- 'God First, You Second, Me Third"An Exploration of 'Quiet Jewishness" at Camp Wah-Kon-Dah
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My first experience at a southern Jewish summer camp was not easy. I felt out of place. I couldn't speak Hebrew. I didn't know the songs, nor could I join in the raucous chanting of the Birkat Hamazon, the traditional Jewish blessing after meals. I was homesick. I didn't want to spend the night at camp. I hated corndogs. And to make matters worse, I was in my mid-thirties, and it was hot as blazes in south central Mississippi. As the Project Director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, located at Camp Henry S. Jacobs in Utica, Mississippi, in the early 1990s, I wondered what sane person attends summer camp in Mississippi, let alone Jewish summer camp?
My own childhood camping experience began in the late 1960s at Camp Wah-Kon-Dah in Rocky Mount, Missouri, on the Lake of the Ozarks—a camp for Jewish youth, but not a Jewish Camp. Camp Wah-Kon-Dah was 'quietly Jewish." Since many of the campers came from small southern towns with tiny Jewish populations, it was a new and exciting experience to be among other Jews. But imagine a 'don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding our Jewish identity—two hundred Jewish kids boating, swimming, and shooting archery, but nobody talked about our 'Jewishness." It could have been a covert operation with the Jewishness so quiet. We knew we were Jewish, enough said. To an unsuspecting visitor, Wah-Kon-Dah looked and sounded like any other American summer camp—except for all the Jewish campers.
And that was exactly what Ben Kessler, the founder of Wah-Kon-Dah, wanted when he opened a private Jewish summer camp for boys in 1939. A Jewish native of St. Louis, Ben Kessler began Camp Wah-Kon-Dah in an era of wartime fear and disruption. This was an anxious time for American Jews, stung by the anti-Semitic quotas and discrimination of the interwar years and the growing horror regarding the fate of European Jewry as the Holocaust came to light in the 1940s. Kessler hoped to give his campers a summer filled with joy, the opportunity to build strong physiques, improve personal character, learn skills, and, lastly, to 'model a democracy" as a camp community.1
Wah-Kon-Dah was part of a summer camp craze in America that was shaped by the 'cult of the strenuous life" (an anti-modernist ideology that sought to repair and strengthen American society through contact with the 'great outdoors"), social reform movements of the Progressive Era, and 'back-to-nature" work projects of the New Deal. Historian Gary Zola describes Jewish camping as a 'genuine hybrid of organized camping in America." The first Jewish summer camps were established in the early 1900s to serve both as a pastoral refuge for needy Jewish children in the urban Northeast and as sites of Americanization for children of recent Jewish immigrants. During the 1930s, Jewish summer camps and retreat centers with political agendas sponsored by communist, socialist, Zionist, and Yiddish organizations grew in popularity. The majority of these institutions were [End Page 59] located near the large Jewish population centers along the East Coast. A smaller, but important, number of Jewish boarding houses, camps, and kosher inns were located in the southern mountains, including Wildacres, the summer location of the North Carolina B'nai B'rith Institute.2
Non-denominational, private Jewish camps grew during the prosperous years after World War II and today dominate Jewish camping, including the ten Jewish summer camps located in the American South. For the mid-South, Camp Wah-Kon-Dah in Rocky Mount, Missouri, represented a different model...