Giving The Thumbs A Summer Break


Over the last few years, Liz and Adam Barnett’s son and daughter developed a ritual of sorts as they pulled up to the Reform movement’s Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Mass.

“They would text their friends” in the car on their cellphones, says Liz Barnett, who lives in Westchester. “When they got out, they handed me their phones.”

Eisner, like the other dozen summer camps in the United States under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism, has a strict no-electronics policy for its campers. First the movement’s camps banned cellphones; then, over the last few years, it also barred most other electronic devices, like iPods and hand-held games.

Camps are designed to foster “real, vital human relationships, which are not experienced through the use of technology,” says Paul Reichenbach, the URJ’s director of camp and Israel programs.

Like most Jewish camps, the Reform ones keep cell phones and other connected-to-the-Internet devices out of campers’ hands, and, as electronic devices have become more ubiquitous, camp leaders, Reichenbach says, have devoted a growing amount of time to explaining the rule. This year the Reform camps are not just explaining the policy, but are aggressively touting it.

On the URJ website, in an article in Reform Judaism magazine and in tweets (“Camp Unplugged”) and other messages to campers’ families, leaders of the movement’s camps have promoted the camps’ so-called unplugged stand.

“It’s Eisner unplugged. No cellphones,” Louis Bordman, director of Eisner Camp, declared in the current issue of Reform Judaism. “Kids come to camp to be with friends and to learn how to navigate, mediate and integrate friendships. The best way to do this is by talking and hanging out together. They cannot truly connect if they’re chatting on the phone or online, playing a solitary game or watching their own movie.”

As the summer camping season starts this week, the unplugged policy points to a challenge that camps across the denominational spectrum face — how do you maintain the interest of children who during the year have nearly around-the-clock access to their friends, classmates and other people at their fingertips? Or, more accurately, at their thumbtips?

As concern mounts in many parental circles about the deleterious effect of kids connected 24/7, summer camps are becoming, for Jewish families and the wider community, an effective way to disconnect.

“Withdrawal from the sticky web of social media can’t happen without intervention, and what I mean by intervention is sleep-away camp,” author Wendy Sachs wrote recently on the CNN website. “Within the Wi-Fi-free camp bubble, life is blissfully retro. Kids eat three meals a day together around a table — and wait for this, because they aren’t clutching devices and tapping away all distracted and zoned out, they actually talk face to face and make eye contact.”

Jonathan Freund, of Los Angeles, told The Jewish Week his daughter, this summer serving as a counselor-in-training at the Hess Kramer Camp, has not seemed “bereft” about giving up her electronic devices.

“She has never complained to us,” he says. “We did not hear that she missed it. It never became an issue of wanting to sneak something in.”

Every Jewish camping movement, and each Jewish camp, establishes and enforces its own policy on the use of electronic devices, but a ban on cellphones and other Internet-connected forms of technology seems to be universal.

“We are not aware of a single nonprofit camp that allows campers to use cellphones — not the case for all for-profit camps,” says a spokesperson for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, on behalf of the foundation’s CEO Jeremy Fingerman. “Some allow devices such as iPods at certain times.”

According to the 2013 staff handbook of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in California, “Cell phones are prohibited to chanichim [campers] and to staff in the potential presence of chanichim. Do not disrupt our community and break this rule by using your cell phone in ways that are prohibited, including text messaging.”

Camp Monroe, a “multi-denominational” camp in Orange County that attracts campers from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds, aims for a middle ground. “We don’t completely eliminate the gadgets of the world outside our warm and pristine natural environment, but we do limit them,” says director Stanley Felsinger. The camp’s “Usage Policy” permits, “in the camper’s bunk during free time,” such devices as iPods and MP3 players, portable gaming systems and e-readers, but bans tablets and iPads, laptops, televisions and “any other device with Internet or phone capabilities.”

Eden Village Camp, a “Jewish organic farm camp” in Putnam Valley, allows “no electronic gadgets of any sort,” says Vivian Stadlin, co-director. “We go further than most any other Jewish camp I know in that the ban on electronics extends to music-playing devices throughout all of camp — there is no pre-recorded, or ‘canned’ music at Eden Village.”

How do the plugged-in campers react to being unplugged?

The kids “don’t miss their technology while at camp … they don’t really have time to,” Stadlin says.

Elsewhere, some campers try to find ways to stay connected, despite the rules.

The rule at Camp Morasha in Lakewood, Pa., which bars any device connected to the Internet, “is becoming increasingly harder to enforce,” a camp director said in a recent JTA article, telling JTA that “some campers will show up with two cellphones: one to forfeit to the office, the other to use secretly throughout the summer to contact parents.”

While some camps simply confiscate the phone and scold the offenders, the URJ camps take a stronger stance.

“We consider this a serious violation and send the child home for a minimum of three days,” Bordman said in the Reform Judaism article. “This is our way of saying integrity is important. It also sends a strong message to parents that the camp rules are meant for them too, a message not lost on the children.”

Most parents appreciate the opportunity that summer camps give their children to remain unplugged for a few weeks or a few months, camp leaders say.

Asked if the Reform movement’s policy has discouraged prospective campers from enrolling, Reichenbach says “absolutely not,” noting that the movement’s Massachusetts camps have “record” enrollment this year.

“We like to believe that the kids are relieved that there finally is a chance when they can put down their cellphones,” he says. “Kids in the end really cherish that.”

Liz Barnett says her teens, who during the year are “always on the phone, always on the computer,” have expressed “a little bit of relief” when they spent some unplugged time at camp and “didn’t miss” their cellphones.

Jonathan Fried, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, says his two teenage daughters “liked being off the grid” at the URJ’s Crane Lake Camp in the Berkshires. “They don’t really complain” about the electronics rules, although they do gripe about other aspects of camp, like the food and showers.

When camp is over, their unplugged days are over too, he says. “The minute we pick them up they want their phones back.” And, he says, “they use the social media to stay in touch with their camp friends.”