Culture Strengthens Religious Identity at a Jewish Summer Camp

By Wendy Viola


Originally published February, 2006. Republished July 26, 2012.

When I was nine years old, my parents agreed to our requests and sent my sister and me to Surprise Lake Camp, a Jewish sleep-away camp in the Hudson Valley. My older sister and I had decided that we wanted to go to Surprise Lake because our cousin, the son of a Quaker and a Jew, had been there the summer before and had advised us to come. He had chosen Surprise Lake because his friend, the product of a Jewish and Hindu family, had spent the previous summer at Surprise Lake and had encouraged him to return with her. Aware that this social chain was responsible for the preference that my sister and I had for Surprise Lake, our Jewish mother and Roman Catholic father had little invested in the camp’s Jewish religious affiliation. They had higher hopes for the fun, friendships and independence that we might develop during our time away from home.

Nine summers at Surprise Lake later, camp has certainly lived up to my parents’ expectations in terms of facilitating social development. While that is often considered part of the generic camp experience, my position as a child of an interfaith family at a religious camp added another dimension to my obsession with everything camp related, which emerged following my first two weeks at Surprise Lake. My attachment to camp came to be synonymous with my attachment to a particular brand of Judaism.

The songs, cheers, chants, stories, and dishes that remind me of camp, which I have grown very attached to and frequently yearn for during the months of September through May, are all inspired by, or taken directly from, the Jewish religion. While my motivation to incorporate such measures into my non-camp routine came from my desire to recreate aspects of camp at home, the result was an increased involvement with the Jewish faith.

The kind of Judaism that camp led me to identify with is not Judaism in the religious sense, but the unique fusion of religion and culture at Camp Surprise Lake. Going to Surprise Lake solidified my identification with a Jewish peer group, a group I had previously been excluded from, even among classmates at Hebrew school — which I found too unpleasant to continue past the fourth grade — because of my family’s dual religions.

The relatively Reform style of Judaism that Surprise Lake embraces, the elements of Judaism that I was already familiar with through my few years in a Reform Hebrew school, the Jewish culture that I had acquired from growing up in New York City, and the fact that all of my peers had comparable knowledge of their religion due to only attending Hebrew school for a year beyond myself, made my position as an interfaith camper much less intimidating. When I first started going to camp, none of my peers was old enough to have had a bat mitzvah and the only reason that my friends’ knowledge of Judaism surpassed mine was because they were raised in homes with twice as many Jewish parents.

These factors also contributed to the quality of the Judaism that I learned at camp: a Judaism built on Shabbat songs to the tune of pop music, hand games to the prayers chanted at the end of each meal, and Jewish programming that almost always involves clay. This fusion of religion and culture put me more at ease in the Jewish camp environment than I had been in other Jewish situations. Furthermore, the time that I spent immersed in Jewish youth culture as a camper has provided me with the experience and ability to identify with my Jewish peers as a young adult.

Entering college this fall, I felt that I could rightfully become a member of Hillel and take advantage of social resources for Jewish students. Had I not attended a religious camp, I doubt that my Jewish identity would have been substantial enough to allow me to consider myself part of a larger Jewish community, and my parents’ hesitation to involve me in the Roman Catholic community, beyond observing Catholic holidays and attending traditional Roman Catholic marriage and funeral services, has prevented my identification with that demographic.

My very Reform Jewish mother is pleased that I came to identify with the religion with which she was raised, and my father seems indifferent that I have not embraced his family’s religion. He dislikes the rules and, like myself, values the cultural aspects of his heritage over the religious, making his position on my attachment to the Jewish camp community neutral, so long as I am equally responsive to his teaching of Italian Catholic tradition. I not only enjoy and embrace the aspects of my father’s culture that he passes along to my siblings and me, but I have also found that it contributes a unique, somewhat exotic multi-dimensional aspect to my identity within the Jewish youth community with which I have come to identify.


About Wendy Viola

Wendy Viola is a long time camper and employee of Surprise Lake Camp and a current student at Cornell University.