It was special. That’s how Cejwinites remember their camp.
As alumni plan a June reunion to mark the 90th anniversary of the camp’s founding (the Port Jervis facility closed more than a decade ago), The Jewish Standard reached out to several former campers.
What emerged was the picture of an institution that spurred lifelong friendships, brought together future spouses, and planted the seeds for campers’ ongoing commitment to Jewish life. What also emerged was laughter (even a few giggles) as people now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s recalled those early days.
The lay of the land. Courtesy of Eric Robbins.
Founded in 1919 by Albert and Bertha Schoolman, Jewish educators and fervent Zionists, the camp was a project of the Central Jewish Institute, created in 1916 "to integrate Judaism with the American way of life," according to a brief history of the organization on the Website of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Cejwin campers in the 1970s. Courtesy of Susan Kaminer (n?e Greenberg) of Paramus, formerly of Teaneck.
Inspired by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, the organization and its camp ("Cejwin" stands for the "Central Jewish Institute") is credited by the American Jewish Historical Society with creating "what would become the first system of Jewish community and educational camps in the U.S."
"We had services every morning," recalls Cejwin alumnus Eric Robbins, a former resident of Pompton Lakes now living in Manhattan, and the organizing force behind the upcoming reunion. "And there were always strong Zionist feelings. On Friday night, before services, every bunk contributed to [the charity] Keren Ami."
Swimmers in the 1950s. Courtesy of Eric Robbins.
In addition, he said, there were no scheduled activities on Shabbat and the camp always served traditional Shabbat meals.
"I was a waiter one summer, so I remember the menus," he said. "We’re going to replicate them at the reunion."
Robbins, who spent 11 summers at the camp, pointed out that Cejwin consisting of seven camps divided by age and gender allowed co-ed activities only among the youngest campers, ages 4 to 6, and, to a small extent, among the oldest group of teens.
"There was a mile between the boys’ and girls’ sides, with 39 steps and a ramp," he said. "Boys and girls even had separate dining rooms."
According to Robbins, campers came mainly from New York City, although some, he said, hailed from Long Island and New Jersey, with a few from as far away as Delaware and Maryland.
"Cejwin was more important to my Jewish growth than my yeshiva," said Robbins, who noted that Mordecai Kaplan was a regular visitor at the camp.
"It’s phenomenal how it affected my life," he said, crediting the camp with training him to conduct services something he was called upon to do later during basic training in the Coast Guard and, subsequently, during a UJA Young Leadership trip to Israel. "It started me off," he said.
Robbins and his best friend Jeff Miller, co-organizer of the reunion, met at Cejwin in 1951. About a year ago, the two men visited the site of the former camp and began to relive their experiences, even attending the town coffee shop (Homer’s) that figures so large in their camp memories. "We got nostalgic," he said.
"Our whole family was involved in Cejwin," said 85-year-old Teaneck resident Shirley Levy (the former Shirley Schwartz). "My mother was one of five sisters. Three of them worked in administration at the camp." In addition, Shirley and her sisters were longtime campers.
"It’s almost like we were related by blood" to the camp, she said, pointing out that her sister is still in touch with the Schoolmans’ daughter.
"None of us" Levy, her sister, and their 10 or so first cousins "would be married today if it wasn’t for Cejwin," she said. "All of us met our spouses there."
According to Levy, more than 1,000 youngsters attended the camp each summer, with many going on to become prominent in the community. "The three Gribetz brothers were there," she said, mentioning in particular Judah Gribetz, a noted New York attorney. "There wasn’t anything like [the camp] Jewishly. It was the only game in town. And everybody knew someone who went there."
Among her happiest memories are "running through camp singing and dancing" and participating in performances in "the bowl. I just realized that they must have called it that because it was lower than the road and shaped like a bowl," she laughed.
While, by today’s standards, camp tuition was extremely low Levy has a memory of her family paying $135 for the eight-week season "we were not people of means and it was expensive for us. But everyone found a way," she said, noting that her mother served both as a camp salesperson, following up calls from potential campers, and later as a "camp mother. She washed my husband’s hair," she recalled. Levy’s aunt was in charge of laundry, supervising the trucks that collected "huge sacks" from each bunk.
While the camp had few luxuries, that didn’t seem to deter the campers. "We had no running water," said Levy, "and our cabins were open on the sides. We rolled down canvas during bad weather."
Teaneck resident Esther Horowitz (the former Esther Greenstein) told the Standard that she met her "dearest and closest friend," Laura Greenberg (then Laura Freeman), also now in Teaneck, at Cejwin. "We were 9 years old," she said, noting that she spent seven summers at the camp.
"There was a special beauty there," she said, citing memories of Shabbat and particularly of Havdalah services at the conclusion of the Sabbath. "The ‘Jewishness’ was lovely."
In addition, she recalled, "the camp prepared birthday cakes for those with birthdays in July and August. Laura got a big cake in July. It seemed so special and important then."
Horowitz, whose own daughter attended the camp for several years, as did Greenberg’s two daughters, said she thinks of Cejwin each week during Shabbat services when she hears a particular prayer that was recited at the camp on Shabbat.
"It’s laughable what it cost then compared to sleepaway camps now," she said. "What we paid for a full summer would pay for three days at camp now."
Ina Bruskin (n?e Robbins), a resident of Little Falls, fondly recalls her eight years at the camp. "I made wonderful friends," she said, adding that she recently reconnected with a man she knew from her Cejwin days. The camp also had a significant Jewish influence on her, said Bruskin, a member of the support staff of Jewish Family & Children’s Services in Wayne since 1984.
"It attracted families over the generations," she said, pointing out that her daughter attended Cejwin in the 1970s. "It was unforgettable."
For further information about the reunion, scheduled for June 6 to 8, call Robbins at (‘1’) 744-‘719 or e-mail erobb1’firstname.lastname@example.org