January 27, 2020

Hess Kramer Turns 50

It has been a training ground for hundreds of Jewish professionals, and it has caused Shabbat candles to glow in countless homes.

This summer, Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu turns 50, and its birthday party on June 2 is a celebration not just of a specific collection of facilities in an attractive, natural setting, but of camp, as one former camp director put it, as “the place where Judaism comes alive.”

Over the years, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s two retreats, Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, one nestled against Pacific Coast Highway just over the Ventura County line and the other perched 750 feet above it, have become established as the Reform movement’s flagship camps in Southern California. Together they welcome more than 1,100 children and teenagers each summer.

Even as the sites have added amenities and activities, campers and counselors from disparate decades describe camp traditions, worship rituals and patterns of friendship and belonging that have remained constant over the years.

“The camp is rooted in my soul,” said Gary Hoffman, 50, a Kramer alumnus whose father worked at the camp and whose teenage son has attended for several summers. “Camp is a place I can go in my head when I’m feeling down.”

The engine behind Camp Hess Kramer was Rabbi Alfred Wolf, who joined the Wilshire Boulevard Temple staff in 1949. Wolf, brought to the United States by Hebrew Union College in 1935, had been a Jewish youth leader in his native Germany, and he enlisted the support of Wilshire Boulevard’s brotherhood for a camping venture.

Wolf was “the Pied Piper for the first generation of kids who went to Reform camps,” said Steve Breuer, who became Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s executive director in 1980 after three decades of camp involvement, including 18 seasons as camp director.

Breuer was one of the teenagers Wolf brought to the temple’s first experiment in camping in 1950, in space rented from a Presbyterian campground in Pacific Palisades. The following year, the temple acquired the current camp site.

Cosmetics distributor Harry Mier donated the funds to buy the land on condition that the camp be named in memory of his lifelong friend, Haskell W. “Hess” Kramer, a West Coast Reform movement leader. Camp Hess Kramer opened in June 1952; campers helped landscape, build the chapel and clear rocks from the ball field that first summer.

Gindling Hilltop Camp opened in 1968 in response to increasing demand for places at Hess Kramer. It was named for builder Albert Gindling, who provided several of the facilities built at Hess Kramer during the ’50s and ’60s.

Many Reform rabbis serving Los Angeles-area congregations and institutions attended the camps or worked there, going back as far as 1953, when Sanford Ragins, now senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, was a counselor after his freshman year at UCLA. Harvey Fields, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s senior rabbi, signed his first contract with the temple as Hess Kramer’s program director in 1955, when he was a rabbinical student.

Breuer told The Journal that the camps have adapted their programming to reflect changing trends in children’s interests and activities. Under his direction in the ’60s and ’70s, there was more emphasis on creative arts: music, crafts, drama. The current director, Howard Kaplan, who took over in 1995, has expanded the sports program, adding a climbing wall and a ROPES course and introducing options for “adventure experiences,” such as ocean kayaking, scuba diving, surfing and mountain biking.

However, many of Hess Kramer’s traditions stretch back decades. Youngsters still aspire to wear the red jacket that marks a senior counselor. “I still have my red jacket,” said Loren Naiman, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who attended Hess Kramer in the ’60s and taught archery there as a young adult.

“Chief Texaco,” named for the gas station across the street from the camp entrance, still lights the Saturday night campfire. Campers are still singing melodies written by Chuck Feldman, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s emeritus music director, who started working with Hess Kramer in 1956.

Kramerites from the ’50s to the present describe the magic of Friday evenings at the camp: everyone dressed in white; cabin after cabin joining a procession to the chapel behind the camp administrators and a guitar-strumming song leader; after services, a communal Shabbat dinner, followed by community singing and Israeli dancing.

Almost 30 years later, Tobi Purvin, an El Paso teacher who spent a summer as a Hess Kramer counselor, remembered those Shabbats. “I loved the singing,” she said. “The roof would rise right off the building.”

The purpose of Jewish camping, of course, is to strengthen and sometimes to implant Jewish identity and love for Judaism in children and teens, and by all reports, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps are resoundingly successful.

Although Hoffman said one of his fondest memories at Hess Kramer was “secretly holding hands with girls at the campfire,” he also appreciated the more serious aspects of the camp — although it wasn’t cool to say so at the time.

“I looked forward to the religious things: sitting quietly at services, discussions with the rabbis,” said Hoffman, who was a camper through most of the ’60s and went on to become a counselor and a staff doctor. “You’d be laughed out of camp if you admitted you liked it, but a lot of us did.”

Naiman remembered a Saturday morning when Breuer announced to campers that services had been cancelled because the man who held the deed to the land had pointed out a clause prohibiting the holding of worship services on the premises. “The level of anger was amazing,” Naiman said. “Kids who would have paid not to go to services came forward with ideas for confronting the situation.”

The prohibition, of course, was a ruse Breuer had cooked up to make the campers realize how important their worship was. “By suddenly being deprived of the right to have our tradition … it was as if a machine had been cranked into service,” Naiman said.

Being in a completely Jewish environment was and is especially meaningful to youngsters who don’t live in places like Calabasas or the Westside.

“When you’re at school, there are not a lot of Jewish people,” said Jessica Axelrad, 16, a 10th-grader from Upland who has spent several summer sessions and weekend retreats in Malibu. “I’m closer to the friends I make at camp than those I make at school.”

“It was great to have all these other Jewish kids around you,” said Ross Fruithandler, 40, an El Paso dentist who grew up in that city and spent 12 summers at the camps. His rabbi had been a Kramerite and inspired congregants to send their kids. “There were years when we had 18, 19, 20 kids on the plane going there,” Fruithandler said.

Even for campers who do live in Jewish communities, the camps provide a release from the pressure of school and the everydayness of home. “It’s been like an escape to a fantasyland after school with all its stress,” said Jessica Tuck, an 11th-grader at Calabasas High School who will spend her ninth session at Hess Kramer this summer. “It’s being with people you love, people who are just like you.”

Current campers call the counselors “cool” (“It seems like the counselors know everything,” one ninth-grader said), and adults recognize the caliber of the young people hired to work with the children. Kramerites “have wonderful Jewish role models, college-age young people who are comfortable in their own Jewish skins,” Breuer said.

The camp experience shaped Ragins’ decision to become a rabbi. “I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but when I traced back the roots, it was clear that camp had influenced me in that direction,” he said.

With its 24/7 Jewish atmosphere and fusion of Judaism with peers and fun, Jewish camping accomplishes what even the best religious school can’t, according to many observers. “I went to religious school from second grade, and I don’t think it sealed my identity the way camp did,” said Rebecca Sills, 33, a veteran Kramer camper and staffer who recently became assistant director. “Camp was the thing that brought it all together.”

“Camp brought me back to Judaism,” said Purvin, who told The Journal she “hated being Jewish” as a college student. “You felt like you were attached; you felt like you were part of something.”

It also brought regular Jewish observance into hundreds of Reform homes as kids brought home rituals learned at camp. “[Parents] now do Shabbat at home because of their kids’ camp experience,” Kaplan said. “I think parents appreciate that camp gave this to their kids.”

Even beyond the Jewish aspects, the camps have salutary effects. “Camp was a place where you could find your niche and find a way to be special,” said Naiman, whose daughter attends Kramer now. Children who were good at art were remembered for their artwork, he said, and song leaders for their music.

“You came back more sure of yourself, more mature, more confident,” Fruithandler said. Rebecca Sills, who spent time as a teacher and in the garment industry, said that working at camp shaped her progress “from teen to young adult to full-fledged adult…. It doesn’t look as good on a resume, but the life lessons I learned are invaluable.”

Kaplan expects about 1,000 of the camps’ alumni, who number at least 20,000, to attend the birthday celebration June 2. Given the hundreds of lifelong friendships forged in Malibu and the attachments sustained over the years, Kaplan may want to lay in a few extra hot dogs.

Hoffman can’t wait for the reunion. “There’s something there that seems to transcend the natural world,” he said. “It became magical; it was a magical time, and it took Judaism with it up to that magical level.”

That passionate connection, Breuer indicated, is one of the things that’s remained a Hess Kramer tradition. “It’s exciting,” he said, “to look back and see that we did what we’re supposed to do.”

For more information about the Wilshire Boulevard Temple
camps, log on to www.wbtcamps.org .