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Maya Zinkow

A Feminist Camp Counselor Unpacks Her Baggage

Photo credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp

Photo credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp

The summer after my sophomore year at Barnard, I had just begun to crack open this thing called gender, hearing and welcoming the exciting voices that are part of the canon of a women’s college curriculum . I learned a new language, that of Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, Judith Butler and Alice Walker, and became more fluent with every class discussion, every conversation with friends over potluck dinners of quinoa, Brussels sprouts bathed in balsamic vinegar, and vegan desserts. The glossy Barnard brochures had assured me that I would become the women I saw in the pictures: confident, well-read, transformed. Finally, after two years, it was beginning to happen.

Then, suddenly: Summer! In the middle of my college career, already feeling like a changed person, I was returning to a place that seldom changes, a place that I loved deeply—my Jewish summer camp. I’d gone to camp nearly every other summer of my life, so I knew the feeling of returning to a powerfully familiar location as someone new. With colorful braces when I was 10, finally without braces at 15, and with a different haircut when at long last my curls developed. Camp could always embrace superficial changes like these. As campers, we relish that moment when we step off the bus bearing these new parts of ourselves, knowing that friends will embrace us warmly whether our acne has cleared up or not. And counselors are taught to create a space where a camper can return year after year and be his or her truest self. But deep internal change is harder to accommodate in a space that must remain the familiar and idyllic home for the hundreds of campers who return every summer.

That summer after my sophomore year, my third on staff, I arrived with more than just a new hairdo and an updated wardrobe. This time I came with new ideas as well, and I found it far more difficult to ease comfortably back into a world where girls spent hours in front of a mirror primping for Shabbat, where boys shot “Go clean your kitchen” jokes at the girls across the dining hall, and where the sexual histories of campers past and present were documented on cabin walls in pink nail polish and Sharpie ink.

I had been transplanted from my haven at Barnard, where every class took an intersectional approach to history, sociology, and literature, where professors invited students to discuss everything from politics to prostitution, where my friends and I stayed up late talking about gender and Judaism until we realized our papers on the same subjects were due the next morning and hadn’t been written yet. In Women in Israel, we discussed the complications of women in the public spaces of a religious democracy. In American Women of the 20th Century, I uncovered the U.S. history that I’d never found in my high school textbooks, their pages shining with the feats of our country’s founding straight white men. In Sociology of Gender, I learned that gender is performative, something that is built in the social interactions of our everyday life. Through it all, I simultaneously learned how to recognize the ways I had been held back by my various identities, how to reflect critically on life experiences and interactions with peers, friends, and superiors, and—yes—how to check my privilege.

At camp I quickly became the token feminist on my staff, struggling to reconcile all that I had learned at college with certain stark realities of camp life: Living spaces were designed and assigned in accordance with the gender binary. All boys at our Conservative camp were required to pray in tallit and tefillin, while girls were given a half-hearted, non-obligatory opportunity to do so. The rampant heteronormative hookup culture fueled peer pressure, caused campers who had no interest in participating to feel isolated, and threatened the idea that camp is a safe space to try new experiences.

How could I be my truest self in a place that no longer seemed to embrace all that I believed in?

Now it’s two years later, and on the cusp of my graduation from Barnard I packed up once again for summer at camp, this time as a division head. My love for camp has clearly endured, but I haven’t stopped thinking about that challenging summer after my sophomore year. So this spring, in anticipation of the summer to come, I decided to better prepare myself for the transition into that world. On a sunny Shabbat afternoon, a few weeks before the end of my last semester, I invited friends and peers — a diverse group of campniks who spanned the Jewish and gender spectrums,–to reveal their own concerns and experiences similar. Sitting in a campfire-style circle on the main lawn of Barnard’s campus, surrounded by academic conversations and urban traffic, the feel of the grass beneath our toes seemed to bring us back to our respective camps, allowing us to relive similar frustrations, but also the pleasures and transformative power of camp. We started with a simple question: What is the one space in your camp where you have always been most aware of gender dynamics? In classic camp fashion, we went around the circle. One young man who had spent many summers at a Reform movement camp discussed the implications of showering with friends, recognizing now what he hadn’t as a boy: that this was an environment unwelcoming to potentially queer cabin mates. Another man chimed in that communal showering at his Conservative camp always seemed to him to be a “mark of true manhood,” a bonding activity, and he now regrets shunning friends who’d seemed uncomfortable with the ritual.

Ritual was a word that came up often, whether to describe moments of single-gender bonding – like “army night” for men and “spa day” for girls – or to discuss the gendered nature of specific Jewish activities and practices. A woman who’d attended Orthodox camp every summer interpreted the gendered clothing restrictions for children of all ages as body-policing, at times even slut-shaming. Several women expressed their frustrations at being one of just a few females at their camps to wear tallit and tefillin every morning. I was one of these women at my own camp, which espouses egalitarian principles, and I still struggle with the idea of ritual obligation, and with the fact that girls who take on the mitzvah report feeling immediately othered, and a little alienated from their peers, starting that very first morning when they show up to services ready to wrap themselves in prayer along with the guys. That afternoon on the college lawn, in a space we’d created for ourselves that never seemed to exist at camp, we hashed it all out. No one was the token anything.

Through all these topics, we kept coming back to role modeling. How do we extract from camp these damaging social structures without destroying the sacred, necessary realities of tradition and familiarity? How can we bring all that we know into our jobs as role models in this specific context, in a place with certain established values, religious and otherwise?

Here is the paradox: While camp is theoretically a place where children are free to explore all aspects of their identity, and where every child’s unique personality is meant to be celebrated, it is also a place that strives for sameness: in Jewish ritual and values, in behavior, in a shared agreement to live life in a certain way for eight weeks of the year, with the hope that campers will bring those values home with them come August.

One woman joining us on the grass that day spoke about being aware of a clear divide among her campers. There were those girls who seemed made for camp: they presented as straight, they enjoyed the daily activities of camp, they were outgoing and funny, they participated in the prevalent hookup culture, and all the while benefited—albeit passively—from the intense and totally immersive Jewish environment. And then there were the other girls: shy, quiet, girls who preferred reading on their bunk beds to gossiping over manicures, girls who slept through the night instead of sneaking out to the boys’ side of camp, girls for whom counselors had to work hard to insure their summers were fun, fulfilling, and safe. “Who am I a counselor for?” this staff member asked. “Am I a counselor for the kids who live and breath camp, who are maybe the camp ideal? Or for the kids who don’t easily conform to the sameness camp tries, in some ways, to achieve?“

I’m taking her questions along with me on my way up to camp this year. Given camp’s unique power to take children out of their habitual environments for two months out of the year, to give them the space to grow in a place free of parents, school pressures, and limitations on living engaged Jewish lives, these questions are especially important..

In this liminal space, we focus heavily on giving children a taste of ideal Jewish living: we discuss the weekly Torah portion in circles similar to the one my friends and I created just weeks ago, we pray in beautiful natural environments, we sprinkle Hebrew into every conversation, and we strive to create a kehila, a community of meaningful relationships.

Just as we strive to open up our youngsters to new modes of Jewish practice, we also have the opportunity to use the transcendent space of camp to challenge other limitations the modern world places on us, not only as Jews but also as gendered beings in a binaried culture. At camp this summer, and every summer, I want us to gather in circles to ask the questions that matter. Let us diversify our notions of gendered ideals within Jewish tradition. Let us think critically about the messages conveyed by dress codes, obligation, and same-sex bonding activities. Let us create positive changes instead of the tired sexism so common among camp experiences.

This summer, I’m adding these ideas to my packing list, along with a well-worn Barnard sweatshirt: Be the counselor who does not assume heterosexuality of your campers or their parents. Be the counselor who pushes for more meaningful gender-based activities.. Be the counselor who welcomes open conversations about Jewish practice, who is honest about your personal journey with ritual. Be the counselor who can mediate sensitively those situations that unintentionally shut out some campers. Be a leader.

  • Suz

    Almost 20 years ago, I was a recent graduate of a very liberal college with a Women’s Studies concentration. As part of a part-time job for a Jewish organization, I was asked to be a supervisor at an autumn camp experience that was to introduce the kids to this particular summer camp. One of the planned activities for the girls in my bunk (planned by the teen-aged staff)? Girlie time. They pulled out their make up and nail polish, and that was the activity. When I questioned one of the teenage staff members about this and noted that the seven-year-old girls did NOT all seem to think that this was a fun activity, her response was to roll her eyes at me. As I read your very thoughtful piece, I am disappointed that these gender norms are still so prevalent at summer camps. I am so glad that you and your peers are trying to make positive changes to challenge these ideas. Keep up the excellent work, and maybe, twenty years from now when my own kids are counselors, this will b e less of an issue.

  • Anya

    Reading this article with nearly twenty five years of distance from my last summer as a camper I get the shivers. This description of a place where the lamest aspects of gender expression and boy-girl interactions rule, where encouragement for delving into religious practice is lopsided (and out of date) has changed not one iota from what I knew in the late 80′s. It stands out in contrast to the varied Judaisms and gender expressions within that I know now. A today, thank everything, where my reality is one that allows for Torah reading practice with my African American AND Jewish female friend in the morning (all it takes is a Jewish mom) and for us to reconvene later to head into SF for Pride weekend- to celebrate putting the B (be!) in LGBT. Has Jewish summer camp not caught up with the times? Or is it a vehicle for resisting them?
    Granted, there are some truths that are not appropriate for sharing openly in a place with kids of all ages. Even if camp doesn’t put on a ‘rainbow night’ to honor the diversity of its residents, there are so many other ways to support youth in building the personal foundations which allow people to greet the emergence of their (our) unique selves with strength and self compassion.Everyone’s different somehow, sometime. Living as a Jew in our wider culture is an exercise in being different. This is a ready made platform for camps to delve into other kinds of diversity.

    I HATED camp. Jewish summer camp – that idyllic place educators and synagogues plug to parents year after year.Where parents send kids for a few weeks break of their own, as much as anything idealistic. My horrible camp summers are a truth many other Jews I know don’t like hearing. One I keep to myself in polite ‘ around the Shabbat table’ conversation. Because Jewish summer camp is designed to be a formative experience. From my outlook, its formative in the sense of in dosing youth with the kool-aid (Manoshevitz) of conforming to normative Jewish-American culture. I’m still the odd one out among those who found NFTY to be nifty.
    That yearly dose of indoctrination caused me to itch and suffocate inside as strongly as peanut butter does in some kids. The gratitude I was expected to have towards my parents for being given such a lovely time made it worse. I called it ‘das kamp’ in my best faux Nazi German accent, hoping to get a rise out of my adults and express an idea that I didn’t yet have words for as a preteen. The sameness killed my soul a little bit every summer. There was no environment for being my truest best self, no support for trying on new identity. Because unless your best female self was a white, boy crazy, clique loving JAP who’s greatest pleasure was swimming, blow-drying and singing Zionist campfire songs there was no space for her to emerge.
    The visible feminists at that the camps I went to seemed to be hired to represent a cautionary tale. Large women with forests of exposed armpit hair and an under currant of hostility. Outward feminist ideals expressed by a love of Debbie Friedman, a refusal to wear skirts and the reminder – when the subject of making aliyah came up – that women too joined the IDF. Maybe they were stifled by camp too. Perhaps they signed an agreement to avoid saying or doing anything that would disrupt that illusion of happy sameness in any meaningful way. Regardless, such feminists weren’t a help in terms of a being a role model or a guide to what I was going through each summer. That realization that I felt like a fish out of water. That I felt different than all the other people around me.
    There was ONE counselor who saw me. We met my last year as a camper,1990. ONE, who recognized that I wasn’t simply a fourteen year old rebelling, a troublemaker for trouble’s sake. She was a student from one of the east coast women’s schools, Vassar or Sarah Lawrence. Tall with Goth sensibilities and mercifully shaved body hair. Probably not more than five years my senior.She noticed I didn’t fit the mold and said as much to me. She even suggested that the camp environment was not the place for me. Information I used to convince my parents to send me to a study abroad program the following summer.
    What made her different, looking back, was her ability to hear and express non-standard opinions in a way that felt natural. To relate human being to human being rather than as a live commercial for camp values. A willingness to connect and communicate that I now recognize as a mark of genuine feminism.I remember being floored that her connection to Judaism hadn’t stifled her ability to think. A trait I now see as authentic to what the religion models for Jews. And so different from what it sounds like the camp brand of Jewish culture is still offering up for consumption. We met again years later. She was still that truth speaking open minded woman. Its been a treat to know her adult woman to adult woman.

    In each generation Jewish culture strives to find its place within the wider culture it finds itself in. Some of the Jewish establishment bemoan the differences as a mark of weakness in the world around them, crying out that Jewish people must retain a certain monolithic quality in order to remain great. Others recognize that when the time and place have something to teach we must take on the role of student. Even if we must examine these new lessons with a critical eye. Our Jewish summer camps still serve the role of creating Jewish identity while allowing kids to take part in what it means to be an American kid. To serve us better a reevaluation of what those two identities look like today is in order. Maya Zinkow’s article deserves praise for drawing attention to that fact.

  • DT

    My children attend a Habonim D’ror camp, and the story could not be more different for them. The camp goes to great lengths not only to break down these kinds of stereotypes, but also to teach the campers about them. They have programs explicitly intended to get the kids to examine their ideas about being male or female and what assumptions they make about others as well.

    As a committed conservative Jew, it was hard to make a decision not to send them to a Ramah camp, but reading this, I’m feeling a bit better about that decision.