Recalling The Golden Age Of Hebrew Culture In America


Growing up in New York in the 1940s to1960s, in a Religious Zionist family, I was raised on a steady diet of Hebrew through a yeshiva whose classes were conducted “Ivris b’Ivris” (“Hebrew into Hebrew”), Hebrew songs coming out of the pioneering spirit of Eretz Yisrael, and an intense commitment to Zionism.

But it was Machane Massad — Camp Massad — that was for us a central vehicle for our Jewishness, for our Hebrew identity.

The legacy of Machane Massad, and the intense nostalgia it generated, were palpable at the June 20 reunion for Massad alumni held at the Center for Jewish History, which kicked off the Massad Archive Project, the brainchild of New York attorney and Jewish communal leader Lawrence Kobrin, who, together with former government official Jay Lefkowitz, organized the event. It was co-sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society, which will preserve the Massad archive make it available to researchers.

An overflow crowd packed the Center for speeches (including a moving, thoughtful, and funny talk by 90-year-old Rivka Shulsinger, wife of Massad founder, the late Shlomo Shulsinger; and a truly eloquent address by Rabbi Dr David Eliach, one of the prime movers of Hebrew culture in the United States; a movie, and of course the music, always central to the Massad experience. As the packed house sang old songs of the Palmach and the Yishuv and the early days of the State, a time-warp enveloped the Center for Jewish History.

Massad was the brainchild of Shulsinger, a visionary who arrived in America from Palestine in the late 1930s with an obsession: an American Jewish youth speaking Hebrew and living Hebrew culture. Massad started out as a small day camp in 1941, and, under the auspices of the Histadruth Ivrith of America—for many years the central address for Hebrew culture in the United States—exploded into three camps that informed the lives of thousands of young American Jews over the forty years of its existence. In the words of Kobrin, who is honorary chairman of The Jewish Week, “Massad set for many the values of their lives: a love for Jewish tradition, history, and observance; love for Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel; a commitment to Jewish service and involvement; and joy in use of the Hebrew language.”

Among its better known campers were Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Lauren, Hillel Halkin, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Israeli poet Hillel Bavli—and thousands of others from every social and religious corner of America and Israel.

Demographer Pearl Beck described the Massad experience as “the ultimate immersive Jewish encounter—eight bucolic weeks in an intense Zionist and Hebraist environment… I don’t know whether such a place could exist in today’s atmosphere.”

Hebrew in America, from the 1930s to the 1960s, was fertile indeed: the network of Hebrew teachers colleges (HTCs), such as the Boston Hebrew College, and Herzeliah and Marshalia in New York; a gaggle of yeshivot, notably New York’s Yeshiva Soloveichik and Yeshiva D’Flatbush; the Histadruth Ivrith of America and its weekly Hadoar, and of course the visionary Camp Massad. All were informed by “Tarbut Ivrit”—“Hebrew Culture”—a movement that crossed religious denominational lines and was fueled by a cadre of dedicated educators, many of whom came out of Europe and had spent some time in the Yishuv in Palestine.

Shlomo Shulsinger understood well the dynamic of Ivrit, and he transmuted his vision of a miniature Eretz Yisrael in the American countryside into Machane Massad. Shulsinger’s vision became a reality that lasted for 40 years.

Massad closed in 1981, the victim , in part, of changing demographics. But in a sense Massad was the prime casualty of the demise of Tarbut Ivrit in America. The inherent weakness of Zionism in America was a factor in the weakening of Hebrew. There was also the reality that by the 1960s many of the dedicated Ivrit teachers were aging and dying.

But there was something deeper. Hebrew was a casualty of the serious fault-lines and fissures that developed within the Orthodox world. Indeed, it was the movement to the “right” in much of the Orthodox community—the weakening of a Modern Orthodox “center”—that severely damaged Hebrew. Beginning in the 1960s, Tarbut Ivrit became enmeshed in the Orthodox struggle. Modern Orthodoxy, defensively looking over its right shoulder at Agudath Israel, increasingly wanted to emphasize what made it more religiously “Jewish” than others. Hebrew—at least the Tarbut Ivrit version—was increasingly viewed as being too secular. Hebrew did not do well in an increasingly sectarian atmosphere. Yeshivas informed by Tarbut Ivrit either folded or altered their religious orientation.

Machane Massad was a casualty of these “culture wars.” And its former campers still mourn its passing.

Commenting on the nostalgic atmosphere of the reunion, public affairs analyst and Massad alumna Deborah Mark noted, “This was nostalgia not only for Massad, but for a Modern Orthodox world long gone.” And indeed what characterized Massad was the pluralistic character of the camp in which kids from all the religious movements played, sang, studied together in Hebrew; but in which the core cadre of campers, counselors, and educators came from the Modern Orthodox day school arena. Massad represented the best values of Modern Orthodoxy, in which Zionism, religion, and secular activities were not only not in conflict, but enhanced each the other.

Yehe zichro baruch, may its memory be a blessing.

Jerome A. Chanes, a Massad alumnus, is the author of four books on Jewish history and public affairs.