Jewish Camping

It has been a bad year for Bob Dylan: first and foremost the Christmas album, and prior to that, the discovery that a poem purportedly written by then 16 year old Bob Zimmerman and published in the Herzl Camp newspaper was really penned by Canadian country artist Hank Snow. Whoops. Well everybody makes mistakes, and a bit of altered truth does nothing to dim Dylan’s legend. The flurry of reporting on this subject, however, offered Herzl Camp 48 hours of national fame. Bob Zimmerman attended the camp in the summer of 1957, by which time it had already been offering Jewish youth summer camping with a Zionist flavor for a decade.

Sophie Wirth Camp, 1939.

Sophie Wirth Camp, 1939.

Herzl began operation in 1946, with the intention of being overly Zionist- that in addition to teaching appreciation for Jewish traditions and offering summer camping fun. The first year of camp was held at the Old Sophie Wirth site on White Bear Lake, and then moved in 1947 to Webster, Wisconsin, where it remains. Writing about the camp, Ruth Brin (of blessed memory) wrote of Herzl Camp:

” … Campers will remember “Here’s to Dear old Herzl” sung at the top of their lungs, as well as havdallah services on the waterfront with a burning Mogen David floating on the water. An experience remembered by many, and repeated over the years was the all day activity simulating the founding of Israel. Some campers, dressed as immigrants, came by boat from across the lake, while others hiked through the woods to converge at the lake shore. Upon meeting, campers set up a settlement akin to one in Eretz Israel, where they would speak Hebrew and learn Israeli songs and dances.”-

JHSUM has materials from a number of different Midwestern Jewish summer camps, beginning with the establishment of Sophie Wirth Camp in 1911. The camp, sponsored by the Jewish Relief Society, was the first kosher camp in the Upper Midwest. Originally named the Lake Rest Vacation Home Camp, the impetus for the camp was to offer children a place to recreate outside the confines of the city and to provide a moment of respite for “Overtired mothers … ” When the camp was consolidated in 1923 by Neighborhood House, the name was changed to Camp Sophie Worth in honor of Neighborhood House’s founder. A bulletin from 1926 noted that the camp had capacity for 90 campers as well as a staff of 25. Ruth Brin, noted in one of her camp memoirs that

“The staff and the Council (Of Jewish Women) were all for teaching and learning, developing good health habits, and even “Americanizing”, but the kids were there to have fun. Curious items were occasionally run up the flagpole, rest hours were sometimes violated, and kids who were not underweight would sneak into the “extra milk and cookies” line.

Camp Tikvah in Atkin Minnesota was purchased in 1947 by a group that included Sam Finkelstein and Ellis Peilen, with the intention of creating a camp to be affiliated with the new Minneapolis Jewish Community Center that was in its early planning stages. Tikvah could take in up to 100 campers, who came for periods ranging from two weeks to a month. The camp excelled in providing both outdoor and arts experiences, as well as offering Israeli scout and Sh’lichim visits, kosher food, Jewish programming and Shabbat services. The camp closed in 1983.

Council Camp came into being during the depths of the Depression. Activists in the community believed that offering a camping experience to children who had seen little of life’s ease or nature’s beauty could benefit from a camping experience. The physical camp was built as part of FDR’s Works Projects Administration program, which among it’s many activities built community camping facilities around the US. Part of the agreement between the WPA and the Jewish Camping program was that 1/3rd of the campers be “low-income”, and that fees were to be adjusted according to a family’s ability to pay. The first site, in Hinckley, MN, was followed by a new site in Aitkin.Because of Council Camps reliance on Federal support, the camp was non-sectarian, but operated based on the observance of Jewish principles. Services were held on Friday evening, when campers dressed in white and sat down to traditional shabbos meals, complete with singing and candlelight.

Jewish summer camping served and still successfully serves a multitude of purposes: providing outdoors and recreating opportunities for young people, educating youth about Jewish tradition, Israel solidarity and Hebrew language skills, and developing leadership skills in the next generation of Jewish community leaders.


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