Finding the Goldbergs: A Catskills mystery unraveled


The moment I kicked in the door of the abandoned house in the heart of the Catskills, I felt like I was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone: Borscht Belt edition.”

In some corners it appeared as if the residents were just out for the afternoon. Pictures and tchotchkes adorned the walls. A mezuzah with the parchment still inside was affixed to a doorpost. A working upright piano sat in one corner. Ironing boards were open. Mattresses lay on beds; in one room the beds were still half-made.

But elsewhere, things were in a state of advanced decay. The roof over the kitchen had caved in. The sink was overflowing with rotting leaves. In a bedroom, vines poured in through the window and spread over much of the ceiling. Mold was having its way with the walls.

I had come to the Catskills hoping to get one last look at Kutsher’s, the last of the great Borscht Belt resorts, after hearing the news that its demolition was imminent. For much of the 20th century, Kutsher’s and other Jewish hotels like it helped make the Catskills the summer destination of choice for New York Jews.

But when I reached the mountains a few days later, I found the roads leading to Kutsher’s blocked by chains and sawhorses posted with warnings against trespassing into the hard-hat zone. I tried to make my way on foot, wading through wet, overgrown grass, but three burly construction workers spotted me and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Which is how I found my way into a crumbling bungalow colony at the edge of Kutsher’s 1,500 acres.

Aside from the main house with 10 bedrooms and side building with a dining room and kitchen that I had broken into, there were a handful of bungalows, a pool and a lake. The buildings all were vacant, in varying states of disrepair and overcome by nature.

One room had half a dozen ovens and refrigerators. Opening one fridge, I half expected to find a cold can of Tab. No dice. In the corner of what appeared to be the living room, there was a public telephone. I picked it up. No dial tone.

Most of the bedrooms were disheveled or empty, but in one I found toiletries and a shoeshine kit carefully arranged on the dresser, three drab but clean dresses hanging in the closet, and a shelf filled with unused legal pads and blank paper.

Then I spotted the first clue to who may have lived here.

Tucked into the mirror was a photograph of four happy-looking elderly couples posing in front of the lake out back now obscured by foliage. Their names were carefully inscribed on the back: Nat & Sylvia, Herman & Eleanor, Milton & Norma, Jack & Charlotte. There was also a date: August 2001.

Who were these people and why did they leave? What purpose did this odd house serve? Were the people in the photo still alive? When was the house last occupied?

This being the age of the Internet, it took less than an hour of sleuthing, a credit card and $3.95 to unravel the mystery of this strange Catskills time capsule.

The simple part was figuring out who lived there. An address label affixed to some shelves in the bedroom with the shoeshine kit read Goldberg. That matched the name on a Jewish National Fund Tree-in-Israel certificate posted on the wall in another room. Along with the photograph I found, I had my target couple: Nat and Sylvia Goldberg.

Combing through online directories and death notices, it didn’t take long to locate family members. Soon I had Nat and Sylvia’s daughter, Judy Viteli, on the line.

She almost cried when I told her where I had been.

“Ah, the kochelein,” she said wistfully.

The what?

“The kochelein,” she said. “It’s a Yiddish word.”

Over the course of several conversations, including one in which we went through old pictures at her kitchen table, Judy and her sister, Paula Goldberg — now 60 and 63, respectively — told me the story of what had transpired half a century ago in that house, why it represented the best years of their lives and how it all came to an end. This is their story.

The kochelein — a term that literally means “cook alone” — represented a particular kind of bungalow colony: a place where several families shared a house but where everyone was responsible for their own food. That’s why there were half a dozen fridges and ovens in the kitchen: Each of the 10 families was allotted half a refrigerator and a shared oven to prepare meals.

A pharmacist from the Bronx, Nat Goldberg began bringing his family to this kochelein, called Fairhill, in 1953, when Judy was still in diapers and her sister Paula was 5. The rest of the house was filled with cousins and close friends, all from the same working-class Bronx neighborhood. Everybody, of course, was Jewish.

There was practically no privacy: Parents and their children slept in the same room, all the families shared only two bathrooms and everyone ate their meals in the shared dining room.

From a kid’s perspective, the summers were idyllic. Days were spent hiking in the woods, swimming in the lake, picking wild blueberries, playing hide-and-seek, trying to sneak into the resort at Kutsher’s and waging endless girls vs. boys wars. On rainy days they’d pack into the dining room with their parents to play mah-jongg or a variation of rummy, gambling for split peas. After the rain stopped, the kids would run outside to hunt salamanders.

Once the Goldberg kids turned 10, they were allowed to hitchhike into Monticello; their mother would wave goodbye as they climbed into strangers’ cars. On weekends they might catch rides with their father en route to the racetrack.

On Saturday nights, when the adults went out, the kids left to their own devices smoked, played kissing games and did whatever else they could think of that their parents had forbidden.

“Every one of us will tell you it was the best time of our lives,” Paula said of those summers. “Our mothers never knew where we were and didn’t care.”

For the adults, the bungalow colony was both an extension of and a break from their lives in the crowded Jewish enclaves of the Bronx. It was mostly the same people, but there was cleaner air, less privacy and less testosterone: The men, who worked Monday to Friday, came up only on weekends; the women and children stayed all summer.

“It was a total matriarchy,” Paula said.

It was the 1950s, before three major factors destroyed the Jewish Catskills: air conditioning, which made staying in the city more palatable; declining discrimination against Jews, which opened up previously unavailable summertime alternatives; and the rise of the working woman, which made moving away for the summer untenable.

The bungalow colony was not for the wealthy. Accommodations were simple. Water came from a well. When it went dry one summer, the families went days without showering and walked around with divining rods. The swimming pool — now cracked, overgrown and shrouded by trees — wasn’t built until sometime in the late ’50s.

With the exception of Nat Goldberg, none of the men at the kochelein had gone to college, and they all worked blue-collar jobs. Jewish families with more money went to resorts like Kutsher’s, where meals, entertainment and a wide range of recreational facilities were included. At Kutsher’s, residents of bungalow colonies like the Fairhill kochelein were referred to derisively as “bungees.”

Entertainment at the kochelein was mostly homemade: Someone would play the piano or the adults would hold silly parties where everyone wore their clothes backward or husbands and wives swapped clothing or held mock weddings or soup-eating contests.

The men were constantly pranking each other. In the mornings, the first thing everyone would do was get in line for the bathroom, toothbrush and soap in hand. With as many as 40 people sharing just two bathrooms, dillydallying was severely frowned upon — not least by your stern, socially conscious mother.

“Everything happened in front of everybody else — all the babying, all the disciplining,” Judy recalled. “There was no private place to yell at anybody.”

One morning when she was 11, Judy had to conceal a hickey she said a boy had forced on her neck the night before.

“It was the summer, you couldn’t wear a scarf,” she said. “So I put on makeup before I came out from the top of my head down to my neck thinking nobody would notice.”

To no avail. As soon as she walked into the dining room, a girl named Arlene spotted it and broke into peals of laughter. Judy was humiliated; her mother made her wear pancake makeup until the hickey subsided.

The food was kosher — to some degree. At home in the Bronx, Sylvia would let her kids have milk after meat, but at the bungalow colony she was stricter because Aunt Faye was sitting at the next table.

“We used to pretend to be kosher,” Judy said. “It was shameful if you weren’t kosher. But people were different degrees of kosher.”

Because the ladies didn’t drive, the mothers would list the groceries they needed in a spiral notebook hanging from a hook in the dining room, and the Polish Catholic family that owned the property — Alex and Mary Chicko — would go to town every day to buy the provisions, adding a penny or two to each item as a delivery fee.

The families all shared a single public telephone. If Milton should phone from the city to speak to his wife who was down by the lake, whoever answered would get on the P.A. system and make the announcement, summoning Norma to the receiver.

If the kids misbehaved, the parents would punish them by dragging them along to Kutsher’s shows instead of leaving them behind with their boyfriends and girlfriends.

For Paula, one kochelein relationship proved to have special staying power: with Mark Goldberg, a boy whose family had been coming to the Fairhill kochelein since the 1920s. She was 5 and he was 6 when they met, and they began “going together” in the summer of 1959.

That was when 13-year-old Mark asked Paula to a movie theater in town to see “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and the two kissed during the film — with their eyes open, Paula says.

He was fresh; he was a bad boy,” Paula said with a mischievous smile.

The two broke up at the end of every summer and then got back together the following July. Some summers Mark’s family didn’t go up to the mountains, but Mark always came — even if it was in the care of someone else’s parents. That is, until the summer of ’66, when Mark’s father collapsed at the kochelein of a heart attack and died. Mark was 19.

When Mark was 22 and Paula was 21, they married. The couple recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.

By the 1960s, things had begun changing at the kochelein. A pool had been built. Two more bathrooms were added to the main house. There had been three or four bungalows onsite at least since the early ’50s, but in the ’60s the owners decided to build several more, enlisting the summertime kids to help.

Most significantly, the owners cut a deal that traded the use of part of their land to Kutsher’s in exchange for nightly passes to the resort’s shows. Kutsher’s eventually bought the bungalow colony outright.

“That changed our lives,” Paula recalled. “Our parents could get dressed up and go every night and see all the Borscht Belt comedians. They could go dancing on the stage. Our little bungalow colony had very special power based on the land.”

Judy says she enjoyed the shows, except for one thing: “The comedians would tell their joke, and then the punchline would be in Yiddish. I’d ask Mom what he said and she’d say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’ ”

When she was old enough, Judy began working summers at Kutsher’s as a camp counselor. It was hard work, she says: 12-hour days, six days a week, for just $15 per week. At the kochelein, the traditions continued.

At summer’s end, when each family finished packing up the car to leave, the remaining families would assemble for a parting ceremony. They’d all bang pots and pans and sing a song to the tune of the “The Farmer in the Dell”:

We hate to see you go
We hate to see you go
We hope to heck you never come back
We hate to see you go

The Goldbergs were usually the last to leave.

“We left a day later than everyone else because God forbid we should get stuck in traffic,” Paula recalled.

As they graduated high school and college, the number of kids at the bungalow colony dwindled. Some went up only for weekends, some not at all.

Even as the Catskills fell into decline in the ’70s and ’80s, the adults kept going to the Fairhill kochelein — relishing the space without kids, according to Paula. They stopped only when they couldn’t physically do it, obstructed by illness, death or retirement to Florida.

By the 1990s, most of the kochelein’s rooms were empty.

But not the Goldbergs’; they were diehards. Even when Nat and Sylvia took a place in Florida for the winter, they would return to Monticello for the summers. Sylvia kept three separate bottles of moisturizer so she could travel lighter: at her bedside at the kochelein, in Florida and in Yonkers, where the couple moved when they left the Bronx. (Snooping around the abandoned property, I spotted Sylvia’s bottle of moisturizer.)

With the surrounding area growing shabbier every year, the Goldberg kids tried to convince their parents to stop going to the kochelein — or at least get a room for the summer at Kutsher’s, which by now they could afford. But Nat and Sylvia wouldn’t budge.

“To me it was depressing to go up in those later years,” Judy said. “My mother’s sister used to bring up all her money for the summer and hide it in her room. When she had a stroke in the middle of one summer, her son asked us to find the money and we couldn’t. Eventually someone found it.”

The last few summers the Goldbergs spent at the bungalow colony, they were the only couple there.

“It was eerie,” Judy said. “You would go upstairs and all the other rooms were abandoned looking.” Nat and Sylvia would spend their days at Kutsher’s — Sylvia in pottery classes making tchotchkes that she’d take back to the kochelein and hang on the walls, Nat outside organizing shuffleboard games. At the end of the day they would go back to their big, empty house at the bungalow colony to eat and sleep. Though there were half a dozen refrigerators, they still confined themselves to the same half-fridge they always used.

“It felt like the ‘Twilight Zone’ to me,” Paula said. “Dad was 92. We were scared already. They were living alone in that big house and crossing over to the dining room for meals. They were anachronisms.”

Finally, in the summer of 2002, after 50 years of summers at Fairhill, the Goldberg kids managed to convince their parents to forego the kochelein for the following summer, and they booked rooms at Kutsher’s for 10 weeks starting in June 2003.

But when Nat and Sylvia left the kochelein at the end of August 2002, Sylvia was complaining about feeling tired, and she spent that fall in and out of doctor’s offices. She was diagnosed with cancer.

“After we booked them into 10 weeks at Kutsher’s, my mother felt like a very rich lady,” Paula said. “Even when she was in hospice, she thought she’d spend the summer at the hotel.”

Sylvia never made it. She died in July 2003.

Nat, 10 years her senior, held on for nearly another decade, living until the age of 100. He died in June 2010.

Today, the Jewish Catskills is largely a relic. There are still a few bungalow colonies scattered about, and some haredi Orthodox camps have put down stakes, but all the great Jewish hotels have been sold off or abandoned to nature and decay.

Kutsher’s, the last holdout, was sold in late 2013 for $8.2 million to Veria Lifestyle Inc., a company owned by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra. He plans to build a new health and wellness resort at the site.

Decades on, the kochelein still maintains a hold on the Goldberg sisters — and many of the others who spent their childhood summers there. In 1996, when the sisters held a 50th anniversary party for their parents at Paula’s Westchester home, many of the old kochelein kids showed up for the occasion.

“They were like family,” Paula says.

At Paula’s insistence, she and Mark used to drive to Monticello every year on Aug. 2, the anniversary of their first date. Then last year, for the first time, Paula decided she didn’t want to go anymore. It was just too sad and spooky.

From what I saw on my foray there, it’s also dangerous. There’s no telling when a floor might collapse or the roof cave in. The property is a wreck.

But it’s also full of artifacts – enough for an enterprising visitor to decode the mystery of the copious fridges, the half-full bottle of moisturizer, the piano in the corner of the dining room. Enough, that is, to tell the Goldbergs’ story.

 

 

Jump start Summer at Winter Expo; More help picking a Jewish summer camp


Jump Start Summer at Winter Expo

More than 40 day camps, overnight camps and Israel youth tours will exhibit their programs Jan. 21 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the second annual Jewish Summer Camp and Israel Program Expo is aimed at helping parents and kids find the right Jewish enrichment for summertime.Families will have a chance to meet the camp staffs, learn about the offerings and accommodations and find out about financial help from camps and Israel tours from around the country. A printed resource guide will be available to attendees, as well as to anyone who requests one (contact information below).

The expo is part of The Federation’s renewed focus on the informal but invaluable education of a Jewish summertime experience, according to Lori Port, senior associate director of planning and allocations at The Federation. A new incentive program for summer camps is working its way through Federation committees, and the last few years has seen an increase in Federation money going toward camps.

For three years, The Federation has allocated $50,000 annually, funded jointly by them and an anonymous donor, to five local Jewish overnight camps for scholarships for first-time campers. A $10,000 grant from the Streisand Foundation enabled The Federation to disburse additional money toward scholarships for Jewish day and residential camps, and immigrant children are eligible to receive scholarships from a pool of $31,000 for day camps from The Federation’s resettlement program.

Camp JCA Shalom, a Federation agency, also receives significant operational money from The Federation.

Jewish camping, particularly overnight camping, has been documented to be one of the most effective ways to build a lasting and active connection to Jewish living. In the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Jewish campers were almost twice as likely as those who attended up to six years of Hebrew school to be married to a Jew, have many Jewish friends, be a synagogue member and feel that being Jewish is very important.

For more information, call (323) 761-8320 or go to www.jewishla.org.

More Help Picking a Camp

The Foundation for Jewish camping is offering parents help in picking from 130 Jewish overnight camps with its find-a-camp search engine (www.Jewishcamping.org ). The feature on the Web site narrows down choices based on geography, Jewish affiliation and special interests and needs.

Among the offerings are a growing number of specialty programs, ranging from basketball to pottery to astronomy. Jewish camps are hoping those programs will pull kids in and expose them to the documented, long-term benefits to Jewish identity that come from spending a summer immersed in Jewish living.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping continues to offer professional assistance to camps across the country. Locally, Doug Lynn, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps, and Rabbi Daniel Greyber, director of Camp Ramah, are developing their skills as part of the first cohort of the foundation’s Executive Leadership Institute.And counselors from three California camps — Ramah, Tawonga and Newman Swig — are learning leadership and educational skills at the foundation’s Cornerstone Fellowship Program.

For more information and to access the find-a-camp” search engine, go to www.jewishcamping.org.

Israeli Flies to Zionist Camp in California

Itai Rotem, the son of the previous Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, missed his California camp so much after his family went back to Israel that the 13-year-old flew all the way from Israel — alone — last summer to go back to Habonim Dror’s Camp Gilboa near San Bernardino.

“There is a sense of brotherhood and togetherness in Gilboa that Itai wanted to taste once again … so we let him go,” Consul General Yuval Rotem said. “He loved every moment of this experience.”

Camp Gilboa, a Labor Zionist camp founded in 1936, offers a kibbutz-type atmosphere, where Jewish identity and a love for Israel are emphasized.

For information, call (323)653-6772, e-mail info@campgilboa.org or visit www.campgilboa.org.

Social Action Summer

Teens looking for meaning this summer can participate in a service learning program offered by Sulam — the Center for Jewish Service Learning, part of the Bureau of Jewish Education. Teens age 13-18 can participate in two-week sessions in the areas of sports and mentorship, the environment (land or water) and homelessness/home building. Each day the teens will meet onsite for hands-on work, with time set aside for study, discussion and reflection with Jewish educators. The two-week program will take place twice — at the beginning of July and in mid-August.

For information contact Daniel Gold at (323) 761-8607, dgold@bjela.org.

California Dreamin’

Surfing, rock music, filmmaking, science — it doesn’t get more California than this. The Youth Enrichment Summer (YES) at Stephen S. Wise Temple offers seventh- to ninth-graders an opportunity to delve deep into an area of interest, in the context of Jewish learning and the usual summer camp activities such as sports, swimming and field trips.

Campers enrolled in the three-week sessions will meet with professionals to learn their chosen craft. The Life Savers Surf Camp will teach kids to surf and train them as junior life guards, including CPR certification. Campers who choose Behind the Scenes will write, act in, direct and edit their own short films. The musically inclined can opt for the School of Rock, which will include music theory and history, as well as some serious jam time. And proud geeks can break, fix and explore things in the Excelsior Science experience, which includes physics, chemistry and astronomy. All of the specialties will include daily Jewish text study related to the field.

For more information, call (310) 889-2345, e-mail summercamps@wisela.org or visit www.WiseLA.org.

Running Springs Really Running

Organizers are hoping to significantly increase last year’s inaugural summer of 180 kids at Camp Gan Israel in Running Springs.

The camp, a 70-acre site near Big Bear that Chabad purchased for $4.3 million two years ago, recently broke ground on a 10,000-square-foot multipurpose building and has invested another $1.5 million in other improvements, including a newly remodeled synagogue, enlarged dining hall, kitchen improvements, a game room and upgraded air conditioning, bathrooms and carpets.

I’ll try it!


If you tell anyone I know that I was awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, on purpose, they wouldn’t believe you. If you added that I didn’t immediately turn over
and go back to sleep, they would start laughing. If you told them that the reason I was awake at the crack of dawn on a weekend was to go camping, they might actually bust a gut.
 
Although this statement may seem more the result of a chocolate-induced hallucination, or simply a trip out of reality, the bottom line is that it’s all true.
 
I, Caroline, the lover of sleeping in, the guru of late nights, the “midnight is early” girl, saw Saturday before noon came around. How did I get into this predicament, one might ask? Was I possessed by an evil spirit? No. Was I pulling an all-nighter and just never went to bed? Not quite. The answer is that I was awake that early on a weekend because I had a boyfriend.
 
So now you’re wondering how those two things go hand in hand? Well, we had reached “that place,” the place all new relationships reach at one point or another, that spot where your mutual likes have reached an end, and you start hearing yourself say, “I’ll try that” to your significant other’s idea of fun.
 
We all know and have been at “that place,” where a die-hard sports fan might find himself or herself taping a game or favorite TV show so they can go to their significant other’s family gathering. A person who isn’t overly fond of the beach might start trudging through the sand because it’s their honey’s favorite place in the whole wide world. A picky eater might take small bites of unappealing foods without admitting their distaste.
 
This is when we are testing our own comfort zones. When the person we’re dating mentions the word “hiking” or “musical,” do we shudder, scream and run in the opposite direction? Or do we slowly push ourselves and try that something new.
When my boyfriend first mentioned camping, I won’t lie: I definitely hesitated. At first I found the suggestion more comical than anything else.
 
Me, camping? Are you serious?
 
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I happen to love nature. But I tend to enjoy taking pictures of nature more than, say, living in nature. I’d rather watch the National Geographic channel on the couch than sleep on the ground in the woods.
 
But after “I’ll try it” slipped out of my mouth, I soon found myself experiencing my first “true to life; sleep in a tent; live with nature; no hot water; cook your food; granola bar for breakfast; what’s that noise in the bushes … did you hear that, too?” camping trip.
 
The good news was that my boyfriend had picked a spot that was simply stunning. Our campsite was steps from the ocean, with a backdrop of bright green hills covered with yellow wildflowers. As we took in the sunset barefoot on the beach, I remember thinking, “If this is camping, I can deal with it.”
 
As the night went on, it seemed that I was not only tolerating camping, but, dare I say, actually enjoying it. The night sky was just amazing. I saw a sea of stars, and could even see them twinkling in different colors.
 
Although I was slightly sleep deprived by the end of the weekend, I had to agree with my boyfriend that camping can be a very relaxing experience. I had pushed outside of my comfort zone, falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean, the wind and the gazillion or so frogs living in the stream right behind the campsite. I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed myself.
 
The thing about reaching “I’ll try it” is that you are daring to imagine that things can work out for the best, and that you can add another activity to the list of common likes.
 
So will I go camping again? Sure. But if he thinks he’s ever going to get me to try and actually like hiking, he’s got another think coming.
 

God Was With Us That Night in the Negev


Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.

I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, “Where is the bathroom?”
“Follow me and I will demonstrate,” she said. “Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right.” Enough said.

I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags — definitely a sight to see.

Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors’ land would set the tone for our whole trip.

We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.

This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V’Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn’t help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.

We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: “Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning’s light.” But that night, I felt as though we didn’t even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.

As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.

On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality — especially when they invited us to use the tent’s bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day’s four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.

That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.

The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains — a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights — Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.

This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.

Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state — and so was the Land of Israel.

We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.

Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.

Siblings of Fallen Israeli Soldiers Take a Camp Break


Ester was hoarding her snacks.

Each day after canteen at Camp Ramah, Ester, a 12-year-old Ethiopian Israeli, would take her potato chips and chocolate bars and squirrel them away in her suitcase back in her bunk.

She was saving the free treats for her seven younger brothers at home, because she was worried that they weren’t being cared for. Since her older brother was killed two years ago while serving in the Israeli army, her parents haven’t been the same.

Living with the trauma and sorrow of losing a brother or sister in the Israel Defense Forces has scarred all of the 30 12- and 13-year-olds who spent 10 days at Camp Ramah in Ojai earlier this month.

The Legacy/Moreshet program, sponsored by Friends of the IDF (FIDF), gave kids who lost a sibling or parent in combat a bar or bat mitzvah present that allowed them to have an American-style summer blast — if not to forget, then at least to enjoy a respite from the sadness that follows them at home.

But despite the fact that Ester (FIDF prohibits the kids’ last names from being used) and her friends were having a great time, one morning Ester cried to her counselor that she needed to go home to take care of her family.

“I told her, ‘your family wants you to be here. You are entitled to enjoy life,'” said Rachel Binyamin, the overseas coordinator for FIDF in Israel, who accompanied the kids on the journey.

Binyamin packed up a box of goodies for Ester to take home to her brothers, and told her, “This is for your brothers. What you get, you eat — it’s for you to enjoy.”

For most of the trip, enjoyment wasn’t hard to come by. The kids raved about the packed days at Ramah and special trips to Universal Studios, the California Science Center and the Santa Monica Pier.

Those trips, along with spruced up gift bags, got added into the program after sponsorships kept pouring in even after the $3,600 per kid price tag had been raised.

Marci Spitzer, chair of the Southern California region of FIDF and a camp mom at Ramah, said there is enough money left over to seed a program for next year or to contribute in other ways to FIDF’s widows and orphans programs.

One donor wrote a check for $18,000. The Men’s Club of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs donated more than $60,000, and promised more if FIDF needed it.
Ramah camper Ethan Wolens sponsored a child as his bar mitzvah project.

“I have a blast here at camp, and it’s like a home away from home for me. I wanted the Israelis to have camp as a home away from home also,” Ethan said, standing outside the chadar ochel (dining room) before lunch one day.

Behind him, the Israelis and Americans had their arms slung around each other as they belted out a cheer the Israeli kids had taught them. The Israelis were going home in a couple days, and they posed for photos with their new American friends.

“When we got here, the Americans were so welcoming and so warm. They really embraced us and it made it so much easier to become a part of things,” said Miri, whose brother was killed last year.

On the day the Legacy group arrived, Ramah’s Israeli staffers welcomed them with songs and signs, and the entire camp stood to sing them “Hatikvah” after their first lunch.

The Israelis joined up with a unit their age to swim, sing, weave lanyards, learn hip-hop, play basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball and football, and to go to daily prayer services — a first for about two-thirds of the Israeli group.

But their schedule differed somewhat from the Americans’: the Israeli kids didn’t get any down time, because too much time to think wasn’t what these kids were here for.

The Israelis didn’t talk with the Americans about why they’re here — about the huge holes torn into their lives. Instead, they talked about regular teen stuff.

“I don’t want to bring it up, because I don’t want to make them sad,” said Hanna Port, an American camper who practiced her Hebrew and became good friends with the Israelis. “They’re sad enough that they have to leave soon, and we’ve become such good friends.”

But among themselves, the Israeli kids — who met each other through this trip — have talked about their losses, and, along with counselors trained to deal with their trauma, the kids offer each other an important network of support.

Sitting in the sun on a colorfully painted bench outside the art room, Naama, whose brother was killed just last December, began to cry when the subject was brought up. Naama’s head immediately fell on Miri’s shoulder, and Shir grabbed her hand, stroking it as she talked about what this trip has done for them.

“In the beginning, we weren’t really bonded,” said Shir, who lost a brother.

“Naama and I didn’t even speak to each other, we didn’t really understand each other. But now, we’re like sisters. We really support each other.”

The counselors have been doing a lot of hugging and hand-holding throughout the trip, but the trip is not meant to act as group therapy.

“Even though they all came here for this reason, we don’t want to make them talk about it if they don’t want to. We’re not here to instigate dialogues and discussions,” said Ori, one of six counselors, all of them active duty soldiers (IDF regulation prohibits them from giving their last names). “We are just here for them to have a great time and to enjoy life, even though it is clear that they can’t forget and it is always on their hearts and minds.”

Ariel, also a counselor, has a strong connection to Avraham, a Legacy camper, whose brother was Ariel’s commander. Another of Avraham’s brothers also died while serving in the army.

“I told Avraham that if his brother were alive, he would have done everything he could have to give him a trip like this,” Ariel said.

The soldiers, who got a few weeks off from duty in Gaza and the north, feel that this mission — to comfort the families of their fallen comrades — is as important as anything they will return to after this trip.

It has also given a renewed sense of mission to the 25 Israeli staffers, also mostly army-aged, who spend their summer bringing a little bit of Israel to California — a difficult task as Katyushas fall at home.

“They are struggling with being here and representing their country, knowing what their brothers and sisters are doing back in Israel,” said Zachary Lasker, assistant director at Ramah. “For them to feel they are again connected, and that they have their eyes on these kids, has been very powerful.”

Despite the situation in Israel, the kids have not been getting detailed updates, because each loss hits too close to home.

“At home we read the papers and it’s so hard to read, ‘this one was killed and that one was killed,’ and you see their faces in the pictures and you know this person was a friend or a brother,” Miri said. “I just hope things start getting better now.”

For information on Friends of the IDF, go to www.israelsoldiers.org.

Levelers Make for Moving Havurah


It was 1974, and gas had soared to $1.29 a gallon. Tens of thousands of educated, white-collar Americans imagined that they were truckers, squawking “breaker, breaker” and “10-4” into their CB radios, adopting handles like “Rubber Duck.” Super-sized recreational vehicles filled the roads. At the North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Granada Hills, a group of young parents caught the bug. The North Valley JCC is struggling to stay alive and the parents are not so young anymore, but the club is going strong.

“You have to be a real mensch to hang out with us,” said Freya Teplinsky, corresponding secretary of Lovin’ Levelers, an all-Jewish RV club with 80 members from the Valley, Ventura County, the Westside and the Inland Empire. Most are in their 60s.

“We’re not so much about the rigs as about the socializing,” Teplinsky said. “Most of us are not here to show off our million-dollar RVs. We’re more like a big havurah.”

In the beginning, the Levelers traveled with little pop-up campers and hauled tents and sleeping bags. Like truckers, they called their vehicles “rigs.” The years have been good, and now the term “rig” is appropriate. Many of the RVs are so big that the drivers must use cameras rather than mirrors to see what’s approaching from behind. Rick and Dianna Rice of Simi Valley started off in 1976 with a $15,000 23-foot RV. Today, they pilot a 36-footer for which they paid more than $100,000.

The Journal caught up with Lovin’ Levelers on a Saturday afternoon in August, meeting them at Ventura RV Resort near the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where 28 of the members and six prospective members had gathered for the annual fair. The Levelers weren’t hard to find. An Israeli flag in front of Brenda and Arnie Rich’s new rig marked the spot.

Howard Brody, a retired high school counselor, and his wife, Shari, a retired teacher, welcomed us into their 32-foot Southwind, worth about $106,000 when new, far from the top end among the Levelers. Inside, it smelled like a bakery.

“Club members call ourselves ‘meals on wheels,'” Howard Brody said. “Our main activity is eating.”

Teplinsky buzzed into the campgrounds on her motorbike and rattled off a partial list of upcoming destinations: Palm Desert, Pechanga Indian Casino, Balboa Island, San Francisco, Yosemite.

“It doesn’t really matter where we go,” said Brenda Rich, the club’s treasurer. “We get together because we enjoy each other’s company.”

Rich and her husband, Arnie, own one of the bigger and fancier rigs in the group, a 36-foot gray-and-burgundy Country Coach Inspire. They had just traded down a month earlier — their 40-foot Monaco was too big for some national parks. All the cabinetry in the Inspire is cherrywood, and the mammoth refrigerator-freezer is stainless steel. The Inspire still had the new-RV smell. With the press of a button, the Riches extended the sides to widen the rig to the width of a cruise ship. Fellow Leveler Gil Stark said, “This isn’t a rig — it’s a palace.”

Stark took us through his own RV, a 24-foot Terry Trailer.

“Smallest rig in the park,” he said. “But no one in the club looks down on us because we have a little rig.”

Next to the Starks’ W.C., a sign said, “Bless This Lousy Trailer.” The tiny bed bespoke a truly close relationship. Stark and his wife, Sheila, threw a 50th anniversary party for themselves at the Odyssey in Granada Hills last July. They had 107 guests, 50 of them Levelers.

“They’re like family,” Gil Stark said.

“They’re our closest friends,” Sheila Stark added.

Gil Stark said the Levelers include a doctor, two lawyers, an architect and several engineers, including himself, “but it’s a very haimish group.”

Who came up with the club’s name is now lost in the cobwebs of time. All anyone can recall is that the club absorbed two or three earlier clubs with names like North Valley Jewish Community Center Camping Club and then voted in favor of their present name. “Leveler” is a reference to the fact that RV refrigerators won’t work unless the rigs are perfectly level.

Most Levelers estimated their gas mileage at 7 or 8 miles per gallon. With gas hovering at about $3 a gallon, was this a problem?

“Nah,” Brenda Rich said. “Not when you consider that a hotel is $200 a night.”

Every month, Lovin’ Levelers meets after a dinner at Brent’s Deli in Northridge to plan out 12 weekends a year to campgrounds within a few hours’ drive of Los Angeles, as well as two longer trips a year to more distant points.

From Nov. 4-6, you’ll find them in Danish country as they visit Solvang. They’ll line up their gleaming, shiny RVs — along with the Starks’ — at Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground on Friday night in Buellton. They’ll recite Shabbat blessings over chocolate-chip challah, and they’ll sing traditional Jewish melodies.

Gabe Albala said he met his future wife, Roz, through Lovin’ Levelers. They had camped together with previous spouses, and then became a couple after both were widowed.

“We were in a campground near Gorman, near the Grapevine,” he said. “We all took a hike. First thing, Roz and I got lost together.”

He proposed on her 70th birthday, in 1998.

“We Sephardim are very romantic,” he said.

They were married the following year.

Gil Stark talked of the time the Levelers went to the “Follies,” a show in Palm Springs put on mostly by and for senior citizens. A comedian asked who the Levelers were, and they told him.

“Oh,” he said. “Jewish trailer trash.”

Carol Warren of Camarillo and her husband, Darryl Sobelman, were among the three couples who were checking out the Levelers in Ventura. Warren had spotted an item on the Levelers in her temple bulletin. “I never would have believed there were Jewish RVers,” she said.

At the clubhouse, it was karaoke night. But the Levelers had other plans. From the club’s 10-page Havdalah songster, Allan Teplinsky led the Levelers through “Shabbat Shalom” and “Shavuah Tov.” They sang enthusiastically, with passion and with heart. The prospective new members sang along.

Participants rose for the Motzi and then blessed a large braided candle that the group had made. They passed a spice box from person to person. They linked arms and swayed and sang, “Eliyahu Hanavi.” Everyone knew the words.

“It all started with the children,” Freya Teplinsky said. “When they were little, we wanted to do Shabbat, Havdalah and Chanukah — the warm, fuzzy stuff. Many of us are grandparents now, and we’re not exactly camping in tents anymore, but the Jewish part never changed.”

Group members adjourned to a side room, where the Levelers had set up a dessert bar. Volunteers served brownies, cookies, root beer floats and five kinds of ice cream.

And quickly, the good news spread: Three new couples had joined. One of them had a 42-foot-long RV, a tall and visually arresting black-and-gray Travel Supreme diesel “pusher” model, worth maybe $350,000. By the end of the evening, the couples were Lovin’ Levelers.

If they are like the others, they’ll likely be Levelers for life.

For more information, call Freya Teplinsky at (818) 368-3471 or e-mail to shayna@socal.rr.com. Annual dues are $36 per year per couple or $18 per person plus monthly trip costs.

 

Not Just Summer Scholars


While growing up in Cincinnati, Elissa Ben-Naim attended a Jewish sleep-away camp. At the end of the summer, still filled with camp spirit, she insisted that her family begin saying blessings before and after every meal.

This lasted only a month, but it led the family to institute weekly Shabbat dinners. Ben-Naim went on to earn a master’s degree in Jewish education. A year ago, she became a rabbi. This summer, as part of her duties at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, she will be rabbi-in-residence at the temple’s two Malibu camps, Gindling Hilltop Camp and Camp Hess Kramer.

Like Ben-Naim, many youngsters begin taking Judaism seriously as a result of their summer-camp experiences. (These camps generally accept children age 7 through the teenage years for sessions of various lengths, from one week to the full summer.)

Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, home of Camp JCA Shalom, also in Malibu, explains, “Camp is where Jewish identities are built. We know it works.”

Like other sleep-away camps that attract Southern California’s Jewish children, JCA Shalom works hard to incorporate Jewish beliefs and rituals into the fun of camp life. This, of course, means that exuberant Sabbath celebrations are among the highlights of each session.

But local camps also find ways to breathe the spirit of Judaism into daily activities. For instance, kids might talk about Jewish environmentalism while making rain sticks as an arts-and-crafts project. Sports activities might be conducted in a way that encourages the Jewish values of sportsmanship and teamwork.

Brian Greene, who heads Camp Ramah in Ojai, says of his campers, “They know that they’re in a Jewish place, whatever they’re doing. It creates wonderful, positive Jewish associations for them.”

At Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s camps, which are run according to the precepts of the Reform movement, Ben-Naim will oversee educational and ritual offerings. She’ll make sure that staff members, as well as campers, have enriching opportunities for Judaic study. Equally important, her presence will help demystify the rabbinate. In the eyes of congregants, rabbis often seem superhuman. Ben-Naim notes that during the school year “kids don’t see their rabbi at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in the pool.”

At camp, they’ll watch Ben-Naim interacting with her husband and coping with the antics of her toddler son. The six rabbinic students on this year’s staff, as well as visiting clergy from local congregations, will provide useful Jewish role models. They will also contribute to an atmosphere of informal education, in which spotting a rainbow on the way to the beach can be an opportunity to learn a prayer and see the hand of God in the universe.

Camp Ramah, however, which has branches at a number of sites throughout the nation, reflects the standards of Conservative Judaism. Daily prayer services, egalitarian but otherwise traditional, are an important part of camp life. Greene makes clear that at Camp Ramah, although rabbis are frequently on site, they never lead the davening. Instead, formal services are conducted by the campers themselves or by young counselors. This, Greene says, contributes to “a real sense of entitlement…. Everyone is an equal participant.”

Ramah is unusual because of its emphasis on Hebrew, using it as the language of public address as well as prayer. And the camp mandates one hour of age-appropriate Jewish text study daily for every camper. All staffers are also expected to take part in Jewish study and ritual practices.

“We wouldn’t hire a basketball instructor who wasn’t committed to religious ideals,” he said.

Malibu’s Camp JCA Shalom has undergone a metamorphosis. Fifty years ago, when the camp was founded by the Jewish Centers Association, it was intended to be, in Bill Kaplan’s terms, “a camp for Jews, not a Jewish camp.”

Religious observance was therefore downplayed. But a decade ago, JCA Shalom adopted a more traditional Jewish approach. The fact that the camp is affiliated with no specific Jewish denomination means that Shabbat and other rituals are pluralistic in nature. Diverse forms of worship are respected, but the kitchen is kosher, study of the weekly Torah portion is obligatory, and each two-week session revolves around a specifically Jewish theme.

Overseeing the Judaic component at JCA Shalom are senior staff members with rich Jewish backgrounds. One recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary; another spent last year at an egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem. Also on staff are five Israeli shlichim (emissaries) sponsored by the Jewish Federation’s L.A.-Tel Aviv Partnership, as well as two counselors-in-training who are products of Tsofim, Israel’s scouting movement. In addition, JCA Shalom boasts

a Jewish nature director and

a Spielberg Fellow experienced in Jewish theater.

Jewishly committed young people such as these frequently interact with campers whose knowledge of Judaism is minimal. Greene insists, “I love to have the Jews who aren’t connected, so that we can connect them. If they go to Camp Ramah the next year, or an Orthodox camp — great!”

Rebecca Hailpern has spent 13 summers at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, first as a camper and now as the youth and family programs administrator for the camp’s parent organization, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Over the years, she has come to understand Alonim’s goal: to give a Jewish cultural experience to any Jew of any background. In its quest to reach everyone, the camp has devised its own prayer book containing transliteration and English translation as well as Hebrew text. To avoid favoring any Jewish denomination, it sets traditional prayers to unique melodies.

Alonim prides itself on its warm and welcoming Shabbat celebrations. As Friday night approaches, all campers help prepare the camp. Then everyone dons white clothing, like the mystics of Safed, as a way of symbolizing purity and unity. They form a joyous procession to the rec hall, where Shabbat is greeted with jubilant song. In Hailpern’s words, “Everyone’s really caught up in a certain spirit. Kids love Shabbat!”

Ben-Naim agrees that Shabbat is probably when Jewish camps make their biggest impact. It’s not always necessary to educate campers with explicitly Jewish teachings, Rabbi Ben-Naim says.

“Sometimes being in one place at one time with hundreds of Jewish people saying the same blessings is enough.”