Camp Swig celebrates 50 years and its first director

Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, Saratoga Camp Swig's first director, decided one day to impress his young campers by pitching a tent and bringing in a donkey for a dramatization of biblical life.

But while the program started at 9 a.m. sharp, the owner of the donkey wouldn't let him have the animal until 9:30.

"It was stabled together with a cow, and they were very much attached to each other," said a laughing Kaelter, 89, who will be honored Sunday at the camp as part of its 50th anniversary celebration.

"The farmer told me if the donkey left before the cow went out to pasture, the milk would be spoiled. So I had to learn some cow-tholicism."

The camp Kaelter so clearly remembers opening up on the first day "with 120 campers and three toilets and no dishes or plates and not enough mattresses or bunks" has not only survived for half a century but has eased thousands of boys and girls into Jewish lives.

For some it has had a profound impact. "I actually wanted to be a rabbi because I was thinking about becoming the director of this camp," said Rabbi Jim Kaufman, the spiritual leader of Los Angeles' Temple Beth Hillel.

His climb up the leadership ladder mirrors that of many other veteran campers. Kaufman attended Swig in the late 1950s, joined the staff as a counselor in training, was promoted to counselor, then song leader. He went even further, becoming director of the Hebrew camp and continuing "teaching and rabbi-ing" as a volunteer after ascending to the rabbinate in 1973. This is his 39th summer at the camp.

"Kids get a chance up here to put into practice what almost none of them do back home, and that is praying and being involved in rituals on a regular basis, a full observance of the Sabbath and learning about Judaism on a daily basis. And all of that is interspersed into normal camp activity, fun things."

In addition to ubiquitous Judaism, Camp Swig has become most well known for its emphasis on the arts and social activism. Director Ruben Arquilevich points out that the creations of former Swig artists-in-residence adorn temples, universities and museums across North America.

And the demonstrations for peace and civil rights in the 1960s have given birth to today's advocacy for the homeless or AIDS awareness.

"There was a lot of spirit about brotherhood, civil rights and stopping the war and how Jews could be spiritually and socially active," recalled Dr. Greg Hirsch, a Swig camper in the 1960s and the volunteer medic at Camp Newman.

"It was also a place where you could learn about Judaism and values. Those are very happy memories for me."

And while Kaelter didn't emphasize social activism as much as later directors — in 1953, it was still far from mainstream in the Reform Jewish world — he didn't ignore it either.

"We gave it a religious name so it was not called 'social activism.' That might have bothered some people in San Francisco," said the German-born rabbi.

"We called it 'prophetic Judaism.' That was kosher enough."

After three summers at Camp Swig, Kaelter called it quits — he's a professed micro-manager and the job was simply taking too much out of him. "After the second summer, I was still tired before the third summer began," he quipped.

He went on to lead Temple Israel of Long Beach for many years, and is still the rabbi laureate there. But he considers his three years at Camp Swig the "most significant of my career."

He feels so because of "the 24-hour-a-day involvement of campers in Jewish life. They were totally captured by it. And some people who came with negative attitudes were transformed into Jewish enthusiasts," said Kaelter, who proudly rattled off the names of several prominent Southern California rabbis who attended the camp under his tutelage.

His trip back to Camp Swig this weekend will be his first in five or six years. And his thoughts upon setting foot in his former home-away-from-home always go back to that first day — with 40 campers to a toilet and hardly any supplies to go around.

"It was remarkable how we survived," he said. "But we did, obviously."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.