Wednesday 5 August 2009

Summer Camps - a privilege for the pampered

Now that the fasting of Tisha B’Av is over, the folly of summer camp begins. Talking about ‘getting the kids ready for camp’ is a favourite Shabbat lunch topic, while ‘shopping for camp’ is a specific activity that Hendon mothers (and yes, I generalise) undertake with a specific passion usually reserved for, well, things I am too modest to mention. New T-shirts, shoes, suitcases, underwear, bedding, hair accessories and skirts are standard. How the world has changed - when I begged my parents to let me go to camp, I had to choose my words carefully - camp only meant Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.

“Going to camp” exposes the wealth divide in much of the frum community. Bnei Akiva, the movement aligned with the national-religious Mizrachi movement, costs £655 for a two week residential camp, and while there are bursaries, these are usually reserved for those on welfare benefits or single parents. While your average family on middling-incomes may be lucky enough to have the money in the bank, understandably it may not be their first priority to send one, if not more, children to camp. For children who are not at Jewish schools, camp is the best way to develop Jewish social networks, learn more about Jewish texts and experience a Jewish lifestyle in a non-threatening environment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish communal leaders are inspired by their formative experiences of Jewish summer camp, and this is reflected in the fact that only the wealthy men and women can afford to be our lay leaders.

However, some consider camp a pernicious influence. Last year, the German government banned the far-right youth organisation "Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend", or German Youth Faithful to the Homeland, for trying to indoctrinate children and teenagers at their summer camps which include military-style drills and courses on "racial purity." This year, David Cameron has announced some half-baked idea for young people to get involved in summer camps and community projects as a means of raising the self-esteem and sense of social responsibility of the underprivileged. In Israel, concern about the extreme religious teachings in summer camps organised by Fatah and Hamas has been a long-standing issue. In Uzbekistan, the government has accused the Baptist Union of brainwashing children with religious ideas at their summer camp. Some may wonder if it is so different at Jewish summer camps that celebrate Jewish nationalism, reinforce Jewish insularity and solidarity and see the world solely through the Jewish lens. For example, Camp Gan Israel advertises itself as “Where Jewish kids are Happier, and Happy Kids are Jewisher!” Jewisher than what?

While it’s simple when religious camps are sex-segregated, it gets a little more complicated where boys and girls are together. Naturally it is expected that they will be kosher and Sabbath-observant, however, the dress code and the relationship code is a little more ambiguous. At Bnei Akiva, there is much less talk of its revered Torah v’Avodah ideology, and more obsession with ‘shomer negia,’ (literally ‘guarding the touch’) which forbids any physical contact between the young male and female campers and their leaders. While it is comforting to parents to know that it’s unlikely their daughter will be deflowered at Bnei Akiva camp, this skewed focus on the physical relationships has ironically, created more sexual tension between its senior members. It’s no surprise that many a marriage in modern Orthodox circles was first imagined at a Bnei Akiva camp. Singles cruises geared for all the religious unmarried men and women in their 30s is all about re-creating the romantic possibilities of a Bnei Akiva summer camp.

What about the homesick child at summer camp? In my day, you’d cry yourself to sleep and put on a brave face during the day and soon afterwards, it would all be fine. The mobile phone has changed the summer camp experience forever. For a while, they were banned from summer camp, but this year, most youth movements have conceded to pressure to allow the children to bring their phone to camp. The problem is that generally, the children will ring their parents, or email them from their Blackberry (the hand-me-down phone of choice when their parents upgrade their own phone) at the slightest complaint or indignation.

Children no longer have to rely on their inner resources and resilience – they can always phone home for comfort and succour. Jewish camp providers have to pander to parental demands and expectations to ensure cash flow, while children learn that their needs and their happiness is all that matters. Narcissistic children calling their parents from summer camp does not augur well for the future of the Jewish community – a community that desperately needs visionary leadership, selfless membership and a deep commitment to ensuring that Jewish values permeates all communal activity. As long as summer camp remains accessible only to the privileged, the community has no idea what talented and dedicated young people are waiting to be discovered.