Jewish-sponsored camping is considered to be one of the oldest in the U.S., having developed right after emergence of the first camps of the YMCA and Girl Scouts. The first Jewish residential camp, Lake Success Camp, was opened in 1901. From the very beginning, Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (FJP) took a most active part in the sponsoring and support of camping for the children of the overcrowded communities of the Lower East Side and other places in New York populated by Jewish immigrants. In many instances the camps became the first experience of being outdoors in the fresh air and coming into contact with nature for thousands of poor Jewish kids. From the beginning of the camping program, the Jewish communal leaders realized the importance and potential of camping for the younger generation, and also for senior adults and the handicapped. Many agencies of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (later UJA-Federation of New York) took part in quite a herculean effort to bring Jewish children and youths closer to nature and a healthy environment, provide adequate rest, good company, balanced nutrition, physical exercise and interesting activities, and to introduce to these children a wide range of cultural and educational programs. The fees were mostly kept at a minimal level, and often the expense of the camp stay was absorbed by the Federation, which paid particular attention to attracting to the camps children from underprivileged families. This can be seen, for example, in a paper by Asher Melzer, Surprise Lake Camp director and later camping consultant, titled: “Whom We Serve and the Philosophy and Practice of Fee Setting” (1961).
Among the agencies whose camping-related materials can be found in the UJA collection are the Jewish Vacation Association (later Association of Jewish Sponsored Camps), the Jewish Welfare Board, the Jewish Community Centers and the YM & YWHAs. Other files include those of the Camping Services Department of the Federation and the Subcommittee on Camps of Federation’s Distribution Committee. The materials reflect a complex picture of various structures cooperating in the organized Jewish camping sphere, interacting in a huge number of projects and keeping active dozens of residential and day camps, camps for the aged, handicapped and mentally ill, camps for the artistically gifted and for the Orthodox. Among the persons active in the camping activities of FJP-UJA were Graenum Berger, Herman Sainer, Asher Melzer, Jerome Mark, who will all be written about as this blog continues.
Covering the time span from 1950s through 1990s, the documents mostly represent the files of the Camping department counselors and directors, the minutes of various committees and records of budget hearings, correspondence with individual camps, cultural programming materials, maps and blueprints, photographs and audio recordings, as well as many booklets and publications on Jewish camping. The materials will be of interest to today’s professional in the area of camping and recreation, as well as for historians and, perhaps, former campers, who might find something long forgotten but heart-warming in the files of the UJA camping services.