For a detailed study, see:
- The New Promised Land: Maine’s Summer Camps for Jewish Youth in the Mid-Twentieth Century, by Charlotte Wiesenberg ’13 (May 2013)
Maine Summer Camps with a Jewish Twist
by Nancy Silverman Levinsky ’83 (April 2011)
In the early 1900’s it was common for many Jewish people from other New England states and New York to send their children to overnight camps in Maine. Some Maine Jewish children also went to these camps. Maine was (and hopefully still is) synonymous with fresh air. In addition to fresh air, people also felt the risk of contracting polio was diminished if the children could get a good dose of Maine!
What is a Jewish camp? Historically speaking, a Jewish camp could mean one of two things. Some camps were simply camps in which the campers are almost all Jewish…there could be no other association to Judaism but that fact. A Jewish camp can also be a camp where various aspects of Judaism are discovered, observed, discussed and celebrated. In my research I discovered that 3 camps about which I am going to speak are in the Oakland/Belgrade Lakes Region. The Belgrade Lakes Region has 11 different lakes. I am guessing that the number of lakes can explain why there were/are so many camps around there, but also I think word of mouth of the beauty in this region was spread to invite more people to open camps. Over the years, people have felt that if children experience some Jewish life associated with fun, the chances of carrying on some type of Jewish life is increased. Studies have been done to find that children who go to Jewish summer camp may be more apt to carry on Jewish tradition in their adult lives as compared to those who did not have that experience. Any overnight camp experience is very valuable. No school, no homework, no job, no assignments except to make friends and have a good time. Living with others day in and day out in a fun, relaxing, environment enjoying nature away from the hubbub of city life fosters close friendships quickly and the friendships can remain close forever.
Camp Walden in Denmark Maine was established in 1916 as an overnight camp for Jewish girls. In sharing thoughts with the present director of Camp Walden, Karen Krieger, she reports that the camp has been “ethnically” Jewish for most of its history but not in religious ways. Krieger states that currently they welcome all religions but the family base is primarily Jewish. At present there is no religious programming beyond giving girls time to study for their B’nai Mitzvot.
Marty from Camp Kennebec. 1907-1991, at the young age of 70 was so enthusiastic on the phone! When he heard what I was doing, he couldn’t wait to speak with me. His father went to Camp Kennebec and so did his son. Again, no Jewish observance but just being with so many Jewish boys resulted in lifelong friendships. Camp Kennebec in Oakland had at its camp, people primarily from the Baltimore/Washington DC area as well as a large contingent form Philadelphia and New York and a smaller group from Ohio and Boston. Marty confirmed that the polio scare was a primary reason that Jewish children were sent to summer camps in Maine.
The other kind of Jewish camps begin with the oldest Jewish running summer camp in New England called Camp Modin in Belgrade, ME, just 10 miles from here. It was founded in 1922. Camp Modin was built on the premise of having a place for Jewish youth to explore, affirm and/or reaffirm their Jewish identity. The camp which is in full operation even today, is made up of Jewish children of various Jewish backgrounds. Camp Modin is a kosher camp, where the children observe Shabbat and explore their Jewish identity through Hebrew songs and art. Each summer there is a Judaic Director who oversees the interdisciplinary program.
Camp Lown opened in 1945 in Oakland. I received correspondence from Sandra Mazer Fisch who cut the ribbon that opened the first year. There were 105 campers including 20 boys and girls from Portland, The camp held traditional Friday night Shabbat services. Susan Adelman Rudolph went to Camp Lown for 14 summers. Susan grew up in Mars Hill Maine, Aroostook County population1500 and all the Jews were her siblings or cousins. Toby Adelman also from Mars Hill remembers that all the buildings had Camp Lown had Hebrew names. There was a member of the Adelman family there every year it was open. Toby remembers her father driving she and her siblings to Camp Lown in a station wagon with a trailer hitched to the back to haul 5 trunks and many duffle bags.
Camp Kingswood opened in 1992. In 2006 the camp became a part of the Jewish Community Centers of Boston and was renamed JCC Maccabi Camp. Like the other camps, this camp celebrates Shabbat, does blessings before and after meals, has a kosher kitchen and the children learn about Israel.
The newest Jewish camp is Camp Micah, Sebago which opened in 2001. They are all about making being Jewish fun! Special Shabbat services, with Camp Micah challah are held in an outside chapel overlooking the mountains and lake and are camper/staff led. On Saturdays the campers have the opportunity to learn about and work on Tikkun Olam projects. Camp Micah stresses that life is all about making the world a better place and encompasses social action projects in their philosophy. I can speak more specifically about Camp Joseph in Harrison, Maine and Camp Naomi in Raymond, Maine, both overnight camps. My name was Nancy Silverman (Colby ’83) when I went to these camps for seven wonderful summers. At first the camps were separate from each other, Joseph being for boys and Naomi for girls. Camp Naomi was first in Billerica, MA from 1934-1953. From 1954-1985 the camp was in Raymond, Maine on Crescent Lake. The two camps merged into one co-ed Jewish overnight camp in the mid 70’s. The camp was sold in 1987. I was there for 8 weeks each summer from 1976-1982.
We chanted Hebrew brachot (blessings) before every meal. We sang the short version of the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals). We showered and dressed a little more special for Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner which included the blessing over the candles, wine and challah. We usually had a traditional Shabbat meal of chicken. The camps were kosher. On Friday night particular age groups of campers with their staff led Friday night Shabbat services and Saturday was not like the rest of the days in the week as we could sleep in, attend an optional breakfast and had Saturday morning services once again led by a particular age group. In the afternoon we did activities but did not use the boats in observance of Shabbat. We had Havdalah on Saturday night and sang songs about the coming week. Sometimes we would do some Israeli dancing.
In general we often had a couple of counselors from Israel every summer. The campers who attended these camps were 99% Jewish and the staff was more like 60% Jewish. We observed Tisha Ba’av (solemn holiday commemorating the destruction of the second temple) and some summers a particular Jewish traveling group from Israel would come to camp to perform. In the counselor in training summer, when the campers were 16 years old, we spent one month in Israel and one month at camp.
Camps Joseph and Naomi were under the auspices of the Jewish Community Center Camps of New England. There was a board of directors and the director of the camp worked year round.
So you see, Jewish summer camps meant different things to the directors, campers and staff alike.
Jewish camps were in abundance in Maine and very successful during the time periods in which they operated and continue to be successful today. I can also say that there are many facebookpages dedicated to Camp Alums and both Camp Kennebec and Camp Naomi had reunions recently. Camp Naomi had a reunion in 2008 and drew 200 people from all over the United States to come to Portland to spend 2-3 nights in Maine.