Gone but not forgotten: Cejwin alums reminisce
It was special. That's how Cejwinites remember their camp.
As alumni plan a June reunion to mark the 90th anniversary of the camp's founding (the Port Jervis facility closed more than a decade ago), The Jewish Standard reached out to several former campers.
What emerged was the picture of an institution that spurred lifelong friendships, brought together future spouses, and planted the seeds for campers' ongoing commitment to Jewish life. What also emerged was laughter (even a few giggles) as people now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s recalled those early days.
The lay of the land. Courtesy of Eric Robbins.
Founded in 1919 by Albert and Bertha Schoolman, Jewish educators and fervent Zionists, the camp was a project of the Central Jewish Institute, created in 1916 "to integrate Judaism with the American way of life," according to a brief history of the organization on the Website of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Cejwin campers in the 1970s. Courtesy of Susan Kaminer (n?e Greenberg) of Paramus, formerly of Teaneck.
Inspired by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, the organization and its camp ("Cejwin" stands for the "Central Jewish Institute") is credited by the American Jewish Historical Society with creating "what would become the first system of Jewish community and educational camps in the U.S."
"We had services every morning," recalls Cejwin alumnus Eric Robbins, a former resident of Pompton Lakes now living in Manhattan, and the organizing force behind the upcoming reunion. "And there were always strong Zionist feelings. On Friday night, before services, every bunk contributed to [the charity] Keren Ami."
Swimmers in the 1950s. Courtesy of Eric Robbins.
In addition, he said, there were no scheduled activities on Shabbat and the camp always served traditional Shabbat meals.
"I was a waiter one summer, so I remember the menus," he said. "We're going to replicate them at the reunion."
Robbins, who spent 11 summers at the camp, pointed out that Cejwin consisting of seven camps divided by age and gender allowed co-ed activities only among the youngest campers, ages 4 to 6, and, to a small extent, among the oldest group of teens.
"There was a mile between the boys' and girls' sides, with 39 steps and a ramp," he said. "Boys and girls even had separate dining rooms."
According to Robbins, campers came mainly from New York City, although some, he said, hailed from Long Island and New Jersey, with a few from as far away as Delaware and Maryland.
"Cejwin was more important to my Jewish growth than my yeshiva," said Robbins, who noted that Mordecai Kaplan was a regular visitor at the camp.
"It's phenomenal how it affected my life," he said, crediting the camp with training him to conduct services something he was called upon to do later during basic training in the Coast Guard and, subsequently, during a UJA Young Leadership trip to Israel. "It started me off," he said.
Robbins and his best friend Jeff Miller, co-organizer of the reunion, met at Cejwin in 1951. About a year ago, the two men visited the site of the former camp and began to relive their experiences, even attending the town coffee shop (Homer's) that figures so large in their camp memories. "We got nostalgic," he said.
"Our whole family was involved in Cejwin," said 85-year-old Teaneck resident Shirley Levy (the former Shirley Schwartz). "My mother was one of five sisters. Three of them worked in administration at the camp." In addition, Shirley and her sisters were longtime campers.
"It's almost like we were related by blood" to the camp, she said, pointing out that her sister is still in touch with the Schoolmans' daughter.
"None of us" Levy, her sister, and their 10 or so first cousins "would be married today if it wasn't for Cejwin," she said. "All of us met our spouses there."
According to Levy, more than 1,000 youngsters attended the camp each summer, with many going on to become prominent in the community. "The three Gribetz brothers were there," she said, mentioning in particular Judah Gribetz, a noted New York attorney. "There wasn't anything like [the camp] Jewishly. It was the only game in town. And everybody knew someone who went there."
Among her happiest memories are "running through camp singing and dancing" and participating in performances in "the bowl. I just realized that they must have called it that because it was lower than the road and shaped like a bowl," she laughed.
While, by today's standards, camp tuition was extremely low Levy has a memory of her family paying $135 for the eight-week season "we were not people of means and it was expensive for us. But everyone found a way," she said, noting that her mother served both as a camp salesperson, following up calls from potential campers, and later as a "camp mother. She washed my husband's hair," she recalled. Levy's aunt was in charge of laundry, supervising the trucks that collected "huge sacks" from each bunk.
While the camp had few luxuries, that didn't seem to deter the campers. "We had no running water," said Levy, "and our cabins were open on the sides. We rolled down canvas during bad weather."
Teaneck resident Esther Horowitz (the former Esther Greenstein) told the Standard that she met her "dearest and closest friend," Laura Greenberg (then Laura Freeman), also now in Teaneck, at Cejwin. "We were 9 years old," she said, noting that she spent seven summers at the camp.
"There was a special beauty there," she said, citing memories of Shabbat and particularly of Havdalah services at the conclusion of the Sabbath. "The 'Jewishness' was lovely."
In addition, she recalled, "the camp prepared birthday cakes for those with birthdays in July and August. Laura got a big cake in July. It seemed so special and important then."
Horowitz, whose own daughter attended the camp for several years, as did Greenberg's two daughters, said she thinks of Cejwin each week during Shabbat services when she hears a particular prayer that was recited at the camp on Shabbat.
"It's laughable what it cost then compared to sleepaway camps now," she said. "What we paid for a full summer would pay for three days at camp now."
Ina Bruskin (n?e Robbins), a resident of Little Falls, fondly recalls her eight years at the camp. "I made wonderful friends," she said, adding that she recently reconnected with a man she knew from her Cejwin days. The camp also had a significant Jewish influence on her, said Bruskin, a member of the support staff of Jewish Family & Children's Services in Wayne since 1984.
"It attracted families over the generations," she said, pointing out that her daughter attended Cejwin in the 1970s. "It was unforgettable."
For further information about the reunion, scheduled for June 6 to 8, call Robbins at ('1') 744-'719 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay tuned for the return of comments
I was a camper in 1955 or 1956, when I was 10 or 11. I have fond memories of my Jewish Camp experience and writing about it in my autobiography, The Butchers Daughter. Would love to know more about a reunion.
Marilyn Kaufman Barnes
I started working a Cejwin in 1966 as an arts and crafts counselor. I was brought into the camp by Mel and Sandy Issacs. Mel was my neighbor in Brooklyn and one of the head counselors.
I worked there till 1973, took a short break and came back in 1975 with my wife, Nancy. Took another short break and came back for my last year in 1977.
I can say with all honesty that those were the happiest summers of my life.
I can’t begin to estimate the lasting impact Cejwin had on my life and eventually, on my children’s lives. I sitll have friends, and friends of friends, through Cejwin. The feeling of Jewish community has stayed with me forever.
I was a waiter with my friend Steve Holzman in the early seventies. It was some of the best times of our lives. There was this other guy Steve Dobbs who got fired the last day for some dumb reason and lost his entire summers pay, I think it was $200, but not sure. We have been trying to find him, but no luck yet. Mr Gluck was nice but strict .Fond memoies of seving “chefs mess” If anybody out there from then, please contact me.
I just read this article and saw that Myra Derkatch responded—Myra, you were in my bunk in 1961 and perhaps 1962! Cejwin was an amazing experience—and I agree with Myra’s comment that the experience and sense of Jewish community stays with us forever.
judy and lois are reminiscing about summers at camp. it was a great place!
The best time of my life. I still think of the fun, friends and the escape from the city. Mark Mishler and I came in 3rd in the Port Jervis canoe race, still long for a Blizzard. Still friends with Joan Rogers. Remember some of the great plays, many I acted in. Cejwin will always be a part of me.
My 3 years (1937,1938,1939) I have never forgotten.
My wife and many of my friends have heard about those three years. I still remember some of the songs and the staff.
Shabbat with Mrs Schoolman saying the blessings “Baruch attah” it was the first time that I had heard hebrew spoken that way. We boys dressed in white at services, Havdolla singing across the lake to the girls.
I did not come from a religious home but Cejwin carried me through to becoming a founding member of our conservative Temple Beth Ahm in NJ.
Fondly, Jerry Ritz
Who remembers the song the girls sang?
I go to Cejewin Camp, oh pity me…
There’s not a boy in the vicinity -
And every night at nine they lock the doors-
I don’t know why the heck I ever came before-
I’m gonna pack my bags, head home again,
I’m gonna turn this camp right upside down.
I’m gonna drink and smoke and neck and pet and what the heck
The h*** with Cejewin Camp!
And Rabbi Abrams -
Swinging by the outhouse door,
Without his undies,
What the h*** are undies for?
He’ll catch pneumonia,
Swinging by the outhouse door -
And he was NUDE!!!!
How can one forget something like that??
Bobby Glasser - Animal - wow! I remember the thing with Dobbs. It was 1971. Every couple summers someone did something really dumb like that. Cejwin was paradise from any point of view; lots of great people, beautiful country, occasional good activities, lots of sports, great lake for fishing. I was there for 9 summers with my brothers and we loved it. I made great friends who are still part of my life. Unforgettable.
I grew up in Forest Hills and remember going to Camp Cajwin for a few summers in the late 50’/early 60’s. Many of the details are vague now…I do remember my counselor Richie Resnick and the HC was a tall lanky man whose name was Gideon I believe.
I went to Cejwin in the late 40’s along with my dear friend Judy (Edidin) Scolnic. She and I wrote the Havdala services every week. We always incorporated Hebrew songs into these beautiful services overlooking the lake. There was a wonderful Ice Cream Parlor in Port Jervis that we went to on our days off - at that point, we were CIT’s. They had delicious Cantaloupe Sundaes - half a cantaloupe with a Sundae in the middle. The waiters were a great bunch of guys, many of whom belonged to BBYO. Those were the days, my friend!.
I grew up in Brooklyn and went to Cejwin with my very dear friend Judy (Edidin) Scolnic who now resides in Maryland. She and I, as CIT’s, wrote skits for the Havdala services every week. We always incorporated Hebrew songs into these skits. These services at the lake were always so beautiful. Among the waiters were a group of guys who belonged to BBYO. On our days off, we would go to a wonderful Ice Cream Parlor in Milford, PA - they served delicious Cantaloupe Sundaes - yummy! We also spent time in the canteen dancing. I believe we were in Camp Hadar. Those were the days!
Cejwin was truly a special place that made memories that will last a lifetime- the HC that Larry remembered was Dideon Goldberg- I had the pleasure of meeting him during a few perchance occasions over the years.
My first experiences with anti-semitism were in Port Jervis- and how often would I see Dr. Schoolman running after the town intruders during the night! It is amazing that the camp never had any outsiders actually cause trouble. (The John Birch Society was founded in that neck of the woods)
I always worked in Hadar and the Hadar campus was close to the Schoolman bungalow- every morning (weather permitting) at around 6AM Dr. Schoolman and sometimes Mrs. Schoolman did the daily swim in the chilly waters of lake Martin. I learned some of the sign language from the kitchen help who came every summer- and learned quite a bit about Israeli
living and culture from the Israeli counselors- they were a tough breed and didn’t quite understand our definition of “summer camp” -the Oneg shabbats in the “canteen” would go on all night- and I was always surprised that the heavy dancing never collapsed the floor!
I can go on and on- only fond memories-
what ever happened to the “time capsule” that was buried at the flag pole when the new Aviv campus opened- did anybody ever retrieve it?
I went to camp with my older brother between 1966-1969. I was young so I was in Hadar those years. I remember feeling safe, and liked and accepted at Cejwin. The counselors I had were incredible people. I remember climbing Motorcycle Mountain and Bald Mountain, swimming across the lake, singing songs from the song book printed for camp and feeling like I belonged to a larger community. Such happy memories!
I send my kids to summer sleep away camp because of the excellent experiences I had. Cejwin was special for me, I have never forgotten it and consider it an influencial part of my life and Jewish identity. I wish I had attended more years, but my parents had other considerations to make.