Ina Cohen Harris of Fair Lawn still laughs when she thinks about camp food.
“Those were wonderful times,” said Ms. Harris, a former Camp Veritans counselor and teacher in the Paterson school system. “We used to laugh at the food,” she added, recalling dishes such as Spanish rice. “I learned to eat apple butter for the first time. That was on the table in case the food was not to our liking.”
Ms. Harris, who worked at Camp Veritans in Haledon in the 1950s, is chairing the Summer Camp Reunion exhibition at the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey. It’s set to open on October 29; the press release for the opening invites readers to “Come and drink some bug juice.” (See box for information.)
Ms. Harris hopes that other former campers will come to share their own memories. “My fondest memory is of all the children who were ‘mine,’” she said. Her bunk was filled with 5-year-olds. “I remember having a wonderful time with them. They were adorable.” She still is in touch with several of them through Facebook, although they are scattered throughout the country.
“There was nothing I didn’t like,” she said. “The staff was fabulous, everybody was so kind to each other, and so willing to help each other.” She still has a letter she received from a parent. “Mrs. Bromberg sent me a letter to thank me for her daughter’s experience.” (That daughter went on to become a counselor herself.) “I still have that letter wishing me luck in college.”
She noted that many of her friends, then fellow students at Paterson’s Eastside High School, also worked at the camp. Today, many of those same friends are volunteers in the community.
Ms. Harris said the camp always had a Shabbat service on Friday. “We were a day camp so we didn’t have camp on Saturday,” she said. Students traveled to camp by bus. “I loved getting on the bus with the kids. I loved the hugs. This is something that you always remember. It was a joy every day to go.”
She said one of the exhibit’s goals is to stir up warm memories and facilitate unexpected reunions, and another is to promote the Jewish Historical Society. “May people still don’t know that we exist,” she said. “We have such a wonderful base of information in our archives. We thought, let’s do something people can really focus on and remember with fond memories. What was better than going to camp?”
Apparently, nothing, according to a former camper.
“I met so many friends at camp who are still my friends, 50 years later,” said Andy Zettler from Hackensack, who attended Veritans and Teen Trails and now is a member of the historical society. “Whether as a camper or counselor, as much as I loved school, it was only the bridge to get back to camp!”
The exhibit will include photos and memorabilia from a wide range of camps — including Veritans, Hi-Ho, Crestmere, the Passaic Clifton Y camps, Brae Bank, Belle, Knights, Ramah, Teen Trails, New Jersey Y camps (both Nah-Jee-Wah and Cedar Lake), Wasigan, Pine Crest, Warshawsky, and Akiba. Some were under Jewish auspices, Ms. Harris said, and those that weren’t had predominantly Jewish campers. Many of those camps no longer exist.
Ms. Harris laughed again, recalling a song that she uncovered during her research — presumably originating at Wasigan but apparently known to some Veritans alumni as well. “Ikey, Jakey, Sam were the boys who ate no ham.”
Arts and crafts projects on loan from Veritans will be on display. They’ll be interspersed with more than 300 pictures.
The photos will be displayed on the walls around the society’s main room as well as in the conference room and on tables. Display cases will showcase memorabilia from Akiba and Warshawsky. An area marked “Canteen” will offer cookies, doughnuts, and cider.
In addition, the grand opening on October 29 will feature five speakers: Mickey Gilbert from the Passaic/Clifton Y, Arthur Minsky from Hi-Ho, Amy Cooper from Ramah, Janet Fleigelmen from NJ Y camps, and Mark Murray from Veritans.
Debbie Grossman of Caldwell grew up in Paterson. She is a member of the reunion team and the historical society. “I didn’t cry when I sent my son to sleepaway camp,” she said. “I was so glad he was going to have that opportunity.”
She went to Veritans in Haledon from 1959 through the summer of 1965, and to the Y camps in Milford from 1966 to 1971. What did she love? “The whole environment, the atmosphere, being outside, my friends, the activities,” she said. “Just a wonderful, happy, healthy environment.” Some friendships she made during camp have continued via Facebook.
Ms. Grossman recalls that Veritans served a kosher hot lunch every day. And at the Y camps, “there was peanut butter and jelly on the table at every meal in case you didn’t like what they were serving.” The Y camps, which were under Jewish auspices, had Friday night services and “Saturday was a special day, with a special schedule and different programs.”
Ms. Grossman is looking forward to a “fun afternoon” at the exhibit. “Hopefully, a lot of people will come so they will be reunited,” she said, noting that the photos and exhibits, especially of their own camps, “will bring back memories so they can reminisce.”
Former camper Joy S. Kurland — she went to Camp Belle in Totowa — is now the historical society’s executive director. “It is our hope that faces will be linked with names at the reunion,” she said.
Ms. Kurland recalled a chance meeting at a swim club when she was in her 30s. “My husband and I already had kids, and we met a man my husband had gone to law school with. All of a sudden, the guy’s wife said, ‘Omigod — Joy! We went to Camp Belle together.’” The two had last met when they were 5 or 6. Today, they are once again good friends.
Ms. Kurland’s best memories of camp are that “we formed special bonds of friendship. Going into that group experience for the first time, it meant a lot to be able to have those warm connections with fellow campers. Whether it was color war or a sports competition, we were rooting for each other.” She also recalled the option of eating peanut butter and jelly at meals, “from which I really got an affinity for peanut butter and jelly.
“I really came away with a positive feeling,” she said, adding that she has great memories of singing camp songs on the bus and “getting the spirit” of the camps. “I didn’t get homesick at all. When I sent my daughter Meredith to camp, feelings and memories resonated.”
Camping is a good experience, she said. “It encouraged independence, nurtured friendships — if not friendships for a lifetime then at least memories for a lifetime — teamwork, and team building. It always remains with you.”
Ms. Kurland lives in Parsippany now, but she grew up in Paterson. So she lived close to camp, but not everyone did. “My friend Cookie came from Newark,” she said. “People came from different areas.” And although the camps were coed, they tended to have separate boys and girls divisions, she added.
Ms. Kurland said that when the historical society envisioned the exhibit, board members each shared their camp experiences and memories. In fact, she said, an acquaintance, learning of the plan, brought in memorabilia from her own camp, Akiba. The historical society, Ms. Kurland said, “has grown by leaps and bounds. What we do here is preserve, collect, and educate. We have phenomenal collections and exhibits. The last one featured Jewish businesses in our catchment area. We’d like the community to see the space and understand what we do. We hope to achieve that through programs such as this.”
Who: The Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey will unveil its
What: Summer Camp Reunion Exhibition
When: The opening is set for October 29 at 1 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through December
Where: At the Society’s home, 17-10 River Road, Fair Lawn
Cost: Members in good standing and children under 12 are free, others are $10 per person.
For more information: Call (201) 300-6590 or email JHSNNJ@gmail.com. The society’s website address is https://jhsnj.wordpress.com/
The public is invited and welcome to bring photos or memorabilia from their camp days in North Jersey. Refreshments will be served, and the program will include speakers from five of the featured camps.