The highlight of the evening for many of the 70 adults and children gathered at the Summit home of Archie Gottesman and Gary DeBode was not the Rice Krispies treats, the cozy fireplace, or the One Happy Camper luggage tags and bracelets.
Rather, it was the chance to hold one of Lenny Krayzelburg’s gold medals in swimming from the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist’s appearance was in support of the Greater MetroWest Jewish Camp Enterprise and One Happy Camper NJ, which offers $1,000 subsidies to children attending Jewish camp for the first time.
Krayzelburg was interviewed by former journalist Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair, who with her husband Rob Bildner is a founder of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which matches each gift to One Happy Camper dollar for dollar.
The evening also saw the announcement of a $100,000 gift from Greater MetroWest philanthropists Allen and Joan Bildner for the local Jewish camp initiative.
Archie Gottesman, who cochairs the Greater MetroWest Jewish Camp Enterprise with her husband and Rob and Elisa Bildner, offered statistics to suggest the success of the local push to encourage Jewish camping: Since 2007, 856 kids have gone to Jewish summer camp for the first time, with the program paying out well over $800,000 in incentive grants.
In the region served by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, more than 1,200 children attend Jewish camps each summer. Gottesman said that 84 camp-related events were held in the area in the past four years, and that Tracy Levine, who handles referrals to One Happy Camper as its manager at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, has held 921 one-on-one family consultations.
Gottesman’s passion for camp comes from her belief that it holds the future of the Jewish people. “Camp is joyous Judaism,” she said. “People don’t assimilate out of something that brings them joy. If Jewish camp is joyous Judaism, then Jewish camp is going to save Judaism.”
In his chat with Spungen Bildner, Krayzelburg spoke about his own commitment to Jewish camping. He leads swim clinics at NJ Y Camps and coaches youngsters and adults year-round at Jewish venues, including the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
Krayzelburg, 37, also spoke about his early years in Ukraine, where his family’s Jewish identity was suppressed, and his embrace of that identity after immigrating to the United States in 1989. He recalled walking into a JCC for the first time in his adopted city of Los Angeles, and the discipline and perseverance that led to his Olympic victories.
Learning to be Jewish
Children attending the event clambered to shake the Olympian’s hand and have their photograph taken with him. Some were themselves competitive swimmers interested in any tips he could offer.
Some of the best testimony about Jewish camp came from campers and their families. Gottesman’s and DeBode’s daughter, Sophie DeBode, 17, spoke about how she went grudgingly to Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement camp, and ended up loving it and Judaism.
“I went with a less-than-open attitude. Camp changed me as a Jew and as a person,” she said. “You can’t see it happening. You can’t explain it. But while laughing, joking, and, yes, praying, we learned to be Jewish in a way it doesn’t happen at home.”
Katie Carpenter of Short Hills spoke about how URJ Camp Harlam transformed her teenagers into year-round Jews.
Also in attendance were some major donors to Jewish camp programs, including Paula and Jerry Gottesman, the leading benefactors of the Greater MetroWest initiative, as well as Dr. Lynne B Harrison, Michael Och, and the Bildners.
Lisa Lisser attended on behalf of the Cooperman Fund for a Jewish Future, a major supporter of the Greater MetroWest Jewish Camp Enterprise, as did representatives of FJC and local organizations involved with Jewish camp, including Jeremy Fingerman, FJC CEO; Skip Vichness, FJC board member; Robert Lichtman, executive director of the Partnership; Josh Rednick, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ; and Kim Hirsh, JCF director of philanthropic initiatives.