The art of a more inclusive color war
Color WarBreakout, Competition and Camaraderie

The art of a more inclusive color war

Century old summer camp tradition evolves while remaining true to its origins.

Color war breakout this summer involved landing a helicopter at the Jewish Community of Greater Pittsburgh's James and Rachel Levinson Day Camp. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
Color war breakout this summer involved landing a helicopter at the Jewish Community of Greater Pittsburgh's James and Rachel Levinson Day Camp. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

The bug juice is poisoned. Camp lost its lease. Shaya the lifeguard just saw massive leeches migrating from the lake to the lap pool so swimming is canceled for the next three weeks. Just kidding! It’s color war: Cue the music, gather around and get ready because the Apache race is only days away.

Successful summers for campers can include developing friendships, learning lifelong lessons or passing a deep water test, but few elements of the camp experience are as cherished as color war and its epic breakouts.

“Anytime any little thing would go wrong, if a counselor broke his arm or a bus was late, from the first day of camp there were whisperings that it’s color war breakout,” said Shana Ziff, a Squirrel Hill resident who attended Camp Stone in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania, for nearly a decade.

All summer long everyone anticipates color war, and “the breaks can happen at night, after dinner, after snack, at flagpole, any time of the day,” echoed Jamie Scott, an Emma Kaufmann Camp veteran and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of the Children, Youth and Families Department.

For 17 years, between the ages of 7 and 24, Scott attended EKC, and although she cannot recall the specifics of each breakout, there was always a pattern.

“Usually color war starts with a shtick or a little skit put on by the staff members,” involving elements of “what the theme is going to be,” then a memorable vehicle would approach. “If the red truck was nearby, you knew color war was happening,” Scott said.

Depending on location, the details may look a bit different but “at almost every Jewish overnight camp you go to it’s a huge part of camp,” said Rachael Speck, EKC’s associate director. Between the surprise, nostalgia, tradition, competition and camaraderie, “it is the biggest, most important program that we do.”

Tug of war is a classic color war component. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

Speck said color war holds a special place in her heart. Between being a camper, staff and captain, “I have participated in I’d say 30-plus color wars,” she said. Every summer presents a desire to outdo the last, but the general focus is upholding certain values, she explained.

“Color war just showcased everyone’s talents,” said Ziff. “There were so many different ways you could contribute to the team. If you were crafty and wanted to do an art project and present it, or if you were athletic and competed in games, or artsy and directed plays, or you recited a bracha (blessing) or answered a quiz, there were ways for you to contribute to your team.”

Providing vast opportunities for involvement is critical, Speck said, as is remaining cognizant of both the individual and the collective.

For color war in general, but especially when it comes to breakout, “you have to keep in mind any sensitivities,” said Akiva Sutofsky, a licensed professional counselor. Breakout scenarios can cause “a traumatic experience where you can say, ‘Everyone is safe, it’s funny and things go back to normal five seconds later,’ but you are jerking a kid out of their routine, which is something to be sensitive about.”

From start to end, color war can present an overstimulating and challenging experience for campers who struggle with transitions or are sensitive to loud noise, noted Speck. Whether it is providing therapies to help children attain calm or focus, or equipping staff with better training in mental health literacy, the aim is to ensure “children and adolescents reach their development potential.”

In recent years, Jewish camps have investigated options for greater inclusivity, not only in color war but in the larger camping experience.

“An unprecedented number of calls and emails from camps wishing to start programs for people with disabilities, expand services or become more inclusive” was reported by representatives of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the National Ramah Tikvah Network.

EKC marked color war with a bonfire. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

Though long central to the organization, inclusion took on new meaning at EKC and James and Rachel Levinson Day Camp after the JCC received a two-year $100,000 grant from The Staunton Farm Foundation in November 2018. Since then, the JCC has piloted projects at its camps to broaden inclusion and create awareness and conversation about invisible disabilities and FOMO (fear of missing out).

Such awareness is imperative, Speck noted, especially given that one in six U.S. children between 2 and 8 have a diagnosed mental health disorder or developmental issue — and the numbers have been climbing. So camps have adapted and innovated. Integrative strategies, designated spaces or sensory rooms, and the hiring of educated staff or inclusion specialists are becoming more common. The Foundation for Jewish Camping notes several initiatives are currently underway.

“We see that attention to including campers with disabilities is exploding as a priority across movements, and organizations with interest in overnight camping, day camping, vocational training programs, family camps and more,” reported the organization.

While the Jewish camping experience continues to evolve, one familiar event hasn’t changed too much. In pitting kids of varying abilities and talents against one another in a team-oriented exercise requiring manifold efforts, the Apache race remains a constant color war presence.

“During the Apache race there can be 100 people on a color war team and every single team member does something,” said Speck.

Whether it is swimming laps in the pool, running a mile, building and starting a fire, hitting an archery target, shooting a half-court shot, digging for bubble gum in powdered sugar while only using your mouth or singing a song as fast as you can, “the entire camp is participating in the same race all around camp,” said Speck.

“There were like 150 people on each team,” recalled Sutofsky, who between the ages of 8 and 18 attended Camp Hativkah in Putnam Valley, New York. The Apache race was “the most memorable part of color war. It would go for hours.”

Having fun at color war. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

“It was always fun to be paired with people that you wouldn’t ordinarily team up with if you had the choice but then you get so close to them,” said Ziff. “It was fun as a kid when the older kids were involved, and it was fun as an older kid to get to be a leader to the younger kids.”

“It was very competitive but they were always reminding us as kids that it’s just color war and that there’s no color war in the bunk. In the bunk everyone is friends. There’s no competition. Everyone gets along,” said Sutofsky.

The earliest reference to color war dates back to 1916 at Schroon Lake Camp, a Jewish boys’ camp in the Adirondacks, noted historian Leslie Paris.

“The camp’s Red and Gray week at the end of August involved several days of competition within each age division, including track and field events, checkers, swimming and Indian leg wrestling,” Paris writes in “Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp.”

More than a century later, after tweaks and updating, color war is still an integral part of camp.

Color war, said Ziff, “put you in another world. You are given a color and for some reason you are screaming and putting all of your energy into it for a few days. It was just kind of fun to escape. It was cool experiential learning. Why can’t adults have that? Why can’t we do that?” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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