Almost everyone who’s ever been a kid at sleepaway camp, or had a kid at sleepaway camp, or even talked to a kid fresh from sleepaway camp, knows that the experience is powerful, all-enveloping, and at times — sorry for the excursion into babble, but it’s necessary — transformative.
Summer camp just does transform lives.
Jewish camp is a specific subset of sleepaway camps. About 2.4 or so percent of Americans are Jewish, polls and demographers say, but if you look at summer camps, you’d find that hard to believe. So many of them are Jewish! It seems that vast numbers of American Jewish kids go to camp, and that camp affects their lives, their sense of belonging, and their understanding of their Jewishness.
But that’s abstract.
Here’s a story about how camp affected an actual boy and his family, and how that now-grown man is affecting campers for generations to come.
When Bruce Nussman was 3 years old, in 1950, and his brother Michael was 8, their father, David Nussman, died; just a year later, their mother, Rae Gross Nussman, also died. The family had been living in Belleville with Ms. Nussman’s parents; after she died, her parents, Esther and Rubin Gross, brought up their grandchildren.
There was love but little money. “We were basically living on Social Security,” Mr. Nussman said. There also wasn’t much Yiddishkeit; there were some Jews, but the town and school were mostly Italian-American. The brothers’ summers would have been like the rest of year, just hotter and less structured. “We were not in a position financially to go to camp,” Mr. Nussman said.
But someone noticed.
“There was a woman in town, I think she was active with the UJA, who knew our story, and somehow arranged scholarships so we could go to camp,” Mr. Nussman said. That camp was Cedar Lake, one of the New Jersey Y camps in Milford, Pennsylvania. “I went for my first year in 1954, when I was 7,” he continued.
That was 69 years ago.
“I was in the youngest bunk, and they kept me back for a year,” which probably means that he had been a year younger than the next youngest child that first year, and that the camp leadership had made special arrangements for him because they knew how it important it was.
Mr. Nussman loved camp. “It was a great place for developing independence and social skills,” he said. “It was an opportunity for me to do a lot of things I never could have done in Belleville. Canoeing! And other activities and sports and so forth. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
He went to camp, on scholarships, for 10 years, moving up from the youngest bunk through teen camp. He couldn’t go back as a counselor, much as he wanted to, “because I had to work, and you didn’t make a lot of money as a counselor. I needed to make money.” A combination of scholarships and hard work got him through Rutgers as an undergraduate and then through Brooklyn Law School.
After that, his career soared. “I was a judicial clerk in the Bergen County Superior Court my first year out of law school,” he said. “I clerked for Judge Edward Van Tassel. And then I went into the firm where I still am now, as senior partner.”
The firm, established in 1913, is in Hackensack; it’s now called Kates Nussman Ellis Farhi & Earle. Mr. Nussman lives in Englewood.
That’s far from all Mr. Nussman gained from camp, though.
Rosalyn Shapiro was born on the Lower East Side — “where all Jewish comedians came from,” and in fact she’s really funny — to Helen and Louis Shapiro. Both of them were Holocaust survivors. The family soon moved across the Hudson, first to West New York and then to North Bergen; Mr. Shapiro was involved in the embroidery business, which was flourishing in Hudson County. Ms. Shapiro went to Douglass College and became an educator in North Bergen; after 10 years as a sixth-grade teacher, she was asked to create a program for gifted students. She’s retired now, but she did that job for 30 years. “I loved it,” she said. “I had a wonderful career. I was blessed.”
Roz had remained friendly with her eighth-grade boyfriend Jerry Cohen, who became good friends with Bruce; they were in ZBT in Rutgers together. Bruce and Jerry both were at Cedar Lake for an alumni program. Roz had not been a camper, “but we were at camp, and Jerry introduced me to Bruce, and that was it,” she said. “We were still in college — he was a senior, and I was a junior. That was 1968. We’ve been married 53 years now.”
“And we met at camp.”
Mr. Nussman has remained involved in the Jersey Y camps throughout his life. He has been on the board for decades. “I asked to be put on the scholarship committee, and then I was the chairman, because of how the scholarships affected my life,” he said. “I wrote letters to alumni and everyone else I could think of about my experiences, and that raised a lot of money.
“Then I became vice president, and then, 50 years to the year when my grandmother first put me on the bus at the Newark Y, I became president.
“I was president of the board from 2004 to 2007, and during that time we created the specialty camps. We had people like Ron Blomberg,” the Jewish Yankee, “teaching baseball, and Lenny Krayzelburg,” the Jewish Olympian, “teaching swimming, and Herb Brown,” the Jewish basketball coach, “teaching basketball. It was wonderful.”
“And then there was the specialty camp in the sciences, for kids who might not be interested in sports. They did astronomy and coding. Unbelievable stuff,” Rosalyn Nussman added. “A lot of the counselors came from the Technion” and other Israeli universities.
“Bruce and I originally donated a basketball court in Cedar Lake, because he loves basketball, and there is the Nussman Tennis Center, because I play tennis.”
That brings us up to this year, when Roz and Bruce Nussman opened the Nussman/Pargot Rec Center in Cedar Lake Camp.
Okay. So who’s Pargot?
That’s another part of Bruce Nussman’s story.
In 1954, when his grandmother took him and his brother to the Newark Y to get the bus to camp his first year, Mr. Nussman remembers, “she saw a guy who had a whistle around his neck and a very kind face.
“She went up to him — she was in her 70s at the time — and she said to him, in her thick Romanian accent, ‘Will you please take care of my grandchildren?’”
That was Larry Pargot; he was an 18-year-old from Newark, a bus counselor on the trip up, and a photography counselor during the summer.
“Larry took that to heart,” Mr. Nussman said. “He was a mentor to us. He watched us at camp, and became friends with us. This 18-year-old kid would drive to our home during the year and take us out for ice cream or to the movies. He created a great bond between us.
“He’s a real mensch.”
The three men — Michael and Bruce Nussman and Larry Pargot and their families — Larry married, and he and his wife, Barbara, have a son in California — stayed friends. Michael Nussman was the head of human resources at New York Law School until he retired; now he lives in Oregon. “He’s a great guy,” Bruce Nussman said.
Larry and Barbara live in Highland Park; he retired as a guidance counselor at Metuchen High School. And like Mr. Nussman, Mr. Pargot stayed active at the Jersey Y camps.
“Larry was on the board of the Y camps,” Mr. Nussman said. “He was liaison to Round Lake Camp, for kids with neurological disorders. It’s one of the few Jewish camps in the world with this specialty, and kids come to it from all over. It’s Larry’s very focused interest.”
When the Nussmans realized that the camps needed a new recreation center, “we’d already done basketball and tennis, and we thought about Larry and his connection to Round Lake,” Ms. Nussman said. The new building is for both Cedar Lake and Round Lake. “We thought of Larry and his connection to Round Lake, and we decided to dedicate it to Larry for his friendship, his kindness, and his leadership. This is a building that celebrates friendship and leadership.”
The Nussmans dedicated the new building in July and they made sure that the Pargots were there. (Larry Pargot is 87 now.) “We didn’t want him to be just a name on a building,” Roz Nussman said.
When she spoke at the dedication, she announced “that because 2024 would be the 70th anniversary of when little Bruce Nussman first went to camp, we will have another matching gift of $100,000. Up to $1,800, it will be one to one; after that, two to one. So far, just our friends alone have been incredible. The response has been beyond our wildest expectations.
“Camp changed Bruce’s life, and it changed his brother’s life. We want it to do that for other kids.”
Michael Schlank, the CEO of the Jersey Y camps, said that the Nussmans’ gift presented “a dor l’dor” — from generation to generation — “moment. He first was here almost 70 years ago, just a few years after the founding of the state of Israel. And then he stood here again, with his wife and his childhood counselor.
“The Nussmans and the Pargots are dugmas,” role models, he continued. “This is an agency that always commits to money not getting in the way of someone being able to come to camp — but it needs money.”
The Nussmans show how to donate, he said.
Mr. Schlank talked about how camp has been this summer, as the pandemic that affected children’s mental health so badly recedes, but some of its effects linger.
“Camp is amazing this summer,” he said. “I don’t want to give it a keinehora, as my grandmother would say, but it feels like a normal summer.
“The kids are happy. The staff is doing well. We are living out the summer in camp in the way that camp was meant to be.
“But I think that we very much see the pandemic hangover in what happened in our society and to our children in terms of anxiety and issues around mental health.” Kids had increasingly begun to have mental health issues before covid, he said, but the pandemic-caused isolation made them much worse.
“Thanks to the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, we got a grant for a fulltime mental health professional to be on our staff all year round, and that has facilitated conversations from the fall all the way through to now, with parent workshops, and with the staff. She’s enormously busy working with the camp all summer.
“But with all that said, our kids are happy, and they are immersed in happy Jewish camp experiences.
“On the Milford campus” — home to all the camps except Nesher, which is for Orthodox kids, and always has had a rabbi — “there is a rabbi in residence, Rabbi Joan Forchheimer. She’s been on staff for years but now her sole focus is on Jewish education. It’s been fantastic.
“We have more extensions from campers than ever” — that’s from campers whose parents had planned less than a full summer for their kids but now want more time at camp — “and our early-bird numbers for next year are really off the charts, in ways that we couldn’t have predicted.”
And Mr. Schlank had great news about something that is scheduled to happen between the time this newspaper goes to press and it lands in mailboxes and newsstands.
One of its best-known alumni, Doug Emhoff — aka the Second Gentleman — has planned a visit for Thursday, August 3.. Mr. Emhoff, who is married to Vice President Kamala Harris, is Jewish, and often is a liaison between the White House and the Jewish world. He’ll be acting in that capacity when he visits. He’ll also be able to indulge his own nostalgia at camp, where he spent four summers, and was voted Most Athletic by his peers when he was 13. (Mr. Emhoff was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Matawan and Old Bridge, although he moved to California when he was 17 and graduated from high school there.)
“These are really his roots,” Ms. Nussman said.
She looked back over her life, and her husband’s, once more. “We were both so lucky,” she said. “We were so lucky that we both found professions early on that we loved, and that we enjoy doing. We were lucky to be able to travel, and to be able to be philanthropic.”
But it wasn’t all luck, she added. “Together, we represent over 90 years of hard work. We are proud of it, and we are proud of what we are able to do. It is really wonderful that we can do this for the camp.”
To learn more about the camps, and how to support them, go to njycamps.org.