Around the Jewish World: Southern Summer Camp Spawns Generations of Committed Jews

Camp has changed. Former campers remember the time they put a Volkswagen on the island in the middle of the camp’s lake. Now pranks have caught up with technology — tapping the office phone line to make long distance calls.

Yet camp has stayed the same.

There are new facilities and a new hiking trail, but most alumni agree that the essence of camp remains eternal.

“They say you can’t go back again, but in camp you can,” said former camper Peter Pardoll.

And so they did.

Earlier this month, as parents across the country were preparing to send their children to summer camps, 350 alumin of Blue Star Camps in western North Carolina returned for a weekend to celebrate the 50th season of “the haven for Jews in the South.”

They ranged from recent counselors in their 20s to a former staff member who will soon turn 90. They came from across the United States and from Israel.

Many described the reunion as a return to their “home away from home” and reminisced how Blue Star had a profound influence on the evolution of their Jewish identities.

“If you want to raise kids Jewish, send them to a Jewish camp,” said Rodger Popkin, who has directed the camp with his wife, Candy, for the past 27 years.

For many alumni, the Blue Star’s family owners distinguish it from other Jewish summer camps. Campers feel they are members of the extended Popkin family.

“It’s a continuing, big family,” Pardoll said.

When brothers Herman, Harry and Ben Popkin reunited after serving in the military during World War II, they recognized that the South was lacking summer camps for Jewish children.

They opened Blue Star in northern Georgia in 1948 and moved it to its current property in 1950.

Former campers remark that the best way to start a conversation with any Southern Jew is to ask, “What years were you at Blue Star?”

One of the largest privately owned camps in the country, Blue Star — which began with 60 children per year and now has more than 700 each summer — has been a bastion in the Southern Jewish community.

“Blue Star is a link to Jewish history in the South,” said Steve Zimmerman of Houston.

Neal Esserman of Jacksonville, Fla., agreed.

“All Jewish kids in the South had to meet at Blue Star,” he said. “It’s a requirement; it’s like having your Bar Mitzvah.”

Miles Kuttler of Miami, a former camp program coordinator, called it a “sociological phenomenon,” with “small pockets of Jews” in the South meeting each other at Blue Star.

For many, “this was the major Jewish input in their lives,” he said.

During Shabbat services, Bill Rothschild, an ordained rabbi who now practices law in Atlanta, elaborated on this “phenomenon.” His d’var Torah about the week’s parshah related the first few chapters of the book of Numbers to the Blue Star experience. The portion tells how God commanded a census of the community and Jews became aware of their numbers for the first time.

For children who grew up with only a few Jews in their towns, Blue Star was where they became aware that Jews existed in greater numbers, Rothschild said.

While most of Blue Star’s campers are no longer from small towns, the emphasis on Judaism remains important, though it has less of an observant orientation than camps associated with particular religious movements.

Blue Star provides a kosher dining hall and weekly Shabbat and Havdalah services. The camp also offers Hebrew classes and Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons.

For many campers, this is more Judaism than they get at home. The camp “teaches you the basis of Judaism and of tzedakah,” Pardoll said.

Kuttler said Blue Star does not compel religious observance, but tries to “make it palatable to someone who doesn’t have it at home.”

For some, the camp’s level of religious observance is not enough. One father of current Blue Star campers revealed that he preferred the more observant style of the Ramah camps to the laid-back atmosphere of Blue Star.

Lynda Wachsteter, a camper in the 1950s who now lives in Short Hills, N.J., believes that the changing Jewish experience at Blue Star reflects shifts in the American Jewish community and in Israel. “We lived through the founding of the state,” she said. “There was a real halutz spirit then. We thought we were the pioneers.”

Peggy Shulman acknowledged the positive impact Blue Star had on her Jewish identity, saying that it motivated her to work for the Jewish National Fund in Atlanta.

“All of my feelings for Judaism really come from this camp,” she said.

A recent survey of Blue Star alumni backs the proposition that Jewish summer camps are good for continuity.

In honor of the camp’s golden anniversary, the Popkins commissioned University of Miami researcher Ira Sheskin to study the Jewish identities of former Blue Star campers.

Sheskin used the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey as a basis of comparison for his survey of alumni, camper parents, and counselors. For issues such as intermarriage, keeping kosher, and lighting Chanukah candles, former campers were typically more observant than the average American Jew.

“You learn it in a fun setting, you remember it,” Miles Kuttler said.

“Camping is the best Jewish identity focus point anybody could have,” agreed Rita Klee of Atlanta.

Although the study was based only on Blue Star Camps, Sheskin believes its findings about continuity are important for the larger Jewish community.

“Jews are clearly looking for things that will make the next generation want to be Jewish,” he said.

But Judaism was only one aspect that brought so many people back to camp for the June 6-8 reunion.

Some credit Blue Star with their career paths.

Many believe that it was Blue Star that first got Stuart Eizenstat, the camp’s most famous alumnus, involved in politics, when he served as mayor of the Teen Village here.

Eizenstat could not attend the reunion, as he was in Washington to be sworn in as undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs.

His cousins Joel Eizenstat and Malcolm Minsk, former campers who attended the reunion, confirmed Blue Star’s impact on his career.

Others recalled the influence that Blue Star has had on their families.

“Blue Star is our life,” said Andrea Esserman, who met her husband, Neal, at camp 29 years ago.

The camp boasts many married couples who first met during the summer.

“If we did nothing but bringing couples together, that would be worthwhile,” Herman Popkin said.

Whatever the reason for their return, the 350 weekend campers were sad to leave Sunday afternoon.

Candy Popkin said a reunion like this “renews your sense of purpose.” She now has a greater appreciation of “the scope of what [Blue Star] has meant in people’s lives.”

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