A Place of Our Own The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8173-1486-6
Chapter One Jewish Camping and Its Relationship to the Organized Camping Movement in America
Gary P. Zola
Organized camping is a uniquely American cultural phenomenon. Camps and camping programs constitute a familiar and widespread feature of contemporary American life. In fact, according to the American Camping Association (which succeeded the Camp Directors Association in 1935), today there are more than twelve thousand day and resident camps of varying types throughout the country. More than ten million children and adults participate annually in the organized recreational and educational opportunities offered by these camps each summer. Organized camping is so ubiquitous that some may be surprised to discover that 125 years ago camping was still in its infancy. In fact, during the early stages of this uniquely American educational institution's history, camping's trailblazers persistently promoted the new institution's many social benefits. Once considered merely a creative experiment in structured outdoor living and learning, organized camping has today become a staple of American life. Not only is the idea of organized camping an American original, but outdoor camping-American style-has also been exported to all parts of the world.
Our understanding of American history during the twentieth century would unquestionably benefit from a full-scale historical analysis of organized camping as a social movement. As one camping and recreation expert noted, during the first century of the movement's existence in America, there were some who contended that organized camping was a nostrum for almost any unsatisfactory social condition one could name. Although such a historical reconstruction is beyond the scope of this essay, it is possible to provide a brief overview of the various factors that influenced the beginnings and early growth of the American camping movement.
Organized Camping in America
The origins of American camping have been traced back to a schoolmaster named Frederick William Gunn, who founded his "Gunnery Camp" in August of 1861, the summer following the outbreak of the Civil War. Gunn's "encampment" brought some students from his school to the out-of-doors to experience the life of the soldier and to learn firsthand about nature. It is difficult to determine whether or not American camping grew from the seedling that Frederick Gunn planted. Most historians agree, however, that the beginnings and early growth of camping as a bona fide social movement in America occurred during the last two decades of the nineteenth century under the influence of American Progressivism. A remarkable number of American camping pioneers were either educators, physicians, or members of the clergy whose ideas about camping were shaped by the social reforming ideals that characterized that period in American history.
By 1880, 25 percent of the American population lived in cities. Urbanization at the fin de siècle was accompanied by wondrous advances in technology, transportation, and manufacturing. These developments resulted in the creation of many new jobs, and, consequently, many people experienced a better quality of life. However, urbanization brought hardship to many others in the form of unsanitary living conditions, exploitation of labor, and the growth of organized crime. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, a variety of social reforming initiatives emerged in response to the negative consequences of urbanization and industrialization. It was at this time that the Social Gospel movement, an upsurge of interest in fostering a more socially involved, socially active Christianity, arose. At the same time, many people were drawn to the "back-to-nature" and "Fresh Air" movements as necessary antidotes to the negative consequences of industrialization.
These two impetuses coalesced among those who discovered that fresh, unpolluted air and natural surroundings not only renewed their physical health but also revitalized their spiritual lives. Thousands of middle-class Americans retreated from their urban homes and combined religious revival meetings with the pleasures of outdoor living. This increased interest in the natural environment fueled the development of summer camping programs, which featured both organized physical activities and the salubrious effects of life in the out-of-doors. A modest number of organized camping programs took root during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
The establishment of a series of professional camping associations in the first two decades of the twentieth century, such as the General Camp Association (1903), the Camp Directors Association of America (1910), and the National Association of Directors of Girls' Private Camps (1916), testifies to the fact that organized camping in America was fast becoming a movement of some consequence. By 1918 the editors of Red Book magazine began to promote the American camping movement in its pages. Claiming to have the "largest Educational Department of any magazine in the country," Red Book assembled a writing staff composed of "college men and women with wide cultural experience" who would provide reading materials that were "designed to inspire parents with the higher ideals of child education." Articles on the state of American camping supplemented the magazine's educational initiatives. During the mid-1920s, Henry Wellington Wack, associate director of Red Book's "Camp Department," visited hundreds of camps and wrote extensively on his experiences.
In 1924 the three aforementioned camp associations merged into a new, amalgamated Camp Directors Association, further underscoring the continuing vitality of the American camping movement. Organized camping in America has experienced a steady rate of growth throughout the course of the twentieth century, and by the end of the twentieth century an estimated one out of nine American children participated in some type of camping program during the course of their lives. On the basis of these statistics it is fair to assert that the camping movement has become a significant sociocultural phenomenon on the American landscape. Indeed, organized camping has become such a familiar feature of American life that it is difficult to believe that little more than a century ago the movement was only in its infancy.
Embedded within the early history of the American camping movement one finds a complicated matrix of diverse ideologies, principles, and philosophies that shaped the social value and communal benefit of the camping experience. It is possible to organize the majority of these theories and ideals into five broad categories that have collectively shaped the overall growth of organized camping in America. As the organized camping movement expanded, a significant number of social and religious groups came to realize that the benefits of organized camping could be adapted to suit their own group's specific needs and objectives. The history of American Jewish camping provides us with a case study of this historical phenomenon.
Organized Camping's Educational Function: Learning Through Doing
The idea that organized camping was rich with educative potential may be traced back to the movement's embryonic phase, when Frederick William Gunn, who directed his own private school in Connecticut, decided to conclude his school's summer semester by taking his pupils to the shore of Long Island Sound for a two-week out-of-doors experience. During their sojourn in the wilderness, Gunn exposed his students to vigorous hiking, firm discipline, sleeping in tents outdoors, and strenuous sporting activities. Gunn was an educator, and he saw this camping experience as a "supplement to formal education."
Reflecting on their camping experience with Gunn, the alumni of this pioneering venture in organized camping remembered that their teacher had an educational agenda in mind; he wanted them to become self-reliant, self-confident adults. Gunn's first student-campers also learned about the Civil War, which had begun a few months earlier. Like soldiers, these boys lived in tents, discussed current events, and listened to stories around the campfire. This was learning by doing. Gunn wanted to do more than compel his pupils to memorize facts; he aspired to develop character. By taking his students into the wilderness, where together they would experience the "hazards, emergencies and challenges" of life in the natural environment, Gunn believed he would promote the development of "solid, self-reliant manhood."
In the 1880s and 1890s, when the organized camping movement was first taking shape, many of its pioneering proponents were Progressivist educators. People such as Luther Halsey Gulick, George Louis Meylan, and Laura Mattoon were personally associated with the era's most prominent educational ideologues: John Dewey and William H. Kilpatrick. Dewey developed his own pragmatic philosophy called "instrumentalism," which asserted that human intelligence is a tool used for overcoming obstacles and problems that confront us. Similarly, Kilpatrick advocated innovative educational strategies such as the use of projects and stimulating activities to enliven the classroom. The programmatic content of many of the early camps bespeaks their founders' familiarity with these Progressivist ideas.
By the 1920s, educational theories emphasizing the link between learning and play had evolved. For its early proponents, the camping environment became a natural laboratory where like-minded reformers were able to put their educational theories into action. These men and women developed educational philosophies of organized camping, which they published and distributed in the form of books and pamphlets. The camping experience was more than an escape into a world of recreation and entertainment. Camp, as one of its early advocates wrote, was to be "a laboratory of life."
The educational value of camping achieved a remarkable endorsement in 1998, when the New York Public School System initiated its Breakaways program, with its focus on year-round learning. Students experienced up to twenty-eight days of nontraditional learning during the summer and school-year breaks. The Breakaways program incorporated the camp experience into the school curriculum, thereby creating a new model for public education in the nation's largest public school system. This innovation was the fulfillment of an ideal that may be traced back to the incipiency of organized camping in America. The idea of "learning by doing" has continuously remained a foundational value in camping. To this day, the American Camping Association describes itself as a "nonprofit educational organization."
Organized Camping's Social Mission: Improving Individual Lives
As we have seen, the founders of organized camping in America recognized camping's great educational potential. The acquisition of knowledge, however, was not an end in and of itself; rather, education was a means to improve the quality of human existence. Just as camps facilitated new modes of learning, so too could these unique, out-of-door experiences enhance the quality of human life. These ideas found their source in the intellectual milieu of the Progressive Era.
The owners and directors of the many camps established during the camping movement's formative era were committed to the idea that time at camp could literally transform a youngster's life, regardless of whether that child was rich or poor. As we will see, there were camps that catered to a wealthy clientele as well as those that concerned themselves with the impoverished classes. There were camping advocates who undertook to meliorate the spirit of idleness and languor that appeared to be eroding the character of their youth. At the same time, there were those who sought to better the lives of the underprivileged: the children of factory workers, immigrants, and the many unfortunate young people who experienced the "tyranny of the cities."
In 1876, for instance, Dr. Joseph Timble Rothrock, a man who went on to distinguish himself in the professional field of forest management, established a camp outside of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for "weakly boys." The camp sought to develop healthy minds and bodies. Rothrock theorized that by "mingling exercise and study" his camp succeeded in improving a youngster's health while concomitantly conveying a wealth of "practical knowledge." And when Ernest Balch established Camp Chocorua in 1881, he contended that the program would cure the "miserable existence of wealthy adolescent boys in the summer when they must accompany their parents to fashionable resorts and fall prey to the evils of life in high society." The camp's primary raison d'être, Balch insisted, was to foster the "development of a sense of responsibility in the boy both for himself and others."
In 1884 Winthrop T. Talbot purchased the grounds of Ernest Balch's Camp Chocorua. Renaming it Camp Asquam, Talbot's program initially catered to a wealthy clientele. Later, Talbot realized that his camp could be a "corrective to negative city influences," and he noted the importance of having privileged children spend time together with their underprivileged peers. Camping, Talbot observed, helped these boys to become better people by smoothing "the rough corners of the embryo aristocrat, the budding of the crude, well-meaning able boy."
Originally there were separate camps for boys and girls. True coeducational camping did not begin to appear until the 1920s, though there were some early examples of girls' camps located adjacent to an associated, though separate, camp for boys. Indeed, organized camping programs for girls appear in the earliest stages of camping's history. Laura Mattoon, a Wellesley graduate, established Camp Kehonka for girls in 1902. In addition to teaching her campers to appreciate poetry, nature studies, and the art of good conversation, the girls who attended the camp were also exposed to hiking, swimming, outdoor cooking, and wood-chopping. Mattoon wanted her camp to be a place where young girls could convert "wishbones into backbones."
It was at this same time that many "Fresh Air" and Settlement movements established organized camping programs that aspired to improve the lot of the needy. Initially the supporters of these camps were convinced that simply by giving underprivileged children two weeks of fresh air, sunshine, and good food, they could overcome the negative effects of their impoverished living conditions. Before long, these camps began to supplement their summer program by offering the campers educational and vocational enrichment. In dedicating the Hull House Camp in 1908, Jane Addams declared: "For fresh air, yes, but fresh air breathed in joy and freedom, and opening up a new world."
Some settlement camps combined the camping experience with summer employment opportunities, and for many of the settlement camps, Americanizing the immigrant was a desideratum. This concern sparked camping program initiatives related to hygiene, family life, and civic responsibility. In sum, the American camping movement gained strength from the belief that outdoor experiences would provide underprivileged American children with a "foothold of opportunity."
By the 1920s, many had been persuaded that camping programs were helping to develop "better people, better lives" in America. Living in nature, becoming self-reliant, and learning to work cooperatively would nurture and enrich the individual human traits of perseverance, courage, courtesy, moral rectitude, and ambition. The best in human nature is released in the natural environment, and that beau ideal can be "made so infectious that the entire camp group develops it."
Organized Camping Spiritual Function: Heightening Religiosity
Since many of the early leaders of the organized camping movement in America were members of the clergy, it should come as no surprise that many of the first camp programs promoted the values of learning, personal growth, and increased spiritual awareness. As one pioneering veteran of camping noted: "a camp should be educational, not only in the development of character, but also in a close study of all that God created for our enjoyment." To be sure, many of camping's pioneering ideologues were deeply religious men and women who believed that organized camping was an excellent tool for the enhancement of a young person's religious spirit.
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