By Harriet P. Gross
Name: Leah Fay Blum. Age: 14. Description: Outgoing, athletic, friendly. Died: Suddenly, on July 22.
A tree limb — 51 feet long, four feet around — fell more than 30 feet with no warning. And it killed her.
Leah was having a happy time at a camp near Morgantown, W.Va. A camp owned and operated by the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh, Pa. A camp with a century-long history of happy, healthy summers. It’s the camp I went to as a child, that I later returned to as a counselor.
Today’s site is different from when I knew it; the camp moved to this more countrified location in 1972. It had begun as a fresh-air getaway from crowded city neighborhoods for immigrant mothers and their children, sponsored by a venerable old-time settlement house; as the immigrants acculturated and their babies grew, it morphed into a kids’ camp. But in those “olden days,” the setting wasn’t rural and woodsy. Everyone was housed in long wooden bunk buildings that resembled an army base or a prison: boys’ accommodations in a straight line on one side of a flat central rectangle, girls’ the same, facing the others. At one of the short ends: the central dining hall, administration building, nurse’s quarters. In front: the flagpole, for daily raising with the Pledge, lowering with “Taps.” At the other end, counselors’ sleeping quarters. Very spare, utilitarian, almost barren.
Yet it was beautiful! No one had ever been unhappy there. No one had ever died there…
The settlement house, long gone, was founded by a wealthy family and named after one of its women, Irene. The camp was named after another, Emma. Its formal name is still Emma Kaufmann Camp. But informally, it’s now what it always was: “Emma Farm.” That barren square had no animals, but it was still a “farm” for those to whom it represented a bit of country living.
Today, it’s referred to as “EKC,” as in the news story that announced Leah Blum’s death. On its Web site: “EKC’s emphasis is placed on Jewish values, informal education, Shabbat celebrations….” All just the way things always were.
But some things changed with the venue. Now there’s a special Teen Village for kids at the upper end of the 7-to-16 camper age range; those who will be in ninth and 10th grades when they return to school in the fall are the privileged ones. Leah, who had just graduated from middle school, was among them this summer. She had been on her eighth-grade basketball team and sang in the chorus. She had many friends. She was looking forward…
Teen Village features tents arranged in little quartets: six or so campers in each of three, staff members in the fourth. Every “quad” is separated from the others by woodsy, green space. There are many trees, tall old trees. Healthy trees. The local sheriff, inspecting the scene afterward, noted that it had rained there earlier that day. But, “Believe me,” he was quoted as saying, “it was not enough to break off a 4-foot-round tree limb.” That limb flattened two tents when it fell, but harmed no one except Leah.
The people who saw freed her, quickly reached the camp’s medical staff (there’s more than a nurse on site these days) who gave first aid, called 911. Leah was rushed to the nearest hospital, and there she died.
It’s a tribute to her, and EKC, that none of the other 380 campers wanted to go home after the tragedy. They cried, but they stayed. One mother said “It could have been any one of our children. My daughter lives in a tent, too. But I knew they wouldn’t want to leave. They are there with their support system — their friends, their peers, counselors they have known and loved for years.” Immediately, 90 per cent of the camp’s scheduled activities resumed. Grief counselors, quick on the scene, took care of the other 10 per cent.
I didn’t know Leah. I don’t know her family. But I know Temple Emanuel in Pittsburgh, so I can picture her funeral service. The last time I was there was years ago, about the time Leah Blum was born. The occasion was the wedding of a first cousin, once removed. She has her own children now; the oldest isn’t much younger than Leah was at the time of her death.
I salute the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and its reporters Michael Fuoco and Victor Zapana for their sensitive, compassionate coverage of this sad story.
By Harriet P. Gross