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Camp Massad: Reunited After 30 Years

Posted by: LeahMeir

June 22, 2011

I spent this past Monday night at summer camp. Together with hundreds of other former campers and staff members at Camp Massad, I spent an evening celebrating the continuing legacy of the Hebrew-immersive camp that existed from 1941-1981 – that’s right: it’s been closed for 30 years!
So many showed up that an audio and video feed had to be set up in another room to accommodate those who didn’t fit into the auditorium. What brought an overflow crowd of Massadniks in their 50’s and 60’s (and older!) to pay homage to a summer camp that they had attended so many years ago?
In addition to the desire (and the curiosity!) to see how old bunkmates and summertime sweethearts looked 50+ years later, these former campers retained an unshakable loyalty and sense of indebtedness to an institution that gave them a lifetime gift. The gift was an eight-week home in which Hebrew was the language of the everyday, of sports, of music, of plays, of color war (“Maccabiah” in which all the activities were cleverly designed to teach about Jewish and Zionist history). Shlomo and Rivka Shulsinger, Massad’s directors over the 40 years, were “meshugaim ladavar” – fanatics for the cause of Hebrew. Supported by others in the Hebrew language movement and by the Histadrut Ivrit, the organization for the support of Hebrew in North America, they brought together an extraordinary staff of like-minded people. Some were religiously observant, others not; some were socialist Zionists, some were Revisionist Zionists, but their shared passion for the Hebrew language bridged all the differences.
Massad was a religious Zionist coed environment, something rare these days. While many of the campers were students at modern Orthodox day schools like Ramaz and Flatbush and many of the senior staff taught at such schools, others lived outside New York with little in the way of Jewish community or education. Their summers at camp gave them a concentrated dose of Hebrew, Jewish and Zionist education in addition to friendship bonds that kept them connected with Jewish friends throughout the year.
Massad also produced an astounding numbers of Jewish leaders. Just ask any Jewish community luminary “of a certain age”, and you’re likely to hear that he/she was at Massad. On Monday night, we watched a moving video that was recently created, alternating old movies and videos of camp with interviews of well-known Jewish leaders talking about the impact of the camp on them and on their peers. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehillath Jeshurun Synagogue, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Rabbi Gerald Skolnick of Forest Hills and Dr. David Bernstein of the Pardes Institute, among others, spoke of the profound impact that their camp experiences had on them.
The evening’s highlight was the talk given by 90 year-old Rivka Shulsinger, Shlomo’s widow, in her characteristic forceful voice. It was alternately nostalgic, funny and moving. If your Hebrew is good, enjoy her talk on YouTube (click here for part 2.)
Other Jewish camps continue to have, powerful impact on campers and staff alike. Ramah and URJ camps, JCC camps, Yavneh to name a few, provide unique educational experiences summer after summer. Massad was a product of its time and sadly, may not have flourished if it had been founded in the 21st century. But its legacy lives in the camps that have followed it and in the fluent Hebrew spoken by its alumni. It’s fascinating to reflect on what the legacy of today’s Jewish summer camps can and will be. And can the experiences of camp be embedded into Jewish schools during the other 10 months of the year?
We ended Monday night’s program by singing – what else? – classic Israeli songs and the Massad camp hymn, the words of Birkat Am (commonly known as Techezakna) a poem by the Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik. Those familiar Zionist lyrics “Al ipol ruchachem, alizim, mitronenim, bo’u shehem echad, leezrat h’am” (“Let your spirits not fail, come joyously, shoulder to shoulder to the people’s aid”) transformed us for a short while into 10 and 12 year-old kids wearing blue shorts and white shirts, thrilled to be surrounded by their friends and bunkmates, living once again in Hebrew.

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