our Jewish identities pushed out any room for differing opinions.
Throughout the entire summer, I would constantly hear boys in my age division saying the N-word or the F-slur with a pride as if they invented the words themselves. While I was anticipating this type of language because of how liberally (pun-intended) it is used back home in Brooklyn by those who shouldn’t be saying it, I was especially disappointed because of the appreciation which seemed to be missing of our own Jewish history with persecution and racial epithets. The first times I heard it, when it would be the ones I was close to, I’d give them a whack on the back of the head and a stern “NO.” But that wasn’t enough and I gave up -- I didn’t want to turn it into a game. I now link the confidence with which my peers tossed around these racial and sexual epithets with the security they felt in an environment where everyone is seemingly like them. “Why should you worry about anyone getting offended by the N-Word when everyone is White? Who cares about saying F*g… no one’s Gay?” These are the questions that these boys asked: and asking them to people like me and my friends who dared bring their behavior into question was for the sole purpose of reaffirming the faulty logic they live by. If no one can hear them, it must be okay. It was the confidence to say what they wanted which they held onto for dear life.
If the idea of my summer camp is supposedly about raising Jewish young adults, that includes us becoming increasingly politically aware. Not just as Jews, but as High School students and citizens of the World!
The role of counselors in how campers understand what it is they can and cannot do and say varies. I had conversations with 3 different counselors about their in-bunk experiences. One said while speaking to my question about his experience with certain insensitivity in the bunk, something which seemed especially poignant: “There’s a tendency for kids at summer camp to feel like they can basically say whatever they want without consequences. . . that idea mixed with a serious lack of camper diversity leads to a lot of ignorance.” The same counselor, who was 18 this summer, said that while his bunk had very little political conversation, he still “tried to talk to [the] campers a lot about sensitivity.” His interpretation of campers acting out in the ways which rightfully struck a wrong note to me was elaborated upon by saying: “I knew that they weren’t using certain words because they were mean-spirited or even bigoted, I knew that they just didn’t realize what they were saying when they said it. If you can contextualize the words they say it becomes easier for them to understand why those words are unacceptable for them to use.”
* * *
Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, (you might recognize it from the word Sabbath) is sacred at my camp. On Fridays, when the 24-hour period of rest and leisure begins, everyone wears white and gathers in the Amphitheater, which overlooks the lake. Once we finish services, we eat, bench, and the day of rest begins. Saturday morning the grass is fresh with dew as we head to our Shabbat morning services.
For years, camp has offered a service designed for boys, by boys, called b’li minyan. A minyan is a prayer group consisting of at least 10 people. B’li means without, which refers to the service’s non-egalitarian structure. As girls were not allowed to lead and have a platform of our own to pray, my good friends and I decided to make our own. It would be called the Women’s Centered T’Fillah, curated and led by girls and centered around topics relating to feminism in the Torah, or the lack thereof. The main difference between our minyan and the boys’ was that ours was offering a chance for everyone to speak, contribute, and help mold the environment, as well as the movement. It was by no means a rebuttal to what the boys had rather providing a space of openness for all to participate in the conversations we were hosting.
We were greeted with mixed reactions, but I will always remember and be thankful for the warmness and appreciation which came from our Director, as well as other rabbinical figures in camp. The whole thing could not have been pulled off without the advocacy and help of various figures around us. We got female Cantorial figures to help us lead, and we were able to concretely sculpt out our prayer service with the Head of T’fillah. This is the camp I love and will always love — an administration and board of directors willing to grow. I will never forget the interactions I had with former counselors and any other friends who told me how proud they were of me and my team. But not everyone was on board. We were told that our minyan was sexist, because of how it excluded boys. When I asked the Assistant Director if he was excited to come, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Why should I be excited about a minyan that I can’t even lead or attend?” I momentarily tried to find the words for a response, but ultimately just wished him a good Shabbos and walked away.
Why is that fair? Why should I be motivated to share what I believe in if it’ll be swept to the side? I believe that to love something is to criticize it. So that’s what I’ll do with camp, a place which has done so much to help me grow.
The truth of the matter is that I will always love camp. There are flaws which I saw first-hand last summer, flaws which I don’t accept, but acknowledge and wish to change. To my peers who disagree with me and other campers who speak their own personal truths: I know we come to camp every year for the same reason. However there is a harsh difference between disagreeing (which everyone has the right to do) and pushing another person’s views down because they question what you know or make you uncomfortable. We are all just kids, and need an environment to understand that it’s okay to evolve and to emphasize the importance of understanding others in a way which benefits all.
This is not an exposé. I love my camp in a way anyone who loves a community they are a part of can relate to. There are so many times, though, where I see things happen and I know they can be better. I don’t know why I thought I could take it on by myself. I see clear ways to improve these flaws. One shines out: a bigger self-awareness that sameness doesn’t have to equal ignorance or blatant disregard for other people’s. As so many circles do, my all Conservative Jewish summer community seems to let the sameness which evolves there become conducive to situations where ignorance blossoms. To those who relate to mine and others’ experiences, know that there are solutions. There is always room for change. There will always be availability for more understanding and compassion. At the basis of my relationship with camp, there is a love. An unadulterated, childlike love affair. But as I get older, that evolves too. It does not become replaced, but it takes new shapes. My love for camp pushes me to want to make it as good as it can be, because if that’s not dedication, what is?