One dollar was all it took. At least, that’s how longtime director Sara Yudlson recounted the start of Camp Louise in a self-published history.
Post World War I, she writes, immigrants were pouring into the United States. Many young women worked long hours in crowded, unsafe factories. Lillie Meyer Straus, the wife of Aaron Straus, a Baltimore merchant, and Ida Sharogrodsky initially operated a small vacation home in the Blue Ridge Mountains to provide fresh air and outdoor experiences for these young women.
When Sharogrodsky stumbled upon a hotel and property for sale in nearby Cascade, Md., she asked the owner’s son to take a $1 deposit to hold the property until she returned with her husband. Initially poker faced about the property, Aaron Straus was smitten with the views from a third-floor window. Soon after, his sister, Louise, passed away. His only request? That the new camp be named in her honor. On June 22, 1922, Camp Louise opened with two campers.
Today’s 155 Jewish overnight camps owe their legacies to thought leaders in the early 1900s who imagined an outdoor environment infused with Jewish values and sensibilities. Their histories tell us a great deal about our Jewish past and set the groundwork for a strong Jewish future.
“Did they know what Camp Louise would become nearly 100 years later and how it would positively affect so many lives?” asks Alicia Berlin, camp director as well as former camper and counselor. “We create a sense of community, different from that found in a school setting. The values of our founders — Miss Ida and Miss Sara — remain.”
Neighboring Camp Airy began as a result of a conversation about Camp Louise between Aaron Strauss and Julius Mintz. When asked what he was going to do about helping boys, Aaron Strauss suggested that they find the land. In 1924, he did just that, opening Camp Airy and welcoming a dozen boys to the first summer session.
Camp Airy director Rick Frankle, who plans to retire at the end of the 2014 season, has spent 50 years associated with Camp Airy — as a camper, counselor and director. He notes that the camp, like all camps, has grown over the years to include bunks, pools, recreational facilities and other activities, as the mission evolved from providing respite for impoverished young people to providing a recreational camp experience.
Aside from their shared sibling history, the two camps share Jewish values without being affiliated with any major denomination.
“Judaism has always been an important part of who we are — to communicate Jewish life to children who may not have it at any other time during the year,” says Frankle.
Capital Camps was founded in 1987 on the Catoctin Mountain site of former Jewish camps Wohelo, Comet and Comet Trails. Recognizing the value and impact of the Jewish camp experience, it was a dream of the Jewish communities in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia to offer Capital Camps and its pluralistic approach to camping, explains Jonah Geller, executive director. As one of the 12 independent camps affiliated with the Jewish Community Center Association, Capital Camps promotes the value of Jewish camping beyond summer by hosting on-site conferences and programs for families and individuals year-round. “We help people of all ages with their Jewish journey,” says Geller.
“I think of camp all the time,” says Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Reflecting on his years at camp — as a camper, counselor and now director — he believes “Jewish camping is the single most important contribution to modern Jewish education in America.”
The Ramah movement began in the 1940s when the Jewish Theological Seminary initiated programs to connect youth with synagogues. One of the initiatives was Camp Ramah, developed by educators Moshe Davis and Sylvia Ettenberg. The first camp opened in 1947, followed by camps throughout the United States, including the Poconos site, founded in 1950, for campers in the New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore areas.
“JTS considered summer camping an investment,” says Seltzer. “We provide a vibrant Jewish experience with modern Hebrew, love of Israel and text study. Our campers are studying, but they do not notice that they are studying. Education happens with active learning.”
Established in 1969, Camp Stone, an Orthodox camp in Western Pennsylvania, is situated on land once owned by Camp Deer Run, also a Jewish camp. Camp Stone is named for philanthropist and American Greetings CEO Irving Stone, who purchased the land for use by Young Israel, a synagogue-based Orthodox organization. Today, the camp is part of the Bnei Akiva movement and affiliated with Young Israel of Cleveland. With a strong emphasis on learning, the program is curriculum driven with a focus on Israel and text study, says director Yehuda Rothner.
Love of Israel also drives the mission of Habonim Dror Camp Moshava, in Street, Md. As part of the national Habonim Dror, an international Labor Zionist youth movement that began in Europe more than 70 years ago, the camp was founded in Annapolis in 1935.
“The idea from the beginning was to create camp youth with skills to go to Palestine and build kibbutzim,” says camp director Jennifer Silber, also a former camper and counselor. The camp promoted hard work, building and farming to help Palestine and then Israel grow.
Over time, says Silber, the camp has evolved to become more of a traditional summer camp, though the founding legacy remains. The camp emphasizes cooperative living, and campers still “work” by contributing to camp operations. “We focus on the group process, acceptance of every individual and the philosophy of the kibbutz movement.”
Just as it was a century ago, Jewish camp, she says, is about survival. “It’s how we ensure that our values, religion and our culture are transmitted to the next generation.”
During preparations and research for “Cabin Fever: Jewish Camping and Jewish Commitment” at the Jewish Museum of Maryland that opened in March 2006, assistant director Deborah Cardin found herself becoming a convert to the cause. “I was not a product of Jewish camping, though I had friends who absolutely lived by the rhythms of camp,” she says. As she learned more, Cardin says she began to realize that “camp is a powerful Jewish experience filled with informal Jewish education.”
“Something happens at camp that you cannot find elsewhere,” she says. “It’s a totally different experience than learning Hebrew in a classroom. Camp shows the beauty of Jewish life, builds friendships and is fun.”