Today? We're litigious and safety conscious and have all sorts of rules and techniques so kids don't get hurt emotionally or physically ... and the camp prank still reigns supreme.
Sure, things are a little different and some pranks that flew in the 1970s or 1980s could get you arrested today, but camp is camp, and where cell phones and GameBoys aren't allowed, kids (and more often their counselors) will think of wild and clever ways to one-up each other.
"Camp is a place of freedom, where everything is measured against fun. Is it fun? Are we having a good time? Pranks are a part of that," said Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Woodland Hills, who directed Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, and still goes up to the Reform movement's camp in Santa Rosa to teach every summer.
Kipnes' favorite prank happened when he was the head counselor at Kutz Camp in the Catskills in the late 1980s. Kipnes came back from a day off to find his personal belongings carefully placed on his bunk floor, surrounded by wall-to-wall Dixie cups full of what he soon found out was toilet water.
As head counselor, he got back at the perpetrators -- all of them now prominent rabbis in the Reform movement -- by scheduling them for double night-watch duty followed by early morning breakfast set-up.
Musician Craig Taubman remembers being woken up in the middle of the night at Camp Ramah in Ojai when he was around 10. The counselors took the kids outside for a game of gaga (a campy version of dodgeball where everyone is moving and everyone is a target) and then tossed the kids an 80-pound wrecking ball, wrapped in a volleyball skin. The ball rolled down a hill, as Taubman recalls it, and crashed through the wall of another bunk.
So what happened to those counselors?
"They gained my ultimate respect," Taubman said. "This is inspired stuff."
Taubman himself grew to be a notorious Ramah prankster, so much so that he often got blamed for pranks he didn't commit.
He will take credit for hiding a dozen alarm clocks, set to go off every half hour or so throughout the night, in a neighboring bunk. He won't take credit for stealing all the bras in camp and stringing them in a chain from the boys' area to the girls' side.
A lot of camp pranks seem to involve moving furniture.
Kipnes remembers the dining room set up in the pool, and Taubman recalls setting up breakfast Japanese style, on the floor. And then there was the time at Camp Ramah in the 1970s when everything was taken out of the chapel, and a car was parked in what was once the synagogue.
Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah remembers rearranging a bunk on the roof in Camp Alonim in the 1980s. And when a counselor left for a day off, he came back to find his furniture and personal belongings set up perfectly -- in someone else's bunk.
In fact, leaving camp for a day off seems to have been a risky endeavor, as Vogel tells it. One counselor came back to Camp Alonim to find staff wearing every one of his shirts. Another tried to leave camp, but his car was stuffed full of balloons.
Sleep tricks are common as well -- there are the old favorites like shortsheeting the bed, Vaseline on the toilet seat or shaving cream in the hand and a feather on the nose. And consider this innovative prank: At Camp Raleigh in the 1970s, attorney Shep Rosenman remembers his group waking up a 13-year-old bunkmate, who had a habit of talking in his sleep. The kids told the half-asleep boy that lunch was over and it was his turn to lead bentching (grace after meals). The kid sang all of Birkat Hamazon, and was able to laugh about it in the morning.
Then there are the pranks where counselors completely terrorize the kids.
Joni Schacht, who attended Camp Moshava in Big Bear in the 1980s, remembers being scared to death when the whole camp was woken up in the middle of the night and told they had to evacuate because the camp was under attack by neo-Nazis. The campers were put on buses and taken deep into the woods -- where counselors broke out Color War.
Dani-El Kollin, Brian Wachler and Dan Schechter aren't proud of it now (or maybe they are) but when they were counselors for eighth-grade boys at Ramah in Ojai, they told the kids that a chainsaw murderer had escaped a nearby asylum. That night, after the counselors left and lights were out, Schechter snuck back into the room and blasted his boom box with the sound of a recorded chainsaw.
Sometimes camp tradition calls upon certain groups to be the pranksters. At Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, that honor falls upon the Teenage Service Camp (TASC, also known as Teenage Slave Camp), which traditionally steals the gong that summons kids to dinner, or kidnaps the camp director, according to longtime camper (and now staffer) Elizabeth Cobrin. In 2000 most of TASC got poison oak while building an outdoor amphitheater for Shabbat services -- which explains why they wrote "TASC Rash" in shaving cream on picnic tables they had stacked in the basketball court in the middle of the night.
Campers woke up to a not-so-pleasant surprise two years ago at Camp Ramah in Ojai. Just one day after the much-awaited sixth Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" arrived at camp, some 10th-graders who finished it in a day scrawled the surprise ending all over camp in non-permanent paint. Slower readers were devastated.
Now here's where the really 21st century stuff comes in: As a consequence, the kids spent time studying and then teaching Jewish texts about hurting other people with words and ideas, according to camp director Rabbi Daniel Greyber. Then they wrote and personally delivered letters of apology to kids who were upset by the prank.
"While we don't like it when pranks occur in camp, we try to make every moment a Jewish teaching moment, for those who do pranks and for those who suffer when they are done," Greyber said.
Good thing Greyber wasn't around for the chainsaw murderer prank. Now that would have gotten ugly.