Camp Young Judaea-West is marking 50 years of spirit

In 1947, Bing Crosby adopted a Jewish foster child, the Kennedy family donated $50,000 to the Associated Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, permanent waves cost $12.50…

And Camp Young Judaea was taking root in the West.

"Nora Rodgers, a member of the national board of Hadassah and past president of the [Central] Pacific Coast Region, felt the time had come to bring the regions of the western United States [together] to form one cohesive camp committee and one Jewish Zionist Camp," says Camp Young Judaea-West director Stuart Rogoff.

To celebrate its golden anniversary, Camp Young Judaea-West will throw a party for the community July 6 at its new site, the 27-acre Shady Lawn Farm Camp and Retreat Center in Oakdale, two hours from Yosemite off Route 120.

"Zionism Turns 100, and we turn 50," Rogoff says.

Yosemite was the site of Camp Young Judaea-West's first one-week session, held in the late '50s, recalls Edith Berg of Oakland.

"There might have been 10 or 12 youngsters, all over [age] 13," says Berg, who attended that first session with her husband Murray, as well as Frances and Ernie Alexander and the late Sandra Yaffe, whom Berg credits with being the primary founder.

"There was one student in Berkeley at the time, an Israeli, who seemed to know how to handle kids," she says.

"We went along to help lug things here and there…It was a really great success and we saw that it could be done."

Until Camp Young Judaea-West was able to buy its own site at White Sulfur Springs in St. Helena, it rented camps from the Boy Scouts, YMCA and other organizations, says Berg.

"There was always the problem," she says, that "when we went to the camps, we had to have kosher facilities. Someone would go there and scrub up the kitchens…It was always a big undertaking."

It was also an enormous task raising money so needy kids could attend, says Dorothy Golner of Berkeley.

"Scholarships practically subsidized the camp," says the former Hadassah scholarship chair for the Central Pacific Coast Region.

One of her fund-raising tactics was to ask Hadassah members to contribute a small amount, even $5, in memory of an individual. It was something she herself did after her daughter Janet died at age 18.

"Her last camp was at [Young Judaea's] Tel Yehudah in New York," which high-school kids attend. Loma Mar off Pescadero Beach was her first.

Camping by the ocean, notes Golner, was "really beautiful, but the weather was not always wonderful. There was a lot of fog."

Other senses were stirred at White Sulfur Springs, according to Rabbi Glenn Karonsky of Center for Jewish Living and Learning, who was a staff counselor there in 1969.

"The starkest memory for anyone in speaking about the St. Helena site," he says, "has got to be the aroma of the place, because a natural sulfur spring ran right through the camp.

"It was a favorite pastime, soaking in the pool," he adds. "But the smell was so strong it permeated every geographical piece of the site, including the dining room. It made it difficult to tell the difference between hard-boiled eggs and anything else.

"You got used to it after a week."

Wherever the camps where held, most of the kids, ages 9-13, had a good time. They couldn't help it.

"Ruach," as Rogoff explains, using the Hebrew word for spirit, "is our theme. Fun is number one."

Rose Levine of Castro Valley, whose three children looked forward to camp each summer, says, "The kids always came home with very sore throats and laryngitis, because they were doing so much yelling and cheering and singing. They came home with dirty clothes and hardly any voice."

Her youngest, Jonathan Levine, now a University of Michigan assistant professor, is currently on sabbatical in Haifa, where he teaches urban planning at Technion.

His friend, the Bergs' youngest son, who is also named Jonathan, made aliyah and also lives in Haifa. He joined Levine for Passover.

Rogoff emphasizes how many of Camp Young Judaea-West alumni have merged with the rest of the Jewish community.

"Fifty years ago I don't know that you would look at camp as an entry point," he says. "The synagogue, Hadassah, B'nai B'rith" would be more likely.

But "with blended families, divorce" and other changes in the '90s, "for many, camp is an entry point into Judaism, a first connection into the organized Jewish community," he adds.

"Camp is about an entire family. When a child goes back to the family, many things the child experienced at camp — Shabbat, Israel, meeting Jewish kids — [he or she] brings back home.

"The first Shabbat after camp is a very big milestone," he says. "The child wants to light the candles, or wants to sing a Shabbat song, or have conversation with parents at the table.

"That what's different between camp 50 years ago and now."