Kids jumping into the lake. A counselor strumming on a guitar. An inviting, woodsy landscape. Commie Camp, Katie Halper’s 2013 film, which she’s just reedited and rereleased in honor of Camp Kinderland’s centennial this year, opens with evocative imagery inviting us into what looks like a classic summer camp.
Cut to the blaring of Rush Limbaugh, the broadcaster who was the voice of the far right in the pre-Trump era. Limbaugh trumpets, hammer and sickle on screen, the “scandal” that Obama’s nominee to head the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Erica Groshen, sent her children to “a left-wing Jewish socialist summer camp with Communist roots.”
That camp was Kinderland, located in eastern Massachusetts, and Halper (a filmmaker, podcaster, comedian, and, full disclosure, a friend of mine) is a proud former camper and counselor who probably owes her existence to the camp — her grandparents met there.
“So much of what we call education today,” Limbaugh intones, “is nothing more than indoctrination.” The clip is from the Obama years, but the message is timely because the accusation that the Left is “indoctrinating” children in educational institutions is evergreen; consider our current landscape, where the Right wages war on “Drag Queen Story Hour” in libraries and teaching the history of racial oppression in schools.
Commie Camp takes a delightfully playful approach to the comedy of a right-wing attack on a beloved left-wing summer camp, while also taking seriously Kinderland’s project of raising children with egalitarian values.
In one scene, kids are brainstorming about the most important global problems to solve. Counselors hang around for factual clarification (yes, there is a genocide in Darfur, which is in Sudan) but for the most part, the kids reason through the exercise on their own and educate each other (“if we don’t solve global warming half the population could die”; “solving poverty would mostly end violence against children”). They discuss what they as kids have done so far to help address social ills: raising money to save orangutans in the Amazon, going to antiwar protests with their parents, participating in a coat drive for the homeless. Afterward some kids tell Halper about how much they loved the discussion. Jacob, who is new to camp, points to his head and says with a big smile, “It hurt my head, but it felt good.”
“None of us want to have a didactic line to the kids that’s going out, that’s like, brainwashing,” says Ira, camp director. “We want people to think.”
Everyone who helps to raise children — parents, basketball coaches, teachers — feels responsible for teaching them right from wrong. Commie Camp invites us to think about how politics are intertwined with those lessons on character and decency. One counselor explains that they’re teaching kids “how to be a mensch. You know what that means? To be a human being. We’re trying to build a community of good people.”
Kinderland is an impressive survivor of a long tradition of socialist summer camps, many of them Jewish, like Kinderland (the old-timers remember when Yiddish was spoken there). In the first half of the twentieth century, leftist groups organized social activities and political education for the whole family, much as evangelical Christians do today through their churches. Summer camps, most located on the East Coast, were part of that agenda: they gave working-class activist parents a break from child-rearing, allowed children to get out of the city and into nature, and helped nurture young socialists. They provided childcare and an important education in left politics and Jewish values.
With today’s resurgence in socialist politics, Kinderland provides a vibrant example for those seeking to resurrect the leftist summer camp tradition.
When Kinderland was established in 1923, it was intended for the children of New York City sweatshop workers, mostly immigrants. The founders were Jewish, mostly socialist, and had been active in anti-tsarist movements in the old country.
Limbaugh was right in one way: Kinderland does have a Communist past. Some people involved in the early years had ties to the Communist Party, and over the years, Kinderland was visited by Communist notables like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. Most people associated with the camp, however, have been more like Halper’s parents: not Communist Party members, but supporters of many Communist-led campaigns for civil rights, labor unions, and a better life for the working class and the poor.
Not surprisingly, Limbaugh’s tirade was hardly the first political attack on Kinderland. During the McCarthy era the federal government hounded the camp, investigating it for Communist activity. Spooked parents pulled their kids, and the camp’s numbers shrunk dramatically.
Kinderland survived, though, and the film shows why.
We see the kids having a blast doing regular camp things — falling in love, singing by the campfire, engaging in water fights on boats on the lake — but we also see how much everyone values the qualities that make Kinderland so unique. Interviewed from crowded New York apartments while packing to go to camp, kids explain, with awkward middle-childhood vulnerability, as they remember to bring special stuffed animals for comfort, that Kinderland is “sort of, not anarchist, but against the general rolling of things.” “If we couldn’t go [to camp],” one kid declares, “we would be lost.”
And so Kinderland endures, beloved by seemingly all those who encounter it: from the fourth-generation kids whose great-grandparents were among the first campers to the kid on the bus chanting “are we there yet are we there yet are we there yet” to the staff members who came as kids and have been returning every summer for decades.
When people speak to Halper about the place and its culture, their faces light up with joy. Everyone seeking to build enduring left-wing institutions could learn from this alone.