‘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.”