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“A Free Hand”: Postwar Summer Camps, Zionism, and the Total Institution

Mon, December 17, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 1 Complex

Abstract

In 1966, Jewish education scholar Daniel Isaacman explained what he saw as the educational power of summer camp in the American Jewish Yearbook. “Camp’s vitality as an institution,” wrote Isaacman, “lies in the fact that it controls the child’s environment for 24 hours a day, 8 weeks a year, and in this time can provide more experience of Jewish living than an entire school year of class instruction.” Leibush Lehrer, Yiddish pedagogue and long-time director of Camp Boiberik, built his camp under a similar idea, believing that once he and his staff “had the children under our control for 24 hours a day,” they would “have a free hand” educationally. Countless other Jewish educators expressed similar sentiments, insisting that the separated time and space of camp-life functioned as the most powerful attribute of the Jewish educational camp experience, allowing for the transformation of youth through the simulation of Jews from other times and places.

This paper addresses American Jewish and Zionist movement summer camping in light of theories on total institutions. Erving Goffman’s work Asylums examined sites where “a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life,” institutions which bring together daily activities “as parts of a single over-all rational plan, purportedly designed to fulfill the official aims of the institution.” Considering summer camps with Goffman and his interlocutors theories in mind, this paper considers how American Jewish leaders urgently adopted summer camps as panaceas to communal ills, under the belief that within camps’ totalizing characteristics held tremendous transformative power. With a focus on how educators infused Zionism and Israel into camp-space, it also addresses how youth reacted to the totalizing and Israel-centric qualities of their camp experiences.

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