All Jewish kids deserve camp experience

Bradley Laye, the Dallas Federation’s CEO, recently wrote to our community praising the beneficial effects of Jewish summer camp on children’s future lives. I’m seconding his motion, because my love for Judaism, and all my involvements in it, are rooted in that experience.
My camp began at the turn of the 20th century as a needed getaway for overworked immigrant women and their small children living in a teeming, smoke-filled city. A wealthy family first endowed a settlement house to help with Americanization, naming it after a daughter, Irene Kaufmann. The camp came next, named for Emma. Because the site was a quiet place in the farming area 30 miles outside Pittsburgh, Emma Kaufmann Camp quickly became known as Emmafarm!
My childhood home was Jewish in name only. Mother, a social type, served as president of her Sisterhood but attended synagogue only on the High Holidays. Father didn’t even do that; remembering his unhappy childhood in cheder (and when I read Philip Roth’s amazing story, The Conversion of the Jews, I know what he went through), he would never again walk into a institution headed by a rabbi! But as a doctor who was a declared, although never devout, Jew, he volunteered annually to do all required pre-camp physicals for kids going to Emmafarm at no charge.
The summer I would turn 9, he asked if I’d like to go to camp, too. I said yes. And the time I spent there 74 years ago shaped my Jewish future!
It wasn’t the physical place that did it; Emmafarm was practical and undistinguished. Far away from any lake front, it had only a pool. The flat main campus, like a rectangular college quad, had four large buildings running down each of its two longer sides — on one, the boys’ units; opposite on the other, the girls’. All were named for birds: Girls began as wrens and eventually grew up into woodpeckers; boys progressed as they aged from robins to eagles.
But at the head of the quad was the dining hall, and that’s where Jewish magic took place every Friday evening. We would file quietly into that huge, echoing room, which was full of chaos three times a day every other day as kids reached and grabbed across tables for whatever bowls and platters they wanted, hardly deterred by their exhausted counselors. Yet with Shabbat approaching, without anyone having to say a word, the mood shifted into something totally different. Something quietly wonderful…
First of all, the tables were clothed in white. And so were we. Everyone, all white, from head to toe. And as we entered, we sang that old, old hymn: “Come, O Sabbath day and bring … Peace and healing on thy wing … Thou shalt rest. Thou shalt rest …”
I recently read a piece, written by a minister, suggesting that Christians should look again into their hymnals and bring back the singing of some very old songs. I think we Jews should do the same. I don’t know how many of my fellow campers (and many of us, including me, continued on as Emmafarm counselors) still remember that song. But I sing it to myself, in my head, every Friday evening as I walk into synagogue. That one hymn alone was enough to make me Jewish for a lifetime!
I don’t know, either, how many others those Shabbat evenings similarly affected, but I do know that Emmafarm “graduated” an astounding number of adult Jewish professionals — teachers, social workers, camp directors and — yes — rabbis! Among them: the distinguished Earl Grollman, who served a Massachusetts congregation for 36 years while establishing an international reputation for his counseling and writings on bereavement. (And, btw: He met his wife at Emmafarm!)
So: Thank you, Bradley, for reminding our entire community that every Jewish child deserves a Jewish summer camp experience. Truly, its positive effects will last forever!

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