Jewish Summer Camping in North Carolina

‘Tis the season when our thoughts turn to summer with the added promise of a return to the pre-pandemic normal—and nothing signifies normal for a Jewish household than sending the kids off to camp.  Since the 1890s, when Jews joined the national obsession with Native American culture, summer camping with its canoeing and horseback riding, crafts and campfires, has become a rite of passage. 
North Carolina’s own history of Jewish summer camping goes back nearly a century, centered in the mountain regions near Hendersonville which enjoyed a reputation among Jews as the Southern Catskills.  In the 1920s summer camps sprouted amid Jewish hotels and boarding houses.  The clientele drew from the Carolinas and Georgia, even Florida. 
 
In 1926 Rabbi George Solomon of Savannah founded Camp Osceola near Hendersonville, serving as its director.  The camp, the Rabbi wrote, was a “place where the Jewish boy can not only feel thoroughly at home with Jewish influences, but at the same time be developed in the manly sports and activities.”  In the early 1930s, Rabbi Samuel Wrubel served as director of Camp French Board for boys in Brevard and Camp Dellwood for girls in Waynesville.  He aspired to imbue Jewish youth with “courage” and “sportsmanship” to “demonstrate to the world at large that distinctive only in his religion the Jew is not different from his fellows.”  These camps arose at a time of increasing social discrimination when college and immigration quotas were imposed, when nativism disparaged Jews.  Bonding Jews socially, summer camp would create the “fellowship” that “restores them to a superior feeling.” 
In 1948, Georgian Herman Popkin with his brothers Harry and Ben, WWII veterans who became leaders of B’nai B’rith and Zionist youth groups, founded Camp Blue Star.  The timing was fortuitous.  The year was not coincidentally that of Israel’s founding, and it was another token of a national postwar religious revival that saw Jews respond to the challenge of a baby boom and an assimilating youth with new institutions, summer camps as well as JCCs and synagogues.  Two years later Blue Star took possession of 740 mountain acres outside Hendersonville.  It became a southern institution, drawing kids from across the region.  Its notable alumni include former federal reserve head Ben Bernanke and diplomat Stuart Eizenstat.   The camp set youth on a course of Jewish commitment, pioneering innovative practices in a “living Judaism” like artisanal multicolored kipot and tallesim and a liturgy of song and practice inspired by popular culture. 
In 1959 Zionist camp Tel Yehuda was held outside Wilmington.  Camp Young Judaea had begun as a program at Blue Star, but in 1961 under Hadassah sponsorship Young Judaea purchased 118 nearby acres as one of its five national camps.  The intention was to create a “FUN summer that enhances the camper’s Jewish identity and love for Israel.”  Gerry Katz Taratoot, who came from the small Statesville Jewish community,” recalled Young Judea was “really my link to Judaism.” 
Although geographically just across the state line in northern Georgia, Camp Ramah Darom has a North Carolina focus.  Established in 1997 as part of the Conservative movement’s national Raman camp program, the Camp was endowed by philanthropist Leonard Kaplan of Greensboro.    
Jewish summer camps have little changed their mission from a century ago in a region where, until recently, Jews were few.  As Young Judaea camp officer Elyssa Gaffin noted, “It’s all about giving your kids a chance to be surrounded by Jews.” 

North Carolina’s Century of Zionist Activism

As Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) arrives on April 15, North Carolinians can celebrate its own legacy of Zionist achievement.   The South has long been typified as ambivalent about Zionism, given its legacy in Reform Judaism, which in its 1885 Platform rejected Jewish nationalism.  Prominent southern Reform rabbis, affirming their Americanism, spoke against it.  Rabbi Moses Jacobson of Asheville regarded “Zionism as a supreme folly, a dire menace.”  While the Rabbi fulminated, his community had by 1904 organized a Zionist society that grew to over 120 members.   

 

Early synagogue minutes record support for the Jewish settlement in Palestine as a response to what was then called “the Jewish Problem” of a homeless, persecuted people.  Zionism grew across the South especially after the arrival of East European Jewish immigrants.  In 1901 Durham Jews purchased shares in the Jewish Colonial Bank, and Ladies Aid Societies collected funds for Palestinian relief.   Even in the early 1900s, there was movement between North Carolina and Palestine.  Rev. Laibel Swartz left Durham in the early 1900s to settle there.  In 1909 Henry and Mina Weil of Goldsboro, Reform Jews of German origin, visited Palestine where they toured Jewish colonies.  Mina Weil and her descendants, particularly her daughter Gertrude, provided state Zionist leadership for generations.  When her sister-in-law Sarah Weil founded the North Carolina Association of Jewish Women in 1921, the organization committed to the Zionist cause. 

 

In the case of the Weils the Zionist commitment was enhanced by the family’s ties to the Szold family of Baltimore.  North Carolina’s Jewish community held family, religious, and commercial ties to Baltimore, and Rabbi Benjamin Szold and his daughter Henrietta, who founded Hadassah in 1912, served the state’s Jews religiously and institutionally.   The Weils had been married by Rabbi Szold, and Henrietta was Mina’s friend.  By the 1930s North Carolina held eight Hadassah chapters.  Henrietta Szold came to North Carolina in 1931, stopping first in Goldsboro to visit the Weils and then traveling to Wilmington where she spoke before 300.  Gertrude Weil would serve as a regional Hadassah officer, and Sara Evans of Durham would become a national vice president.  The state-supported eight Hadassah chapters, and chapters of Mizrachi, the Orthodox Zionist women’s society, also formed. 

Emissaries, often women, arrived to enlist American support.  In 1916 Madame Pevsner, a Russian Zionist, visited Durham, inspiring Fanny Gladstein to start a Zionist Society.  In 1916 Mrs. Pavlov came from Palestine and her visit to Kinston inspired Jenny Nachamson to enlist 15 of the town’s 18 Jewish families in a society.  After Louis Brandeis took leadership of the Zionist Organization of America in 1914, chapters formed across the state.   In 1925 when Mrs. Phillip Katzin spoke before the Winston-Salem Council of Jewish Women about her life in Palestine, she was besieged by questions.  Jewish homes held blue and white pushkas (charity boxes) from the Jewish National Fund as well as Tree Fund certificates. 

North Carolina and the Man Who Coined the Word Genocide

As we observe Yom HaShoah, we may not be aware that North Carolina was a haven for emigres from Nazi Europe.  State campuses gave shelter to eminent scholars.  Professors and executives became dirt farmers at an agricultural colony in Van Eeden, near Burgan.  The state’s Jews struggled to bring family members from abroad, petitioning the government and sending funds.

Perhaps no story was more dramatic nor significant than that of Raphael Lemkin, a law professor and public prosecutor in Warsaw who found a home at Duke University.

In 1933 Lemkin appealed to the League of Nations to ban mass murder.  He anticipated a possible Holocaust.  Wounded in the Polish resistance, Lemkin was carried through the German lines to Lithuania and from there fled to Stockholm.  He obtained German diplomatic dispatches that proved the barbarity of German policies.

Prof. Malcolm McDermott of Duke had met Lemkin before the war in Warsaw and had collaborated with him on translating legal papers.  McDermott came across a French translation of a paper that Lemkin had written in hopes of finding a position abroad.  McDermott asked the Durham Jewish community to help sponsor Lemkin’s emigration to America.  Local attorney Henry Bane interceded on behalf of the B’nai B’rith, and Lemkin was offered a position.  Lemkin, who lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust, spoke before civic and religious groups across the state, Jewish and Christian,  to anyone who would listen.  He was a man obsessed.  He soon left for Washington as a government adviser.

In 1944 Lemkin published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in which he coined the word genocide.  He traveled to London and Nuremberg to prepare indictments against war criminals.  He authored the Genocide Convention and dedicated his life to its passage, which the United Nations did so in 1948.

Passover in North Carolina

As Passover approaches, supermarket shelves will be stocked with matzoh, gefilte fish, and kosher wines.  Observing Passover in North Carolina has not always been as convenient as today’s easy trip to our local Publix or Harris-Teeter to stock up.

When Judith and Jacob Mordecai settled in Warrenton in 1792, they had to write their family in Richmond requesting that they send them matzoh.  A story passed down describes a seder held in Chapel Hill at the end of the Civil War.  The story is plausible as families from Richmond and Wilmington, which had Jewish communities, sought refuge in North Carolina Piedmont towns.  The midwestern federal regiments that occupied Chapel Hill included Jewish soldiers, and in other Southern communities, Jewish Confederates invited northern Jewish soldiers to join their seder tables.  Confederate private Louis Leon of Charlotte wrote in his Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate that Jewish soldiers were given a Passover furlough.  In 1865 Union troops foraging for food entered the Wallace home in Statesville but found not bread but only matzah, which tasted to them like military hardtack, dry and tasteless.

When we visited homes to conduct interviews for our multimedia project, Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina, we were often shown vintage photographs of families gathered around the seder table.  Many dates to the 1920s, ‘30s, or ‘40s.  They were set in a kitchen, a dining room, or even a hallway, any place that could hold a long table.  At the head was the family patriarch, sometimes bearded and often wearing a sizeable rabbinic yarmulke.  Along the table were the stylishly dressed younger generations, with the women often holding infants and toddlers in their laps.

During World War II local Jews opened their homes to Jewish soldiers from the many camp towns across the state.  Every congregation hosted community seders for the soldiers.  In Fayetteville A. M. Fleishman marched the soldiers in file to his home, where he led two seders.   At Camp Butner, north of Durham, Sara Swartz led a cadre of housewives who prepared soup and kugel for hundreds of Jewish soldiers, with kosher food flown in from New York.  The kitchen help included German prisoners of war.  As they chopped vegetables, Swartz felt fear, but another held a friendly conversation in Polish.  The Sisterhood of Goldsboro’s Temple Oheb Sholom prepared a seder for nearly 1,000 soldiers, including camp commanders.  For the homesick soldiers, the appeal of hospitality at the Weil home was not merely the Jewish soul food but the opportunity to “to meet your lovely niece” or “most attractive cousin.”

This year’s seder, whether real or virtual, will also be memorable, and it will take its place in more than two centuries of North Carolina Jewish remembrance.