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Reviewed by:
  • A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping
  • Susan Curtis
A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping, edited by Michael M. Lorge and Gary P. Zola. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. 240 pp. $25.00.

The occasion for this collection is the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) for Reform Judaism in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Each of the essays contributes to the larger goal of explaining why OSRUI is worth studying and what it reveals. While former campers and camp leaders will undoubtedly find memories stirred by the essays and reminiscences in this volume, its value transcends in-group celebration and nostalgia. Taken as a whole these essays provide a valuable model [End Page 193] for analyzing a movement and at the same time offer a powerful argument for the transformative impact of OSRUI on Reform Judaism.

The volume opens with three essays that situate OSRUI within the framework of camping in the United States and within the Jewish experience. Gary P. Zola offers an excellent overview of organized camping in the United States, which took off at the turn of the twentieth century, when Deweyan educational philosophy, increasing urbanization, and progressive reform efforts encouraged Americans to regain vigor, to "learn by doing," to rekindle the pastoral ideal, and to seek spirituality in natural settings. Settlement houses, the YM/WCA, and the Chautauqua movement, all promoted the development of campgrounds, a camping ethos, and educational programs in the natural environment with varied goals—social uplift, informal education and community building, and spiritual/religious growth. Jonathan D. Sarna follows with an essay that narrows the history of camping to Jewish camping, which began in 1893 with the establishment of Camp Lehman by the Jewish Working Girls' Vacation Society. In the next four decades, American Jewish camping expanded to include private camps for the well-to-do, philanthropic camps for immigrants and the working poor, and camps that focused on particular communal identities or ideological positions.

OSRUI, founded in 1952, while not the first Jewish camp, represented the beginning of Reform Jewish camping, a history recounted by Michal M. Lorge and Gary P. Zola. They attribute the founding of a camp at Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to strong local support in the Chicago area and to the presence of a group of people who saw in camping the potential for education and community building. Along with the first two chapters, Lorge's and Zola's contribution here is to situate at the regional level the establishment of a camp that was a product of both a national phenomenon and a vision shared by members of the community.

The remainder of the volume explores the evolution of the camping experience from a number of perspectives—education, spirituality, and singing. It is in these chapters that contributors add elements to a thesis about the effect on Reform Judaism of programs developed at OSRUI. Michal Zeldin's analysis of the camp's educational program shatters several binaries typically used to describe alternative educational programming as formal or informal, identity-based or content-focused, and experiential or cognitive. He writes: "Regardless of where it takes place, Jewish education can be effective to the degree that it creates a rich tapestry of opportunities across a range of educational dimensions including goals, human resources, environment, and modes of learning" (p. 96). OSRUI's success in blurring the boundaries between these kinds of learning by providing opportunities to study in an informal setting material [End Page 194] that instilled both a stronger sense of Reform Jewish identity and knowledge of Hebrew, the Torah, and Jewish culture and history produced the "magic" that many former campers remember from their summers in Wisconsin. The magic was neither an illusion nor fleeting, however, for the personal and group growth that occurred in the camp setting formed succeeding generations of individuals, who in turn shaped Reform Judaism as the years passed.

One particular aspect of education in the camp was how or whether Hebrew language would be taught. Hillel Gamoran's essay provides a history of language camps within American Judaism that began with Camp Massad in...


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pp. 193-195
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