When I grew up in the outskirts of Philadelphia in the early 1980s, going to a Jewish overnight camp meant spending eight weeks in the Poconos with a bunch of pampered girls with last names like Greenberg, Cohen and Leibman.
The religious part of camp included Friday night services, singing the "Motzi" before meals and an occasional explanation of the words to "Adon Olam" for a non-Jewish counselor. Aside from a few token Jewish traditions, camp was a lesson in surviving girls who perpetuated the term "Jewish American Princess." Not only did this painful summer ritual reinforce my dislike of sports and snobs, somehow it also helped solidify my Jewish identity.
Does Jewish summer camp still have that effect on kids today?
This summer, I visited Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, one of two summer camps owned by Wilshire Boulevard Temple. In an effort to parallel my teenage experience, I spent the day with the girls in Cabin Emuna, a group of 14- and-15-year-olds entering their sophomore year of high school. These 10 girls were part of the camp's Leadership Program, a group of 60 teens who had applied and interviewed for spots as the oldest campers and emerging Jewish leaders.
Driving along Pacific Coast Highway, I wondered if the modern-day Greenbergs, Cohens and Leibmans would have much to say about their Judaism. In my experience, Jewish camp had not been rich with Jewishness.
When I pulled through the camp gate, I was stunned to see a painted mural bearing the world "Shalom." Walking to the camp office, I stopped to study a group of kid-created paintings depicting Stars of David, the Western Wall and other Jewish symbols. I quickly realized I was entering a world very different from my own past.
Camp Director Howard Kaplan led me to Baruh Hall, a recreation building where the Leadership teens were gathered. Scanning the crowd of seated 15-year-old girls, I saw traces of the Greenbergs, Cohens and Leibmans of my past in their sloppily perfect loose ponytails, but the similarity ended there.
It was time for Limud, the daily Judaic studies hour. A Jewish rock singer named Danny Nichols was there to play guitar and teach his original songs. As I wondered whether the campers had any interest in their guest, a girl excitedly called out to the singer, "Can you play 'B'tzelem Elokim?'" Nichols began playing and, to my surprise, many of the kids sang along and cheered.
"I really like the feeling of being in a Jewish community," Lindsey Herron, 15, told me after Limud. "Not very many of my friends at home are Jewish and sometimes I feel left out when they talk about their Christian youth groups."
Amazingly, after the Limud, the group was headed for another educational program: meeting with the camp's 10 shlichot (emissaries visiting from Israel). Even though these kids had sports in the afternoon, I don't think in my time we would have been happy with so much educational programming. But they don't seem to mind.
"Do you guys feel that Zionism has become a tool in politics?" a boy asked the shlichot.
"Do you feel safe living in Israel?" a Leadership girl wanted to know.
I had my own question, but it wasn't for the shlichot: When did Jewish camp become so Jewish? And when did Jewish teens become so motivated and interested?
"I think it's really cool when we're able to communicate with Israelis," Rachel Braunstein, 15, told me as we scarfed down tacquitos in the noisy dining hall. "With kids our age, we're being so manipulated by the media, so it's great to talk to Israelis and hear the true story."
During rest hour, some girls try to catch up on sleep lost during an intensive three-day hike.
Danielle Gruberger, 14, rises from her bed and sits next to me on the cluttered cabin floor.
"Outside of camp, I'm not very religious," the Encino resident admitted. "Being able to go to services every night at camp and being in touch with God makes me feel much more connected."
Overhearing our conversation from her bed in the bottom bunk, Carla Wirtschafter, 14, from Beverly Hills, says she's not religious, either, but that camp "reinforces it in my mind that when I go home to make sure I keep in touch with the Jewish part of me."
The girls become animated when they discuss the weekly Israeli dancing after Shabbat dinners, which they describe as "a big mosh pit" where everyone dances.
Unlike my own camp experiences, Jewish camp today -- at least this Jewish camp -- seems like more than simply spending time with other Jewish kids. Tradition seems to permeate Hess Kramer at all levels -- from the presence of a local rabbi-in-residence to the daily services to the "Hebrew Word of the Day" at lunchtime. Even the kids seem different, although it might be a self-selecting sampling -- kids more into tradition might be the ones who come to camp. But still.... When I spent my summers with Jewish kids -- most of whom I didn't even like -- it helped forge my young Jewish identity. I can only imagine the strong ties Hess Kramer campers have and will continue to have toward Judaism.
Carly Ezell from Solana Beach is already thinking about her future as a Jew.
"I want to raise my kids Jewish and send them to this camp," the 14-year-old said.