If you wanted to write a social history of mid-20th-century American Jews, you could start your research with a privately published book called Veritans Club, about the Passaic County group’s first 50 years – 1926 to 1976.
Following the club through to today, with a special emphasis on the day camp with which it has shared its name since 1928, is bound to enhance a person’s understanding of American Jewish history, northern New Jersey division.
The Veritans enterprise sprang out of first-generation Jewish men’s desire to be fully American, to be of service, to do good work, to form community, to make business connections (that is, to network, but it would be decades before that word took on its present meaning) – and also to be silly, to wear funny hats, and to pull practical jokes on each other, safe from their wives’ withering gazes. It was fueled by the understanding that “at the time it was difficult for a person of the Jewish faith to join a service club,” as the book puts it.
And so a group of Paterson men started their own.
Thirty-five men founded the club – the name, we are told “is derived from the Latin word ‘Veritas,’ which means truth.” Veritans is a made-up word, based on a real root, with embellishments. Although there were no formal ties to any shul, most of its members were connected with Temple Emanuel, which was then in Paterson and is now in Franklin Lakes (and known as Temple Emanuel of North Jersey).
In its heyday, the club counted many local celebrities as members or guests. It still carries on today, although it lost steam as Jews abandoned Paterson. During its first few decades, it specialized both in philanthropy and in pranks, raising money for hospitals, nursing homes, high school athletics, and other good works. It hosted political debates; it became not only respectable, but politically powerful and therefore actively sought after. Its pranks usually were aimed at members, not guests, although “naturally it wasn’t our fault that a few guests were nearby as a lemon meringue pie came flying,” we are told.
Still, “the brunt of most insults centered around the incoming president.”
One reported that “as I entered the ballroom of the hotel, two city policemen collared me and locked me in a prison cell built especially for the occasion.”
Another incoming president “sat at the head table strapped in a strait-jacket and, while others ate their plentitude of delectable steaks, Harold was being spoon-fed pablum.”
Of all the famous guests, perhaps the most impressive was Eleanor Roosevelt. “Who else but the Veritans could inspire a Grand Lady like Eleanor Roosevelt to shed her dignity and grandeur, and laugh hilarious at the unabridged, unabashed, and unbridled jibes at her famed squeaky voice, and her futile efforts to resist Veritanian frivolity and bold shafts at her husband, the president of the United States,” we are asked. Who indeed?
The Veritans Club’s most important project was the day camp, which began, two years after the club was formed, on the rooftop of the YMHA in Paterson. The club soon began to support the camp; the relationship between the two during those early years is not entirely clear, but that the bond between them goes back to the late 1920s is certain. By the early 1940s, the club began to hunt for land for the camp; in 1950, it bought the old Garret Hobart estate in Haledon. Hobart was William McKinley’s vice president.
“And then…the real work began – and never in the history of men’s service clubs has a group of middle-aged, desk-bound business and professional men been so ill-quipped to meet such a challenge,” we are told.
The tasks at hand required physical skills that the men did not have, but they tried. “They waded into the mud and wielded axes and were bitten by the mosquitoes and fought with each other when it all didn’t go right.” Eventually, they gave up and hired people who knew what they were doing, and the camp was built.
The relationship between the camp, the club, and the Y lasted for many years. For most of that time, the camp met on the club’s land, which the club maintained.Now that the Y has become a YM-YWCA, “we made the decision to keep the camp Jewish,” the immediate past president of the Veritans Club, Mark Murray, said.
Murray, who lives in Glen Rock, is a second-generation Veritans guy, both as a camper and then as a counselor and waterfront head; his mother was a rooftop camper and his children are there now. He taught Matt Rosenthal of Wayne to swim. Rosenthal is another second-generation camper whose children will be at Veritans when they are old enough.
“I spent 13 summers at the camp,” Rosenthal said. “And now I’m a volunteer.”
The camp is nonprofit; any money it makes or raises goes right back into scholarships. That always has been how it operated.
“It’s about providing an opportunity to have a fun and safe summer, that’s full of tradition and history,” Murray said. The food is kosher, campers say motzi every day at lunch, and every Friday a different rabbi from the community comes to camp to celebrate Shabbat.
Most of the campers are Jewish, but some are not. “When I went to camp, one of my best friends was Arnold, who walks around with a big cross around his neck,” Murray said. “He loved camp, and he still knows the motzi.”
This year, the Veritans Club is planning a huge reunion for Camp Veritans. On Aug. 5, it will welcome former campers; leaders expect to have participants from every decade, from the 50s on up.
For more information, call the camp’s director, Carla Rudow, at 973-956-1220 or go to veritans.com or the camp veritans reunion page on Facebook.