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#MeToo goes to Jewish summer camp, a traditional place for teenage romance

Friends walk through the creek at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA,  (Photo by Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)
Friends walk through the creek at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA, (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)
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When Reilly met Melanie, they were 13-year-olds at summer camp who spent the long walk from archery to their bunks talking every day. Reilly wanted to ask Melanie to an end-of-camp dance — but his friend went ahead and asked Melanie on his behalf, before he could get up the nerve to ask her himself.

That was that. Now they’re 16, and the teenagers’ summer fling is still going strong in a fourth summer together as boyfriend and girlfriend at Capital Camps, a Jewish camp just over the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.

Their youthful love story is just the sort of Jewish relationship many parents hope their children will find when they send them to Jewish camps.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp, with its motto “Jewish summers, Jewish futures,” promotes research showing that camp leads to more religiously engaged adults. Compared with demographically similar Jewish peers, adults who grew up going to camp are measurably more likely to attend synagogues, celebrate Shabbat and holidays in their homes and donate to Jewish charities.

Another statistic the foundation touts: Jews who attended camp as children were found to be significantly more likely to marry other Jews.

In a 2010 study, 74 percent of former campers were in Jewish marriages, at a time when such marriages have been becoming much less common.

For many parents and camp leaders, one goal of sending a child to Jewish overnight camp is the hope that the child will someday marry within the faith, perhaps even under a chuppah, or canopy, at the very camp where the pair first met.

But some Jewish adults recall that in years past the pressure to date at camp occasionally took an inappropriate turn when poorly trained counselors — typically in their early 20s — nudged young teens into becoming close not just romantically, but physically as well.

This summer, in the #MeToo era, the Foundation for Jewish Camp is conducting a nationwide training program to prevent sexual harassment at Jewish overnight camps, which about 70,000 children attend each summer.

“There is an encouragement to build Jewish relationships. A lot of people met their spouses,” said Marina Lewin, the foundation’s chief operating officer. But she added: “There’s a difference between appropriate ways to interact and inappropriate.”

Calling the program the “Shmira Initiative” (borrowing a Hebrew word that camps normally use for nighttime guard duty), the foundation brought in the Jewish organization Moving Traditions to train staff members at more than 70 camps before the season began.

“With Jewish camps, you have really very specific cultures,” said Daniel Brenner, the chief of education and programming at Moving Traditions. “They value this ideal that you meet your bashert, your intended life partner, at summer camp. They will put the names of couples who met at camp in their dining hall up on the wall on a plaque — that’s a very real part of traditional religious community that does have certain ideas about coupling.”

Last year, Moving Traditions organization conducted research on issues relating to romance and sexuality at 25 Jewish camps. “There are real questions about what the role is of a Jewish camp vis-a-vis romance,” he said. “How do you be positive toward romance or sexuality, and at the same time not create a situation where it’s not clear where the boundaries are?”

Some former campers recall a culture that encouraged sexual encounters, albeit with intercourse forbidden. “I very clearly remember getting to Kutz Camp and being told there’s no sex at camp — and then later on that evening, being told that anything else was fair game,” recalls Les Skolnik, a camper in the 1990s and now a 37-year-old Brooklyn social studies teacher who has led trainings for several similar Jewish camps on LGBT inclusion and other topics. “It was very much in the mission of the Jewish camps at that point. Very cliche: Perpetuate Jewish babies.”

One former camper, writing for the National Council of Jewish Women last year, recalled, the pressure to partner up “would begin before we even stepped foot at our various camps for the summer and felt prevalent from the first day of the session.”

She wrote that her friends who attended other Jewish camps across the country felt the same. “As my college friends have told me, many people at their camps would succumb to the pressure without understanding their own limits because no one had talked to them about consent, establishing boundaries and expressing their feelings to a partner.”

While there are many Jewish camps independent of larger Jewish institutions, the non-Orthodox denominational camps — including the Union for Reform Judaism’s 17 camps and the Conservative movement’s 10 overnight Ramah camps across North America — are all co-ed. Even the movie “Wet Hot American Summer” spoofed the sexually adventurous Jewish camp experience.

That’s the history that the Foundation for Jewish Camp faced as it launched its Shmira Initiative. The trainings covered the spectrum, from laws regarding consent and notification to the ways that counselors should talk to teenage campers about healthy relationships.

“Some of it is very black and white, in terms of appropriate behaviors between people, but there’s a lot of nuance to it,” Lewin said.

She has lofty aims for this initiative — not just to fix camp, but to fix society. “Camp is such an amazing opportunity to teach children,” she said. “Creating good behavior for the future, in our opinion, is training the next generation to treat each other with respect, where we won’t see a #MeToo type of movement needed anymore.”

At Capital Camps today, as at many co-ed camps, sexuality and relationships are the topic of constant giggly conversations among the campers by flashlight. The camp environment lends itself to the topic — kids are away from parental supervision, dressed in swim trunks and bikinis. Touch is constant — teen girls lean on each other’s shoulders in the dining hall; older campers lift their younger buddies in the air; girls lie under trees with their heads resting on boys’ stomachs.

But the campers and their counselors say that this environment is one of healthy exploration, different from any pressures perceived by prior generations of campers to find a Jewish partner.

Liam, a 16-year-old from Gaithersburg, Md., said no one ever pushes anyone when it comes to physical contact, although sometimes teens partake on their own. “I’ve never seen it end poorly,” he said.

They say their counselors don’t push them to date, either. “Nobody wants to disappoint their counselor. Nobody wants to not follow the rules, ” said 15-year-old Emme.

(Parents granted permission for the children in this story to be quoted using first names only.)

The change in culture at camps such as Capital Camps is a result of broader national trends, as well as concerted efforts on the part of camp staffers.

Outside of just Jewish youths, teenagers across the country are having less sex than previous generations: 41 percent of high schoolers had had sex in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 54 percent in 1991. And in the broader Jewish community, the focus on marrying within the faith has died down considerably, as intermarriage becomes more common.

Danny Mishkin, the director of a new overnight Jewish surfing camp in Virginia Beach, said he and his staff thought deeply before launching this summer an effort to help teens handle romance and sexuality. The kids wear more modest surfing gear to prevent body talk, and they attend evening programs about healthy ways to pursue relationships and how to step up if they witness sexual harassment.

“When we’re talking about relationships, we’re not talking about, ‘You need to date a Jewish boy or a Jewish girl.’ We are not trying to couple anyone,” Mishkin said. He said the Shmira Initiative discussed dismantling that culture. “I don’t think most camps are doing that anymore. We were specifically talking at the training: If that was part of your culture, how are you immediately changing it? Because it’s not okay. . . . That puts an undue pressure on kids.”

But even if the camps don’t promote dating Jewishly as an institutional value anymore, the topic comes up among the teens. At Capital Camps, 15-year-old Avi, while talking with Emme by the stream near their tents, says: “I’m not going to marry out of that, lose that identity. There’s a sense, I guess, that it’s a community. You want to stay within it.”

Emme agrees, thinking way ahead: “I want Jewish grandkids, Jewish kids.”

It’s because of camp, she says, that she has a strong Jewish identity now. After her first summer at camp, she and her sister went back to their not-very-observant parents with new songs, piles of laundry, and a request: They wanted to start celebrating Shabbat.

Correction: An earlier version of this story described a surfing camp in Virginia Beach as a Reform Jewish institution. It is a nondenominational Jewish camp. This version has been updated.