Summer Romance at Summer Camp
Camp can be a safe place to experience young love
In the summer of 1984, Lisa Singer and Larry Ashery met at Camp Harlam. Eighteen months later, they were married.
Deep breath — this isn’t a tale of matrimony between minors. At the time, Lisa was song leader at the Reform Jewish overnight camp in Kunkletown, PA, and Larry, a fellow counselor and college student. It was, coincidentally, the second camp they had worked at simultaneously but the first place they met face to face, seated together at dinner a few nights before campers arrived.
Lisa and Larry saw each other often around camp and became good friends. They planned their days off together, so that Lisa could stop at home in Philly after she dropped Larry off to work on his senior thesis at the University of Pennsylvania. Once camp ended, it didn’t take long for their friendship to blossom into something more.
Lisa and Larry are one of countless married couples who met at camp. “There have been a significant number over the years,” confirms Larry Zeitz, director of Willow Grove Day Camp in Willow Grove, PA. “We are a family to many generations of campers who will tell you that their camp friends have been their lifelong friends.”
Camp fosters a deep sense of community that provides the framework for all types of relationships and interactions — including romance. “The camp environment is fairly intense,” says Travis Simmons, executive director of Camp Dark Waters, a coed overnight camp in Medford, NJ. “You get to know others remarkably well in a very short period of time. It really forms deep, lasting friendships.”
“Camper-to-camper crushes give us a chance to talk about feelings, boundaries and appropriate conduct,” says Adam Cook, director of Siegel JCC Day Camp in DE. “It may be the first time that the young people involved have been able to discuss these issues in a safe environment, so it’s important to have a dialogue when we notice it.”
Simmons explains that adolescents who are starting to like each other romantically must ensure that their conduct complies with camp policy — nothing beyond hand-holding and referring to each other as girlfriend and boyfriend is tolerated.
Although most camp dating situations are healthy and innocent, the course of young love doesn’t always run smooth. Counselors are trained to help kids navigate crushes appropriately. And if things escalate — when feelings aren’t mutual, for example — Zeitz says he will step in, counsel both teens and break it gently to the more besotted party that it’s time to end an amorous pursuit.
Directors stress that despite the pop-culture saturation of the concept of summer romance, dating isn’t high on the list of things that happen at camp. “Parents should expect that their kids are going to focus on having a good time and learning about themselves while they acquire skills and gain independence,” says Simmons.
As a rule, counselors are dissuaded from forming romantic entanglements. “Camp is just not the best place for a dating experience,” according to the American Camp Association’s “Open Letter to Camp Counselors.” “Romantic relationships . . . distract counselors from their primary role and responsibility — creating an envelope of safety for campers.”
But directors know that staff relationships are all but inevitable. “Dating and love as it comes about in camp is normal and healthy . . . if done outside of camp with their parent’s approval,” says Zeitz, outlining a policy by which Willow Grove’s staffers abide.
The stickiest situation occurs when a junior counselor, a camp employee, likes a counselor-in-training, a camper. In this case, Zeitz ends the interaction immediately, telling the counselor, “ ‘I know that you are only 16 and you like this young lady, who is 15 — but not here at camp.’ ”
At Camp Dark Waters, counselors may date one another as long as campers never know who is a couple. Discussions about dating and public displays of affection, therefore, are strictly taboo. “Counselors are held to the highest standards as role models,” Simmons explains.
Over time, however, camps are proud of the relationships they foster. One brand is even institutionalizing the prospect of finding a lifelong summer soulmate: Camp Ramah — with two sites in the Delaware Valley — will shortly be going live with RamahDate.org, a matchmaking site exclusively for camp alums. No doubt it seeks to replicate Lisa and Larry Ashery’s success — 27 years of marriage and three kids, all of whom have, naturally, attended Camp Harlam.
Lynda Dell is a freelance writer who is an experienced PA-certified early childhood educator.