Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Mother's Memory Became Mine

I grew up in Florida and my mother spoke often about the summer she spent at Camp Laurelwood. Mom was raised in 1930s New Haven, the second child of a family deeply affected by the Great Depression. One year, she received a scholarship to go to camp. I don’t know if the gift came from Laurelwood directly, New Haven’s Jewish Federation or its JCC, but no one ever appreciated this largesse as much as my mother.

Her fond memories of the fun she had that one and only summer away from home fueled her desire to have me go, and she made it happen in the summer of 1967, the year my father decided to move us back to the Northeast. I was ten and a half years old, an only child and extremely shy. Mom thought it would be good for me to be away while they set up our new home in New York.

In those days, camp began around the Fourth of July and ended in late August, a full eight weeks. I arrived that first day with one trunk and two duffle bags, absolutely terrified. I didn’t know anyone and I was clearly different from the other girls: they’d already been at camp for a few years; they were mostly from area communities; they had nicer clothes and wore makeup! I was THE NEW GIRL.

My parents always remembered the sentence with which my first letter began: “If you could get your money back!!” Apparently, I was unhappy and ready to leave, but aware that our family of modest means couldn’t afford to be frivolous (I think camp cost $100 a week back then). Somehow, over the next three weeks, the magic of camp transformed me and, on the final day, I joined the chorus of sad campers. My mother and father were astonished as they watched me tearfully hug my counselors, Irma, the head counselor, Belle Schiffman, and other adults and kids. On our way out of camp, I pronounced with certainty, “Next year, I’m going for two months!”

I came to camp three more summers, each for the full session, and they are melded in my mind into a glorious panorama of milestone events. One in particular stands out: the summer of 1969, when on the afternoon of July 21st, campers and staff crowded into the dining hall, gathering around a very small black and white television set to watch the first man walk on the moon. We all remember important national moments; for me, a key one is where I was when I first heard, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”

Then there was the year we lost elderly Mr. Gordon, the long-time director who lived with his wife in a cottage and daily drove a golf cart to survey our activities. He’d been involved at the camp since my mother’s days. I didn’t really understand at the time, but there was a palpable deep sadness for days amongst the staff that I remember with respect.

Less dramatic but equally special times over four summers included:

• Becoming a star on the trampoline which for this nonathletic girl was a definite sport. Decades later, I shared a trampoline moment on Cape Cod with my young daughter, who laughed as I painfully tried to recreate my moves;

• Arts and crafts on the afternoons of socials, when girls were allowed to publicly wear their hair in rollers. Ours were often empty orange juice cans, four placed strategically atop our heads resembling helicopter blades;

• A first kiss at that social;

• The rainy days in the library;

• Color war, remembering the lyrics we sang to “Somewhere” (There’s a place for us, Laurelwood’s the place for us…);

• The joy of discovering that Wonder Bread, which I didn’t get at home, made a great mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce sandwich on days I didn’t like the menu.

When my daughter was of age, I chose to send her to the same camp in northern New England her school friends attended…with the same duffle bags I had used 30 years earlier. She went for five years but never loved camp as much as I did and, in hindsight, I wish I had let her take the chance on Laurelwood. I wonder if it was that initial need to make it my own that brought me so much satisfaction.

The Jewish experience of Camp Laurelwood has remained with me the most, instilled in a way that still sustains me. I believe it also affected my mother because while she didn’t have much of a Jewish life at home, being at Laurelwood made her appreciate her Jewish heritage. She instinctively knew I would benefit by going to Hebrew school, Israel, and of course, Jewish camp. I will always remember the wonderful Friday night dinners with amazing challah and everyone dressed in our best whites. We would be singing together but I especially loved when Belle lit the candles and sometimes sang the Yiddish song, Bei Mir Bistu Shein (To Me You're Beautiful). She was my favorite “elder” at camp. The Jewish girl in me will be forever grateful for those summers when Jewish song, ceremony and values were infused into our days and nights. That first summer, 1967, began one month after the Six Day War and looking back, I suspect a sense of pride permeated everything we did.

My one sadness is that I didn’t keep in touch with camp friends and I envy today’s campers with email, Skype and Facebook. When I went to college in Boston, I did meet some, including my cute waiter I’d had a crush on for years!

Today, I work in my Jewish community, surrounded by young children and their parents. While day schools nourish our next generation during the school year, how lucky we are to have Jewish camps continue this sacred work throughout the summer. Like my mother before me, I will never forget what Camp Laurelwood did for me.

A version of this post appears in the CLW 75th anniversary tribute book, Fun, Friends, Forever,  published by Camp Laurelwood, 2012. For more information about the book, and the 75th Gala on August 25th at CLW, go to All proceeds from both the book and the gala benefit the CLW Scholarship Fund. Please give the gift of a summer at CLW to the next generation.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Remembering the Good in Ourselves

Today, my community suffered the loss of three special individuals, and I am struck by the similarities in their lives, which makes their shared day of death an interesting coincidence.

There is Joe, 104 when he died, who came to temple every Shabbat morning with a list in hand, a collection of names he rose to recite in prayerful hope for their return to good health.

Ina, a strong woman who made her mark in so many ways: ritual committee trailblazer, sisterhood mentor, devoted wife whose husband preceeded her in the same slow, debilitating illness that took her life.

And Bernie, who forever changed the work of Jewish communal service so that it reflects the values and respect our global community has for those who engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Joe, Ina, and Bernie - I didn't know them well - yet my life is better because of their efforts.

I watched Joe rise each week and purposefully walk to where our rabbi would acknowledge his presence and his appeal for Divine intervention. His ritual, his consistent mission, always made me think of someone I knew who might be helped by a prayer. He made me a better Jew.

Ina was a force - an intelligent, Ivy-educated woman who knew her mind and stuck to it. She welcomed me into her temple, her home, her friendship with care, support, and opinion. You knew where she stood on everything...and I respected her for that. She taught me about ritual, devotion and love. We could use more teachers like Ina.

I met Bernie once, a long time before I began to work in the Jewish community. He was a mensch's mensch. As a professor, he made a difference for his students. As the founding director of the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University, he created an institution that forges great organizational leaders. In creating BALI, the adult learning program at the university, he engaged the broadest of communities.

The Jewish community, my community, has benefitted by these determined, mindful souls. We are forever changed by their insistence on doing good. Let us reflect on the good they did, and hope that our good works will reflect back onto their lives.

May their memories be for a blessing.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Power of One

In a whirlwind trip, women discover the power of one
Heart to Heart shows their dollars at work

When you enter the hospital, you are greeted by a huge, colorful mural. There are a rainbow and a dancing Winnie the Pooh, balloons in hand, one of which is inscribed with “Baruchim Habaim, Welcome Friends.” I knew then I would not leave without shedding tears.

This was the third of five days I spent in Israel, and I was beginning to feel the rush of exhaustion and exhilaration one gets after jet lag sets in. Thrilled to be traveling with two of my closest friends from Boston and 85 other American women, I was on a mission sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Women’s Philanthropy division.

We had come to Be’er Sheva, to the Soroka Hospital for Children, to meet the teachers and the students of the World Ort Kav Or program, which helps ill children continue their studies during a prolonged hospital stay. After hearing from the hospital director and educational coordinator, we were divided into small groups to visit the wards and view the program in action.

I was immediately moved by the children and their families – Israelis in bright clothing and Arabs in traditional dress – who were sitting together in small rooms or working in the cheerful classrooms. My eyes fixed upon a teenage boy, wearing a hospital gown, and sitting with an instructor at a small desk. On closer look, I saw that the youngster was working on complicated math problems and he had payus wrapped behind his ears.

Realizing I was staring, I turned to join my companions and became conscious of how out of place we must have seemed. A strong sense of obligation washed over me: It was incumbent upon us to tiptoe lightly through this reality of other people’s lives.

And then out of the corner of my eye, I saw her. A woman in her late 30s sat off to the side, on a folding chair placed against the gray tile wall. She was quietly watching us while slowly sipping from a paper cup. It was apparent from the way she was dressed – long skirt and sleeves, beret covering her hair – that she was an observant Jew. Thousands of miles away from home, I felt an instant bond with this stranger: She was a mother.

She looked up from her cup, and I took the opportunity to say, “Shalom.”
“Shalom,” she replied.

“Medaberet Ivrit? Do you speak English?”


With a wave of her hand, she asked who we were. Choosing my words carefully, I explained that we were Americans, members of an organization that supported the hospital school. I asked if the young man studying math was her son. She said yes, and that he had been there a week with another yet to go. I did not ask why he was there; she did not say. But at that moment, I was no longer a visitor; she was no longer a Sabra. We were sharing the worry for her son. I looked at her as my eyes began to water and said, “I wish him a Refuah Sheleimah, a return to good health.” She too began to weep and said, “Thank you, and thank everyone for their help here.” I said goodbye and moved on, touched by this private encounter.

The Heart to Heart (H2H) mission is an invitation to all women, at any stage of their lives, to take the leap and travel alone, and together, to our homeland. Participants include young mothers, empty nesters, career women and retired teachers; seasoned federation volunteers and professionals and first-time givers; mothers with adult daughters, real sisters – and best friends who wish they were. The most moving traveler this year was the survivor of the Shoah, who came with her daughter and grandson’s wife, a Jew by choice. Israel beckons you, everyone, to fulfill the mitzvah to be there.

Begun in 2010, this whirlwind tour was designed to show donors “where the dollars go.” It is five days of fast-paced, intensive traveling, geared to introducing us to Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee programs, funded in part by annual federation gifts. This was H2H’s second year, and I was a returning participant. Many of my fellow travelers were Lions of Judah, those who give at the highest levels; dozens of others were like me, women who work for community agencies, were new to the federation family or had never been to Israel. We came to be inspired by the energy and commitment of our local and national federations, 157 strong, who make a difference every day in the lives of Israel’s people.

That initial trip was my first to Israel in 37 years. After a busy year, it was the small ad on the Combined Jewish Philanthropy Web site that beckoned. I was increasingly embarrassed to work in the Jewish community and say I had not been to Israel since the age of 15, so now was the time. I haven’t been the same since.

What is it about Israel that moves one in such a powerful way? There is a force, a sense of purpose. Israel has such impossible dilemmas, yet you witness innovative solutions, many funded by American contributions. For instance, juvenile delinquency has recently been addressed with education and business programs that engage young people by boosting their sense of self-worth. We saw those initiatives, as well as others for new immigrant young adults, Ethiopian children and families at risk.

The distinctive nature of the H2H trip is the opportunity for each woman to understand the power of one: I am a philanthropist. Whether you give $500, the minimum gift to participate on the trip, or $5,000, the initial Lion of Judah commitment, a woman’s gift makes an impact, first on her local community, such as for Jewish education, and then on, say, an Ethiopian youngster in the Carmel valley or an elderly woman in Jerusalem.

At the day school where I work, learning about Israel and its people, language and culture is integral to the curriculum. After I returned, I found myself drifting toward the classrooms whenever our Hebrew teachers were speaking. It was a clarion call, a wonderful reprisal of all I had encountered the previous week.

Why do I go back? For five carefully orchestrated, intensely moving 14-hour days, I am incredibly lucky to be offered a chance to see through the eyes of these extraordinary women. A view of the power of what we can do, alone and together. I will go again, with an open mind and a joyful heart, because to be in Israel is to be transformed.

First published in Boston's The Jewish Advocate, May 5, 2011
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