Happy Birthday, NAH-JEE-WAH!

Happy Birthday, NAH-JEE-WAH!

New Jersey Y Camps Celebrate a Centennial

It’s not as if there can be anything that’s more inherently exciting than the first day of camp.

You’ll all packed; your huge duffel is a mound of mystery, because who can remember what you put in it, or what your parents might have added? You haven’t slept, you and your friends are in constant touch, you’re counting the seconds, you have to say goodbye to your parents — no big deal, not really — and the dog — wait, are you sort of crying? No!!!! Of course not. And then you’re waiting for the bus, and then there it is, and you’re on it — and it’s all magic and adventure from there. A different world.

Adults remember it from their own childhoods, and from their kids’.

There’s also something that’s going on at one specific camp this year — or to be more accurate, at one specific, huge, very local camp system. It’s the New Jersey Y camps. It’s celebrating its centennial.

How did it get to be 100 years old?

And it’s looking forward.

Girls’ and boys’ bunks
get together at camp. (All photos courtesy NJY Camps)

What’s in its future?

First, a clarification. NJY Camps are 104 years old. Its first camp, just for boys, opened in 1920. But its signature camp, Nah-Jee-Wah, opened as camp for girls in 1924, and that’s one full century ago. (Nah-Jee-Wah is a fanciful, faux-Native-sounding take on the initials letters of New Jersey Women.) Nah-Jee-Wah became coed in 1969 and now is the summer home for the youngest campers; since then, the system has added Cedar Lake for tweens, Teen Camp for, logically enough, teens, Nesher for modern Orthodox kids, and Round Lake Inclusion for kids who are not neurotypical. The camps are in New Milford, Pennsylvania, close to the Jersey border; campers come primarily from New Jersey and often from New York State.

As NJY Camps celebrate Nah-Jee-Wah’s centennial with a ceremony on July 10 at the camp, and then with other events throughout the year, and as it remembers its history as a Jewish camp, it also will honor some of the many women who have shaped both the camps and the more general world of Jewish camping.

Michael Schlank is the CEO of NJY Camps.

“The centennial marks not only longevity but also an important moment in our community’s history,” he said. “When you look back across the sweep of history, you see that Jewish communities have responded to challenges, both here and abroad, by doubling down with their commitment to one another and to the longstanding idea of Jewish community. Nah-Jee-Wah’s centennial is an exemplar of the importance that the Jewish community has put into continuity. In the last several years, we have taken that torch and moved it forward.”

Mr. Schlank quoted Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot. “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it,” he said. “It is our sacred duty to ensure that when we are the stewards of the community’s money, and its trust, that we do whatever we can to safeguard and strengthen what we have, and then at some point to hand it off.

“We are looking at our history, at the Jewish community, at the people who have done so much with their work in the Jewish community, both here and abroad. This is what this celebration we are planning will mark.

“And on top of that, we think about the role of women in Jewish communal life, and particularly in our organization, and most particularly in Nah-Jee-Wah — the directors and the staff and our board leadership and our funders.

“As we celebrate, we know that we are in the shadow of great challenges, both here and in Israel. This centennial is even more important because we will continue to work to make sure that young people and their families have connections to Jewish life not only during the summer, but all year long. And we will continue, God willing, to do this work for the next hundred years, because we are proud and we are dedicated and we are committed Jews, and this is what we do.”

On July 10, and throughout the year, NYJ Camps will honor Paula Gottesman of Morristown for the Gottesman Gesher campaign, a $2 million matching grant that will help the camps flourish. It also will honor the board president, Stacie Friedman, who has been instrumental in, among other things, putting the day together.

The camp also will honor Lynne B Harrison of Verona — and no, the missing period after her middle initial is not a typo but an expression of her personal style, as in Harry S Truman (and reader, if you want to go down a rabbit hole, take a look at whether or not he really didn’t want the period after his middle initial) — who donated the science center named in her honor.

Dr. Harrison, a retired toxicologist, explained why she made that donation.

“About a decade or so ago, two things appeared on the scene,” Dr. Harrison said. “One thing was the huge report that showed that there are three basic factors that keep Jewish kids Jewish in adulthood. One of those three things is Jewish camp.

Tennis is one of the many sports available at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah.

“The other was the way that people tried to integrate schools.” Not legally, of course — that fight was won, in theory, decades ago — but in reality, given that people tend to segregate themselves by neighborhood. “What they came up with was magnet schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, schools that would be so outstanding that parents would want to send their kids to them.”

Those two ideas “resonated in my consciousness,” Dr. Harrison said. “How would you get children who otherwise would go to a science camp, particularly if they could get academic credit for it, to go to a Jewish camp? So I said to myself, ‘Self, if you develop a really fine science program, maybe we can get some Jewish parents to send their kids to camp.’”

It worked. The Dr. Lynne B Harrison Science Center, at Nah-Jee-Wah, at the bottom of the hill on the way to Cedar Lake, has drawn science-besotted kids as if it were a magnet and they were iron filings. “A parent told me that she was going to send her kid to Yale for the summer, for science, but instead he was going to our camp. He’d get the science, and maybe he’d go into the water once in a while.”

The classes at the science center are entirely elective. They’re only for campers who want to take them (or, at times, whose parents want them to take them, Dr. Harrison said.) Dr. Harrison knew what she was looking for in teachers. “There were three criteria,” she said. “They had to really love children, they had to be really knowledgeable in whatever discipline they were going to teach, and they really had to be able to teach. Not everyone who knows a subject well can teach it.

“We started out with astronomy, because we knew someone who turned out to be a wonderful teacher.”

She recalled a meeting with a mother “who told me that she had an 8-year-old daughter. The mother said, ‘When I went to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. But my daughter knows. She wants to be an astronomer.’” That 8-year-old went to Nah-Jee-Wah.

Nah-Jee-Wah campers and their counselor are ready for adventure.

“In the second year we added chemistry, and then I think biology and physics. And the location was excellent, right near where kids cold buy ice cream and snacks. The teachers didn’t have to say ‘Do you want a chemistry lesson?’ Instead they could say ‘Do you want to make blue soda or cheese?’”

Outside of camp but inside the local Jewish community, Dr. Harrison, who is vice chair of the centennial campaign for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, endowed the Dr Lynne B Harrison STEM Endowment fund. She also endowed the camp system’s annual science fair.

“One year, when I went to the science fair, as I do every year, I asked the instructors to give me a list of the computers they wanted.” She bought them for the science center. “They were state-of-the-art,” she said. “And then I thought, ‘Why should the camp have to deal with the problem of storing all of this equipment during the cold winter?’ Then it occurred to me that Jewish kids could use the equipment 12 months a year.”

Schools are warm during the winter, and the equipment could be used during the nine months of the school year, Dr. Harrison thought, and one of her grandsons was a student at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange at the time. “So that first year, one of the people from camp came with an SUV at the end of the season and brought the computers to GOA, and then he brought them back and set them up after the school year ended,” she said. “That first year, they forgot to ask for the passwords.”

Now, “the stuff goes back and forth, and the schools have been extremely creative. Golda Och now has an astronomical observatory — not a planetarium, an observatory — and it has integrated calculus and physics into astrophysics, so now kids take calculus not just to pass an exam but to be able to use it in a more practical way. I donated my own just-used-by-one-person telescope to the camp, and it will go back and forth to school.

“This year, I hope to integrate some of the other schools into this rotation, so that in the nine cold months the equipment will be in school, with heating, and during the three hot months they’ll be in the air-conditioned science center.”

Campers prepare for Shabbat on Friday afternoons.

Dr. Harrison recalled another camper. “A mother told me ‘you don’t know what the science center has done for my son,’” she said. “‘Frankly, he is nerdy. He’s not good at sports. But he did the science electives at camp, and he has blossomed. He doesn’t want to come home from camp.’

“The science center really has helped some children on the emotional level.

“When I go to the science fair, one of things I ask every year is how much of this did you know before you arrived in camp? How much did you learn at regular school? The answer usually is none of it. Some of these kids have done brilliant work. Unbelievable projects. Many of these kids are pre-bnai-mitzvah age.

“It is very gratifying.”

Merle Hurwitz Kalishman of Livingston, another woman who will be honored at the celebration on July 10, has lived a long life that would have been entirely different had she not gone to Nah-Jee-Wah from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when she was 13, in 1952.

“I went to camp every summer from then until I became pregnant,” she said. She’d met her husband, Marty Kalishman, at camp, and her two children also were NJY Camp campers. She’s a former president of the camps (as well as other institutions, including her shul, Temple B’nai Abraham of Livingston).

How did all that happen?

Some campers love goggles. They all love the water.

She went to camp with a good friend, Ellen Levine Opell — “a lifelong friend; we call ourselves prenatal friends,” she said — who was from New Jersey. “She went, so I went,” she said.

Camp was fun, and she has stories.

“That first summer, just as a joke, every time we had breakfast or lunch we would take one or two salt shakers from the table,” she said. “Little by little, there were no salt shakers, and they’d serve salt in paper cups.

“There was a banquet, and we decided we’d volunteer to help. Matt Elson, who was the director who was picked to rejuvenate the camps” — they’d gone through a tough time in the late 1940s and early ’50s, during the polio epidemic, when parents weren’t comfortable sending their kids to camps, Ms. Kalishman said — “stopped me.” He wanted her to leave. “But we’d decided that this was a good time to return the salt shakers, and I had really a lot of them. Matt realized that, and he realized that he needed the salt shakers more than he needed to get rid of me.”

After two years as a camper, Ms. Kalishman was in the first year of the unfortunately named “Work Camp” — it was the precursor to today’s Teen Camp — and then she was the pioneering counselor.

“In those days, we didn’t go out on the Delaware River,” she said. “We took the kids to Lake Wallenpaupack. I would stay there for a week, and the camp would bring kids up and back. Then I’d get to go back.”

She has a story from that time that at first she thought was funny, but on second thought realized that it’s not. Not at all. But it does reflect the big differences between then and now.

“One night there was a raid,” she said. “Back then we didn’t have paper plates. We used tin plates and tin cups. We’d hang them up.

Waterfront counselors give campers a ride in a canoe.

“People came and ravaged the camp. The noise was horrendous. We didn’t have any phones there then, so I went out to the road, to a pay phone. The man who became my Uncle Aaron when I married Marty answered the phone, and asked ‘What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘We had a raid,’ and he said, ‘Merle, did you say ‘rain’ or ‘raid’? I said ‘raid,’ and he said, ‘I’m coming to get you.’”

So who did that? “Some locals, I think,” Ms. Kalishman said. “I think they just wanted to frighten us. I hope they just wanted to frighten us.”

Ms. Kalishman rose through the staff, eventually becoming a division head. During the year, she went to SUNY Cortland, and she married Marty Kalishman, whose connection to camp started in 1957, when he joined the staff.

“My closest friends are from camp,” she said. “To this day, there are people I haven’t spoken to in 30 years, but if I were to pick up the phone and call and say ‘It’s Merle,’ they would know who I am.

“New Jersey Y camps are unique,” she said. “Initially, they were run by social workers. By the time kids got to camp, the counselors already had spent a week with each other, and they all had background on all the campers. They would sit down and do bunking, figuring out that this one should bunk with that one. If there were problems, they were noted. There were special folders that noted if someone needed special attention.”

There was a lot of love.

Campers have fun on a ropes course.

And then there was the Jewish part.

Ms. Kalishman went to camp with very little Jewish knowledge.

“I didn’t know anything about something called the Shema,” she said. “I knew absolutely nothing. I enjoyed learning at camp, because it was a pleasure. We had kabbalat Shabbat every Friday night.”

There was antisemitism right outside the camp, she said. “When we would go for a hike, when we got to a certain point, we were told not to stop. If we had to tie our shoelaces, we had to do it before or after.” The road was public, but the property on either side of it was owned by a notoriously antisemitic woman. “She would go out in her baby blue Cadillac, with her rifle, making sure that we did not step on her property,” Ms. Kalishman said. “There was another place where we passed by a field, and some apples had fallen onto the ground. Some of the girls picked them up, and the farmer came out and yelled, ‘You dirty Jews.’”

But they were safe at camp.

Steve Silverstein of Woodcliff Lake is a onetime NJ Y Camps camper who recently joined the board of directors.

“Camp was a great experience,” he said. “I was there for five years. My first year was 1965, when I was 8. My big sister, Lynn Silverstein, who is three years old than I am, was there, at Nah-Jee-Wah.” He was at Cedar Lake. “It was good to have someone at camp who had been there already. We saw each other every week.

Counselors and campers grow close during a summer.

“It was good to be in a Jewish environment. We grew up in Bloomfield, where there was a small Jewish community. It was nice to have the comfort of being at camp, where everybody was on the same team.

“I learned life skills and the love of being outdoors — canoeing, camping, swimming, sailing. I still do all those things. Lynn and I both went on to be members of USY, and we both became involved in the Jewish community because of camp.”

Mr. Silverstein now is a member of Temple Emanuel of Woodcliff Lake, and he supports the local Chabad, he said.

He remembers being in camp when American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. “Our counselors woke us up in what seemed like the middle of the night, to watch the landing on a small black-and-white television,” he said. It wasn’t an official camp activity; instead, it was his bunk’s counselors thinking that this was something important that their campers should see. It stuck with him.

Last summer, Doug Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, who had been a Cedar Lake camper, visited the camp. Mr. Silverstein and Jason Shames, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, were there. “I learned more about camp from an adult point of view,” he said. “It was great to meet Doug, and it also was great to reconnect with camp, and to see the facility.

“I know something about how nonprofit organizations work. And now, after October 7, it has become even more important for Jewish kids to have a place to go. So I joined the board just a few weeks ago. The camp has a great team. I, as a new person with a new eye, am very pleased to see the enthusiasm and dedication of the board members and the professional staff. They all deserve a pat on the back.”

Campers relax as they get ready for the water.

Jeremy Fingerman of Fort Lee is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“The New Jersey Y Camps are the largest Jewish camp system,” he said. “It is a leader in the field, especially for the innovation and adaptive practices that it brings to the entire field.

“That’s especially true when you think about what’s happening this summer, which is unlike any other for campers, staff, and families. Everybody needs more support right now. We all have been through such a tough eight months.

“We funded trips to Israel for camp directors, including Sam Aboudara, who wrote about how important it was to see the trauma firsthand, and to feel the resilience. You can see his experience permeating the plans and programs the NJY camps will be running this summer.”

The camps have been dealing with major trauma even more since October 7, which “came on top of all the trends we have been seeing,” Mr. Fingerman said. “The need for mental, emotional, and social health support has been growing, and we have been involved with it since well before covid.” The pandemic was another serious stressor. “Now, there is an even bigger need for campers, counselors, and even professionals to have access to incremental mental health support,” he said.

“NJY camps, like other camps in our system, are offering Israeli teens, particularly kids from displaced communities, the chance to experience camp this summer,” he continued. “What Jersey Y camps are doing, and the scale that they’re doing it at, is really special. They’re providing respite, and a positive Jewish experience, to these Israeli teens.

Nah-Jee-Wah adds videography to its roster of electives.

“We know that people have a lot of questions right now. They’re questioning Israeli government policy. They’re thinking about antisemitism. We are working hard to help camps facilitate difficult conversations with opposing points of view. We are working on it nationally. Jersey Y camps are both partners and participants in those discussions.

“Camps are entering this summer more prepared, with more resources, to create the summer that kids need more than ever.

“Bigger picture, camp enrollments across the Jewish camp system finally will exceed pre-pandemic records. We have been able to rebuild in remarkable ways. Camps have hired more college-age counselors than ever before. They feel they need a break from being on the front lines, with so much negativity.

“I am thrilled that camps can provide positive, joyous Judaism. That is what is most exciting about this summer.

“Campers and counselors are arriving at camp after this challenging, painful year, and camp is creating a welcoming place for these young Jews to feel purposeful and joyous. They are coming to camp for friendship, to embrace the Jewish community, and to engage safely in dialogue about the events of the past year.

“The Jersey Y camps are creating sacred Jewish spaces for the community,” he concluded. “In both size and scale, they have been at the forefront of experimentation, innovation, and leadership, both for the whole field of camping and for our Jewish community.”

To learn more about the New Jersey Y camps, go to njycamps.org.

For information about the July 10 celebration and the events planned for the rest of the year, email the associate director of development, Debra Daitchman, at debra@njycamps.org.

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