Though today overnight summer camp—or sleepaway camp, as it is also called—can be an expensive endeavor, many of the early overnight camps for children in the United States were for middle-income families and the urban poor.
In the late 19th century, jobs created by the Industrial Revolution spurred people to move into manufacturing centers, causing crowded living conditions in cities across the country. Many of these newer city residents came from rural backgrounds, whether in the United States or in foreign countries, and the idea of their children playing in city streets in the summer heat seemed dangerous and far removed from their own childhoods.
During this period, parents devised ways to get their sons out of cities and into the countryside where they would have access to nature and participate in outdoor activities perceived at the time as crucial building blocks for boys to become men. Charities, often with religious affiliations, fashioned overnight camps for poor urban children to escape stifling city conditions.
Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, New York, is one of these camps that was originally created for lower-income urban youth. One of the two oldest American Jewish camps still in its original location, Surprise Lake Camp originated as an offering for Jewish boys from Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Famous alumni of Surprise Lake Camp include Eddie Cantor, Neil Diamond, Joseph Heller, Jerry Stiller, Gene Simmons, Neil Simon, and Walter Matthau.
While some families sent their daughters to overnight camps, “residence camps” for girls weren’t introduced widely until the early 20th century.
As summer camps became more popular around the US, some camps began catering to specific populations. The early 20th century saw a boom in Jewish summer camps, due in part to camping trends at the time but also as a reaction to the antisemitism Jews across America faced. Jewish overnight camps fostered community, allowed freedom to openly observe Jewish customs and religious rites, and acted as a counter to the pressures of assimilation faced by many American Jews at the time.
Within the Jewish camp community, resident summer camp options reflected different ethnicities and ideologies. As Nancy Mykoff writes in a comprehensive article about Jewish summer camp history, post-World War I activists advertised camp as a way to protect children from polio. For some summer camp organizers, resident camps offered an opportunity to convey and instill ideas about political principles or what it meant to be an American Jew.
For instance, Camp Kinderland was established in 1923 by Jewish union activists in New York, who wanted to provide a summer escape from the city for working class families. The founders of Kinderland believed that Jewish culture includes a responsibility to social justice.
Camp Massad was a Zionist summer camp in the Poconos that taught Hebrew.
Jewish overnight camps still exist in the United States today. Though the original impetus of these camps – to get urban children out of the city heat – may no longer be the primary reason that Jewish Americans send their children to overnight camp, the history, tradition, and community-building of Jewish sleepaway camp continues.