Commie Camp: A Documentary about Camp Kinderland

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The documentary Commie Camp about Camp Kinderland, the summer camp that the right wing loves to hate, has its West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, August 11, at 2:20 p.m. at the Grand Lake Theater (3200 Grand Avenue in Oakland). Its director, Katie Halper – a standup comedian, filmmaker, and blogger – spoke with Tikkun‘s editor-in-chief and founder, Michael Lerner. The two debated whether a secular Jewish culture really exists, disagreed over which Jews were more active in social justice, agreed about the indoctrination of children, and discussed walking like a duck.
Michael Lerner: What Does Camp Kinderland have to do with tikkun olam (repairing the world)?
Katie Halper: Tikkun olam is a huge part of Camp Kinderland’s mission. Social justice is literally everywhere you look. The bunks aren’t named A, B, or C, but named after people like Roberto Clemente, Paul Robeson, Emma Lazarus, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Earl Chaney. Other camps have the color wars, while Kinderland has the World Peace Olympics, which has a sports element but also a culture element. The teams are named after activists or organizations or movements. The summer I filmed, the teams were Greenpeace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Highlander Center. And each team learns about its namesake and the teams teach each other about their particular history and contribution to peace and justice.
ML: So, the camp has the intention to convey a message to the children?
KH: Definitely. Its motto is, “A Summer Camp with a Conscience.” It was founded by secular Yiddish-speaking Jews in the 1920s but it was always welcoming of non-Jews. That inclusive and cooperative spirit is central. And the right wing has always hated it, which is always a good sign. The camp was almost shut down during the McCarthy era. And last year when it was “exposed” that an Obama nominee had sent her kids to Kinderland, the right wing, including Rush Limbaugh, went crazy.
ML: So, the conservatives are arguing that kids get brainwashed and indoctrinated at Camp Kinderland with certain ideas and with a worldview. At Tikkun we’re totally in favor of having kids exposed to a coherent worldview. Can you tell me more about what that worldview at Kinderland is?
KH: It’s founded on the principles of justice and fairness and solidarity and compassion. Every summer there is a theme. The theme the summer I filmed was “From Discussion to Action: making the world a better place.” And that’s what Kinderland’s about: it fosters discussion so that people will act to make the world a better place. One of the characters in the film says “The predominant values out there is consumerism for kids. We don’t make any bones about wanting to push other values… namely thinking about and caring for the rest of the world, your friends, people here at home, people around the world.” The camp believes that kids can be politically engaged and socially aware in a positive way. The film shows that kids really enjoy grappling with social issues and they’re not too young to do it.
ML: In this society, there’s no way that kids aren’t going to be indoctrinated already by the dominant worldview. So what the camp is doing is countering the dominant worldview with an alternative worldview.
KH: Yes. Humane values and social responsibility to counter the pervasive values of consumerism, accumulation, and militarism.
ML: You start the movie with Rush Limbaugh accusing the camp of being Communist. And then you call the movie “Commie Camp.” Is that what it calls itself?
KH: Kids do jokingly call Kinderland “Commie Camp.” “Commie” isa slur used to insult and diminish not only socialistsand communists but also social activists of all kinds, who may, in fact hate socialism and communism. But in the film, we see kids appropriating that hate language to revisit labels. Yes, the camp’s values are socialist in terms of justice, sharing etc. The kids actually have to share their care packages. They give the candy or chips or whatever their parents send them to the counselors who put it into a collective trunk and then distribute it among all the campers. So, it’s the redistribution of candy, if not wealth. And the camp was founded by people who were socialists and communists – almost a hundred years ago.
ML: So the people who founded the camp and then ran it for a number of years were members of the CPUSA?
KH: Some of them were. Many were “fellow travelers.” Today it’s a broadly progressive place.
ML: One of the things that progressives who are not communists ask is how could people be for social justice and then be in a party that was justifying Stalinism and the suppression of free speech. Was there any way that that got discussed at Camp Kinderland? Do they talk about this history?
KH: They do. But it is a contemporary camp and focused on recognizing and redressing injustice today. They don’t hide or deny its history.
ML: The camp is also known as a Jewish camp and welcomes non-Jews as you say. And I’m wondering if the connection is between Judaism and social justice or is the Jewish identity more about an ethnic identity and not about Judaism?
KH: There’s a character in the movie who is secular but who explains the connection between Judaism and social justice and talks about the prophets Amos and Isaiah and the idea that you are your brothers’ keeper. She explains that the people who founded camp weren’t religious but had these ideas in their consciousness. But in general I think most people at camp see the Jewish connection to social justice as coming from history more than religion.
ML: Tikkun is now interfaith but we started as a specifically Jewish magazine. So, I wanted to know what secular Jewish tradition or secular Jewishness the camp reflects.
KH: The Jewish secularism is connected to its values. There’s a particular secular Jewish social justice-focused tradition, especially in the U.S. And I think that the progressive Jewish community in the U.S. is more secular than religious. There are of course great religious people and organizations who are committed to social justice. But I think secular Jews have been most influential in progressive movements.
ML: Hmm. I might have to argue with that. The Reform movement Jewish camps are very involved in social justice and in the Reform movement. The Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., is out there championing liberal legislation all the time. And it was Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Conservative movement (though he himself was more Orthodox) who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
KH: I actually attended the Heschel school for a few years. But I kind of stuck out, having been raised in a totally secular home. Everyone in my class had a Hebrew name. I didn’t know what mine was because, not surprisingly, I wasn’t given one. But when everyone was going around the room one day and introducing themselves with their American and Hebrew names I racked my brain and came up with “Katchkala” a name my uncle called me, which sounded foreign enough to me but is really the Yiddish word for little duck.
ML: Well, if it walks like a duck.
KH: And I actually do walk like a duck, so it works on many levels.
ML: So, these religious movements have rituals and events from their tradition or our tradition during the year. Are the Kinderland graduates engaged in a secular Jewish movement? Is there a secular Jewish movement? And where would one find it?
KH: I think there is a secular Jewish culture which Kinderland is a part of. There is something called UNCOR which is the United Council of Resistance that is a Kinderland group that meets during the year and engages in different political activities and organizing. And Kinderland also has a shul, where the secular progressive Jewish values are taught. The prophetic tradition may have helped seed this secular tradition. But mainly it locates its origins in the labor and justice struggles of Eastern Europe, which radical Jews brought with them when they migrated to America. Lots of Kinderland people go on to become labor lawyers and social activists and teachers. The camp struggles with how to reconcile its historically Jewish origins and its commitment to being multicultural and inter-racial, but in a sense it is not a struggle because inclusiveness is so central to the Jewish radical tradition it embraces.
ML: Anything you would want people to know who are considering seeing the movie but didn’t go to the camp or don’t have any particular interest in the camp?
KH: I did not want the film to be some kind of navel-gazing activity for an inner circle, and I wanted people who aren’t interested or engaged in politics to enjoy it. The screenings so far have confirmed that the film is really accessible to anyone. People who have no interest in secular Jewish summer camps or have never heard of Kinderland watch the movie and laugh and cry because they find it both funny and moving. If you like kids or funny movies or beautiful landscapes you’ll like the movie.
ML: So, the film is going to have its West Coast Premier at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Sunday August 11th at 2:20 at the Grand Lake Theater. But how can people see it if they’re not in the Bay Area?
KH: I’m hoping to get a distributor so it will be available as a DVD or online or on television of have some limited theatrical run. It’s also going to be in other film festivals like the Boston Jewish Film Festival, the Philadelphia Jewish FIlm Festival, The Big Eddy Film Festival in Narrowsburg NY, the Gold Coast FIlm Festival in Long Island. But it will definitely be available in other ways eventually. And if people want to organize screenings they can contact me at
Watch the trailer for Commie Camp below!