Remembering the spell of Kutz Camp
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Remembering the spell of Kutz Camp

About-to-close teen leadership ‘academy’ remains very much alive in locals’ memories

Kutz campers in 1977. (Courtesy of Kutz Camp)
Kutz campers in 1977. (Courtesy of Kutz Camp)

Some experiences, or places, leave an indelible mark on your life. For several local residents, that place is Kutz Camp. To the chagrin of many, the camp — which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 — is closing.

Long known as the Reform movement’s center for high-level leadership training for teens and a breeding ground for modern Jewish folk music — the late Debbie Friedman was a song leader there in 1969 — the summer camp, in Warwick, New York, will close its doors after the 2019 summer season.

Whatever the reasons for this decision — in making the announcement, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacob cited competition from other programs — its closure will have both physical and emotional ramifications.

“I am personally sad,” Noah Fabricant, the rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township said. “Along with so many friends and colleagues, I feel a personal sense of loss. I recently brought both of my kids to Kutz for a NFTY event, where I was the rabbi.” In 1965, Kutz Camp became the summer headquarters for NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Union for Reform Judaism’s youth group; Rabbi Fabricant is one of the region’s NFTY local advisors.

“I began to imagine what it would be like for them to go themselves,” said Rabbi Fabricant, who lives in Ridgewood with his wife, Alexandra Harwin, and their two daughters. Although his children, now 2 and 4 years old, no longer will have the opportunity to go to Kutz, “I trust the leadership of URJ when they say that teen programs have not disappeared, but have just shifted, like everything in Jewish life that has changed, adapted, and grown,” he said. “When they say it’s not the best way to instill values, I trust them.”

Rabbi Fabricant said that URJ has a system of summer camps throughout the country. Traditionally, students who had gone to their local camps but wanted leadership training would leave those camps for Kutz when they were in high school.

“Those individual camps over the years have initiated more and more wonderful programming for teens,” he said. “It’s harder to convince a teen in Mississippi who goes to the Jacobs camp there to skip a summer and come to Kutz. Kids love their camps.”

As for NFTY, “over the years we have held events in other places as well,” he said; they’ve met at Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania as well as in synagogue buildings.

Rabbi Fabricant said he had not been a camper at Kutz; he’d been a participant. “It’s not like other summer camps that run programs for all ages,” he said. “Kutz was a teen leadership academy and we were called participants rather than campers.” He held that status in 1997 and 1998. In 2001, he returned as a resident advisor.

The pagoda called Isaac, where Rabbi Noah Fabricant and
his friends “made shacharit together
before breakfast.” (Courtesy Noah Fabricant)

But for the rabbi, it wasn’t only about summers. “I grew up in New Jersey” — in West Orange — “and our NFTY region had its regional events at Kutz. During the year, we had several weekend conclaves, now called kallot.”

How important was Kutz in his life? “It set me on the path to becoming a rabbi,” he said. “It had as profound an effect as any other program or organized experience I was ever part of.” He came to Kutz because his religious school principal wanted him “to learn how to song-lead. I played guitar, and Kutz was the premier place to learn how to song-lead.” The plan was for him to teach music in the religious school. “The revival of the folk music style lived and breathed at Kutz,” he said.

“It drew people from all over the country,” he added, noting that “the people from Kutz have been part of my life in the Jewish world up to this day. When I went to rabbinical school in Jerusalem for my first year, my roommate was a friend from Kutz. There were at least a few other Kutz friends in our class, as in every rabbinic and cantorial program in the Reform movement.”

For Rabbi Fabricant, it is not swimming or sports that stand out in his memory –although he does remember some “epic, unathletic softball games — but music. “Kutz is dedicated to singing new Jewish music and the experience of communal singing in prayer, for enjoyment, and for community building.”

He also fondly recalls Shabbat at the camp. “Kutz transformed over Shabbat,” providing the “spiritual uplift and intentionality with which we approached relaxation during Shabbat.” Finally, he said, “Kutz was where I was first introduced to serious Jewish study,” learning from people who took tradition, especially Reform Jewish tradition, seriously.

The camp’s leadership program has changed many times, he said. “In my era, there were tracks. You would sign up for a specific track.” For example, there would be different tracks for people learning to lead temple youth groups, religious schools, or song-leading. The tracks, and the overall environment, taught him skills he still uses today in leading group discussions and getting people involved, he said.

As for its social environment, “it created community, modeling acceptance and welcoming. Finding an environment that was so positive and welcoming and open was transformative and powerful.”

Rabbi Fabricant recalled that “as a participant, I would wake up early, before breakfast, and go to the pagodas by the lake.” The three pagodas were named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He and some other teens would make Shacharit together “at our own initiative, with maybe some guitars. It was one of my first experiences in taking the initiative in Jewish life and leadership. It was unforgettable.”

“My Kutz cabin picture from summer 1997,” Rabbi Fabricant writes. “At least three of us became rabbis. I am at the lower right with the strap across my chest.” (Noah Fabricant)

Jordan Millstein, the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, was a camper at Kutz in 1980; his track was temple youth group leadership. He grew up on Long Island; because he headed his synagogue’s youth group there, he felt ready for the camp’s “higher-level” training. “I really did learn basic leadership skills for the first time in my life,” he said. In fact, he added, the skills he learned “have lasted a lifetime. I wouldn’t have had the same sense of commitment” to developing teen programs — “if I hadn’t been part of it. Going to Kutz brought it to a different level.”

He was at Kutz as a “faculty brat,” Rabbi Millstein said; his father, Rabbi Ronald Millstein, often led retreats there. “My father was the rabbi of Temple Israel of Jamaica in Holliswood,” in Queens, he added. “I first started going there as a little kid,” when his father led teen retreats for LIFTY, the Long Island Federation of Temple Youth.

“It was the closest retreat center for congregations in New York and New Jersey for the Reform movement. I was also there for conclaves. It was sort of like a second Jewish home,” he said, giving first place to his own synagogue in Long Island. And while his primary camp was Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “Kutz was the local center for fun getaways and retreats.

“When you look through the list of who spent summers there, you see a huge proportion of the Reform rabbinate. And so much of the music that was developed through the Reform Jewish youth movement is the music we use now. I remember when Steve Dropkin was there — he was a well-known song leader and songwriter. He sang a new tune for ‘Al Shlosha D’varim’ and it became super popular in less than a year.

“I have a lot of great memories of song sessions, sitting in front of the fireplace in the main room and raising the roof singing,” he said. “And the services on the lake in the summer, and being there in the winter playing in the snow.”

His wife, Rabbi Paula Feldstein, staffed a retreat there, and his daughter, Sarah, was a camper during the summer of 2016. “She did the song-leading track, so it’s more than one generation,” her father said. Indeed, he said, she is now putting her skills to use, helping to lead Reform services for the Hillel at Rutgers. (His other daughter, Eve, did not go to Kutz, he added.)

“Sarah remembers discussions being on a teen level and really engaging,” her mother said. “Fun, but high-level.” Rabbi Millstein also remembers those discussions. “In the summer of 1980 I remember sitting and studying with Rabbi Bernie Zlotowitz. It was very informal — you didn’t feel you were in class.”

“Being a camp for teens made it really unique,” Rabbi Millstein said. “It had a certain kind of energy.” And in addition to it having a certain level of seriousness, “in other ways, it was a place where you could be yourself and develop yourself and your Jewish identity on your own. Teens from all over the country came because they passionately believed in Reform Jewish youth group involvement. It was kids who loved it and were into it.”

Should it close?

Debbie Friedman singing at Kutz Camp in 1969. (Rabbi Jeffrey Klepper)

“So much happened there, and it was the source of strength and energy for the youth of our movement,” Rabbi Millstein said. Still, he acknowledged, enrollment has been declining “and there isn’t the same attraction to go to a national camp. The regional camp movements are booming and have developed strong programs for teens. And the movement encourages kids to go to Israel after the tenth grade,” to participate in the NFTY in Israel program. “The movement is adjusting and changing. It’s finding other ways to provide the same kind of leadership development.”

Rabbi Millstein admitted to feeling “sentimental” when he visited his daughter there. “I walked around the camp and remembered my bunk. My bed. Memories came flooding back.” He even took his daughter to see the group photo in which he appeared. “I’m in there somewhere,” he said.

He remains in touch with several people who were connected to the camp. One, Annice Benamy, now is his congregant as well as a Kutz Council member and its liaison to Women of Reform Judaism. “I was a camper there from 1977-80, and then in 1981 I was on staff, working in the sifriah, the library,” she said.

Ms. Benamy went there from Cleveland, part of a group organized by Rabbi Stuart Geller to participate in Kutz’s Torah Corps. “It was like a Hebrew village, for those planning to teach in religious school,” she said. “I was there for two sessions. We learned Hebrew, spoke Hebrew, and had our own dining room.”

She also went to classes in song-leading and remembers proudly getting to lead a song session in the dining room. In 1980, she said, she was accepted into the camp’s work/study program, working in the dining hall while learning Israeli dance and taking Judaic studies.

Perhaps Ms. Benamy’s fondest memory is of meeting her late husband at the camp in 1977. “He was also in Torah Corps.,” she said. “He was 16 and I was 14. We lived in the same village and fell in love.” After years and marriages, apart, they renewed their relationship in 2005 and got married at the camp.

“It was my second home,” she said. “I was very shy when I got to camp. But everybody accepted you. You had a certain freedom and you learned so much. There was a calmness, a sense of family. We knew that it was special, that the best and brightest were going there. A lot of rabbis and Jewish educators went there. It’s incredible what the camp put out.”

In another second-generation story, Ms. Benamy’s daughter — not a camper — visited Kutz for a youth group retreat. She works for the URJ youth department, so she goes to meetings there. “So she got there anyway, and she loves it,” her mother said.

“When I found out it was closing I was devastated,” the daughter said. I never thought it would close.” Still, the camp has a large alumni group on social media “and the 70s and 80s groups are really tight.” She’s glad the camp will be around for another summer, so she’ll have a chance to visit it again.

Paraphrasing her mother, she said, “It’s not a house that’s important. That’s only four walls. It was the people, the opportunities we were given, and the programs we participated in that made it special.”

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