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All I Really Need to Know About Camp I Learned from ‘Wet Hot American Summer’

All I Really Need to Know About Camp I Learned from ‘Wet Hot American Summer’

I’ve spent 32 summers at Jewish summer camp since 1975, and I’ve enjoyed a fulfilling career working as a camp professional since 1994. For me, camp is a consistent source of inspiration, growth, and joy.

But the average person looks at camp through a different lens than I do, if they look at all. Even those who spent time at camp in their youth miss all of the amazing dimensions of camp that someone behind the curtain gets to see. How can someone who’s not a camp director learn what it’s really all about?

All we need to do is watch Wet Hot American Summer.

Released in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer is required watching for anyone who went to Camp Hog-‘n’-Pig, Camp Tomahawk Lake, or whatever silly name camps earned from their founders in the early 1900s. The movie was such a hit that many of its now-famous actors still enthusiastically returned 14 years later for the recently aired Netflix prequel series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

When the original film was released in 2001, I was certain it would be insulting and demeaning to someone just settling into a camp career. For years, I resisted watching it, and I knew why: I took myself a bit too seriously.

I should have had a better sense of humor about my work and embraced this Hollywood version of camp, especially when my job often required a greater understanding of septic systems and head lice than it did child development and other serious issues. In a sense, I spend 10 months running a business, and two months – as depicted in movies like Heavyweights and Parent Trap – running an island nation founded on the principle of controlled chaos.

I first watched the movie in 2011 and have since stopped holding back the laughter, moving on to anticipating and even reciting some of the lines. More recently, I’ve started to use it for as a source of research and reflection. 

I never felt totally connected to Janeane Garofolo’s Beth, the fictional Camp Firewood director who doesn’t seem to get flustered when absurdity throws itself at her feet. I can’t relate to the out-of-control social interplay between various characters, but the way the actors depict deep and meaningful relationships is spot-on. And though Bradley Cooper’s Ben may not have been at my camp, his struggles to produce the best Camp Firewood Show ever are similar to our CITs’ efforts to put on the variety show replete with overacting, borderline-inappropriate humor, and another version of the infamous “Supervisor Skit” that insults every camp leader in a way both biting and subtle.

As a Jewish communal professional who has chosen to operate a mission-based camp dedicated to instilling a sense of Jewish pride in its participants, I also see Wet Hot American Summer through that lens. I never attended Camp Modin (the real camp the film’s director, David Wain, attended as a child), but my Jewish camp experience was similarly funny and a bit stereotypical. There were a lot of Schwartzes and Cohens in our cabins and bagels were the most exciting meal of the week, for starters.

My experience growing up was not so different than the one Wain portrays; neither was it so different from the one I proudly run now.

Now, though, we do things more effectively, intentionally, and thoughtfully. Today’s camps, whether Jewish or not, cannot be Wet Hot American Summer kinds of places. The expectations are different than in 1981, society is more competitive and litigious, and the price tag means we have to make a strong value proposition to make parents feel OK with the idea that we are in loco parentis for such a long time.

At my camp, for example, we talk about “aspirational arc,” “spiral curriculum,” “universal design,” “Jewish life,” “inclusion,” “professional growth,” and all sorts of concepts not in the lexicon of 35 years ago. We instill real Jewish values into our kids, and we use creative and effective strategies to make camp a model for youth development.

But at the same time, it’s still camp, a utopian environment where kids and young adults can test limits, try things, fail, make fun of themselves, be a little bit crazy and – intentionally or unintentionally – have moments of embarrassment that ultimately become the stories told between camp friends forever.

I watched the new Wet Hot American Summer hoping to be inspired to continue my work by seeing a representation of some of what I really deal with as a camp director. I also watched it because, let’s face it, it’s funny. And just because I believe that Jewish camp is the antidote to much of what ails us, I also appreciate that it’s camp.

And frankly, real camp is even funnier than the one on Netflix. You should tune in.

Aaron Selkow is the director of URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, PA.

Aaron Selkow
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