Sex and the Jewish Summer Camp
As we enter the latter half of August, many Jewish campers all across the Diaspora are asking themselves an important question: “Have I gotten enough play this summer?” In this week’s issue of The Forward, the progressive Jewish paper published out of New York, Emily Shire has written a wonderful article titled: “Hooking Up at Summer Camp? Is a Little Nookie the Key to Jewish Continuity?” Shire, telling us what we already know, notes:
In addition to the kosher canteens and morning prayers, there’s another activity unlisted in any brochure but no less synonymous with Jewish sleepaway camps: hooking up. Ask any alumnus of the dozens of non-Orthodox Jewish overnight camps in North America, and you’ll get stories straight from an episode of “Glee,” with softball fields and squash courts as the backdrops to teenage hookups — everything up to but mostly excluding sexual intercourse….
Administrators at Jewish sleepaway camps say they discourage campers from getting frisky with each other. But former campers tell a different story, of counselors who turned a blind eye or even gently egged their campers on. The unspoken subtext, they say, is Jewish continuity. Like a PG-13 version of Taglit-Birthright Israel — during which Jewish 20-somethings are known to fall for each other while they fall in love with Israel — Jewish summer camps acquaint adolescents with their religious tradition, but also with each other. Many former campers say they had their earliest romantic episodes at camp, paving the way for adult relationships with other Jews. Today, hooking up at camp is a hallmark of the American Jewish youth experience.
I suggest you read the whole piece. It certainly resonated with me.
Though the message is more subtle than Birthright’s almost explicit efforts at matchmaking and procreation, Jewish summer camps without question seek to facilitate romantic relationships among Jewish campers and staff (but not between campers and staff). Particularly in the non-Orthodox camps, the Jewish content is fairly minimal. And teaching Judaism is not the real purpose of these camps. The real purposes is to encourage hookups and ultimately marriage between Jews, to keep things within the Tribe.
Think about it. Summer camp is the great equalizer. Everyone’s a little dirty, so hygiene becomes less important. Since the camp consists mostly or entirely of Jews, it’s easier to impress potential suitors with athletic prowess. Nobody has more money than anybody else, and there is no possibility of winning someone with a fancy date. Because hookups are officially frowned upon, there’s the thrill of doing something bad. And though there are lots of activities, from sports to arts and crafts to Judaica, there is still a lot of downtime. What else are young horny teenagers going to do?
As Shire notes, there have been no systematic studies of sexual relationships as Jewish summer camps. But there is evidence to suggest that Jewish summer camps offer something of a bulwark against intermarriage. Whatever the data reveals, there is no question that, as Shire writes: “for many, camp hookup culture was a formative part of their Jewish adolescence.”
There really is a fascinating historical/sociological book project that needs to be done about the role of summer camps in the North American, or perhaps even global Diaspora Jewish community. Hookup culture would be an integral aspect of that project. Maybe I’ll write it one day. On that note, Shabbat Shalom!