How summer camp color wars taught Jewish history

How summer camp color wars taught Jewish history

Suffern rabbi remembers the murals that brought history to life

Elchanan Weinbach is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Montebello. He has been a pulpit rabbi for 13 years, a school head for 15 years, and a consultant, presenter, or scholar in residence in New York, Kansas City, and Florida, and at LimmudLA.

This mural, Rabbi Weinbach’s favorite, depicts Jewish renewal after the Holocaust.
This mural, Rabbi Weinbach’s favorite, depicts Jewish renewal after the Holocaust.

This is not a story about Marc Chagal, Samuel Bak or Yaacov Agam, nor about any of the other great and well-known Jewish artists of the past. This is a story of how a work of art from a discounted genre opened my soul up as a child, and even until this day.

My parents Lee and Rabbi David of blessed memory were owners and directors at Camp Raleigh in the Catskills and later at Camp Lavi in the Poconos. When they sold Camp Raleigh they took with them a treasure: my most formative piece of Jewish art.

Not that my home had lacked for Jewish art. Here and there were paintings, books, the silver Judaica that was brought out for Shabbos and holidays. Here an Agam mezuzah, there a decorative ketubah, and the mysterious Bak print. But nothing could compare to the colossal works that were my first encounter with Jewish art. Color war murals.

Using a eight-foot by four-foot sheet of plywood as a canvas, those summer-camp murals brought color, imagery, and size to stories and ideas otherwise confined to books and my imagination. Every summer, on the final night of color war, amidst the raucous cheering of each team, after the March and Alma Mater songs, out came that year’s murals, accompanied by an oral presentation. Year after year that summer’s dueling themes were depicted in bright colors and seemingly huge Hebrew letters. Heaven and earth. Fire and water. Chesed and gevurah (mercy and strength). Powerful images took hold of my imagination. Moses at the splitting of the sea, in dramatic color. The dawn of creation, sweeping in a day-by-day arc across the mural. The endless sands and numberless stars. Judaism, the Torah and its stories, and Jewish history had come much more to life!

The mural you see in the accompanying picture was the most impressive work from my 30-plus years of camping. It is a technically superior example of a Jewish art form whose less attractive counterparts have been known to be cut up and used as bed boards to support notoriously uncomfortable summer camp mattresses. Though the identity of its artist/s remains unknown to me (please step forward!), the imagery was the perfect encapsulation of my early Jewish experience.

Sweeping from the horrors of the death camps across the fertile land of Israel to its culmination in the Western Wall, the mural conveyed as nothing else had the arc of Jewish renewal after the Holocaust. The tattooed arm of a concentration camp inmate reaches forward as if to hand the trees of life to the young pioneers, while a soldier with a protective gun and another soldier praying at the newly liberated Western Wall flank the great new war hero Moshe Dayan. The Nazi swastika to the right is dwarfed by the facsimile of the Israeli postage stamp. The verse, written in Hebrew and thus consistent with the right-to-left orientation, translates as: Israel is saved by God with an eternal salvation. Within 30 years of the Holocaust, the now secure and vibrant Jewish State was depicted as moving us forward in history.

After a long stint as a sukkah decoration in my parents’ home, this mural, which moved me to a greater feeling for my place in Jewish history, now overlooks the deck at my home. There it enhances my kiddush at an open-air Shabbat meal, brings a unique Jewish touch to our home, and is a talking piece when students and congregants visit. Crafted by a small group of teenagers working in an obscure genre, it retains its power to inspire the imagination and touch the soul.

It also remains my best reminder of the fun and spirit that was color war in Camps Raleigh and Lavi. The power to recall memories good and painful, translate them into images, and look upon them with awe today as I did as a child — that’s what makes this mural my favorite work of Jewish art.