Southern California Stew

Observation StewThis has been a busy week — lots of stuff to do at work combined with a migraine flare (thank you, Santa Ana winds) and a dearth of compelling news items led to no posts during the week. I have a few items backed up, some of which actually theme. The themed ones all have to do with Southern California:

  • Plant a Radish, Get a Radish. Here’s a really neat article about something the camps did over the summer: they planted camp gardens. What’s more interesting here is what they did with the gardens: they not only grew their own food, but they grew food for charity. It’s nice to see a program like this at camp; it is an extension of the old “Nature” → “Ecology” → “Avodah” programs.
  • A Bird Flies Away. The iconic Proud Bird restaurant just S of LAX is closing. Proud Bird is one of those old airport-near restaurants that celebrated airplanes and airplane history (think 94th Aero Squadron). There have been many business meetings, retirement parties, and “grey-beard” get-togethers at the Proud Bird. It will be sad to see it go.
  • Aluminum City. Here’s an interesting article that links to a longer story on the history of Century City. It’s a story of a silver screen cowboy, a studio desiring to monetize its historic back lot, a lot of aluminum, and the development of a modern office park and shopping center.
  • A Dying Sea. From the modern Century City, eyes turn to the decaying Salton Sea. Here’s a look at the dying Salton Sea, and the human and infrastructural debris is it leaving behind as its footprint shrinks. A lake made by man, leaving ghostly echoes.

Changing… and Staying the Same

userpic=campSummer camp, for those of you that have experienced it, is often a life-changing experience. It is so pivotal for some children that Ira Glass has mused on it for This American Life. It certainly was for me — it defined my relationship to Judaism for me much more than any synagogue; it shaped my character and my concern about people; it led me to be the type of person that just jumps in and does what needs to be done. Camp was “just do it” long before there was a Nike.

In my case, the camps were the Wilshire Blvd Temple Camps: Camp Hess Kramer (FB) and Gindling Hilltop Camp (FB). I started attending CHK in 1969, and added GHC in 1971, and continued at both camps until 1979. I tended to prefer GHC — it was the smaller camp, it was more informal, it was more individualistic. In those early years (Hilltop started in 1968, vs. Kramer’s 1952 start), Hilltop had that “pioneer” nature — you were not only at camp, you were making camp and establishing tradition. Studies have shown that Jewish summer camps such as these (and there are many many such camps) are much more effective in keeping kids Jewish than any religious school can ever be.

Bimah at GHC 2013A side effect of this is that whenever there is a chance for me to get to camp (at least one that I can afford), I go. This can be various alumni events at camp that have happened over the years; more recently, it has been the alumni shabbat events that are offered. On these Shabbat, a small number of alumni have the opportunity to go up to camp to join the session in progress for Shabbat. I’ve been going every year since they started in 2006 (you can read about all my camp posts here). This year comes on the heels of what could have been a disastrous fire: the Springs fire in May came one canyon away from camp. Luckily, camp survived and (according to Andrea, the director), they only evidence of the fire is at Sycamore Canyon where they go on beach day, and what is seen on hikes.

One reason camp is special is that it is one of the few places I feel spiritual. Normally, I have a more distanced relationship to Judaism. I love the traditions and the history, but a connection to G-d? Can you feel that in the concrete, marble, and steel chambers that most congregations erect? But at camp, it is totally different. When you are sitting out at the top of a hill in Malibu, it is impossible not to feel the connection. The view above of the ark should give you one example; just below is another view of the menorah on the hill at Hilltop.

Menorah at Hilltop 2013During the service, the fellow leading the service (I didn’t get his name) had some interesting observations. He noted that things have changed over the years — using the Birkat (prayer at the end of the meal), it has grown longer from just the last sentence to the much longer version they use today. Yet with all the change, things have stayed the same. The sprituality, the connection, the magic that the place conveys remains. The “safe”-ness that camp brings is still there, even over 40 years after my first visits. This was reemphasized during closing: the stars are the same, the sunsets are still beautiful (see the picture below). These don’t change.

But some things do change. Last night I found myself noting some of the changes as I stood back a bit and watched:

  • I was struck by the growing diversity of the camp community. When I attended camp, for lack of a better word, it was mono-color (and often, mono-cultured). You had the white middle-to-upper income Jewish children. This year, I was pleased to see the spectrum was changing, with children from a greater spectrum of ethnicities. This is a good thing; it reflects how society is melting together, as well as the fact that although Judaism is a religion and a culture, it is nether a race nor an ethnicity.
  • Sunset at Hilltop 2013Did I ever have that much energy? I was watching the campers and the counselors during the song sessions, dancing, and throughout the evening. Running, jumping, being completely open and out there. I don’t remember being that way — I have this image of me as the quiet kid off to the side. If I was that way, where did the energy go? Is this something being an adult saps away?
  • During the song session, they did the 59th Street Bridge Song, otherwise known as “Feeling Groovy”. I was struck by the realization that most of the kids probably have no idea who Simon and Garfunkel were.
  • My step is still there, but not for long. I heard rumors that they may finally start work on rehabbing the ampitheatre (I think they call it the teatron (תאטרון) now). This is good — the concrete steps are starting to break apart, and the stage has seen much better days.
  • I was surprised to see that Cabin 12 was empty this session. Evidently, they didn’t have enough boy campers. I have no idea whether this is a reflecting on camp declining in popularity, shifts in the ratio of boys to girls in Jewish youth, or a reflection of the cost of camp. I remember that when Erin went to camp, they had an excess of girls. I have a vague recollection of them having so many girls they had to coopt staff cabins for girl campers.
  • Pavillion at Hilltop 2013I noticed much more how Hilltop is blending into the background of the hills. In the past, driving up Pacific Coast Highway, as one crossed the Ventura County line, one would see the pavilion at the top of the mountain. Nowadays, it blends in so well and the trees have grown so much that you don’t notice it. Instead you notice the Menorah at both camps.
  • I looked for any evidence of the Springs fire, even going so far as to drive up Yerba Buena Road for a mile or two. I didn’t see anything, although I might have seen more had I gone as far as Boney Ridge. As I noted earlier, there evidently is evidence of the fire over in Sycamore Canyon. Yet again the camp lucked out with respect to the local brush fires — there seems to be something special protecting that place.

So that’s it for this year’s alumni shabbat.

Music: Hair – Actors Fund of America Benefit Recording (Laura Benanti): “Initials”


Vegas Doesn’t Win Over A Fire in Malibu

userpic=campAlthough we’ve been in Las Vegas today, it’s been a down day after all the museums yesterday. More importantly, since last night, my thoughts have been elsewhere — they’ve been at camp. You see, the Wilshire Blvd Temple Camps are just N of the county line off PCH. Specifically, they are at PCH and Yerba Buena Road, which is where the fire was heading last night. So I’ve been monitoring the Camp’s Facebook page and the twitter feed about the fire to find out what was happening at camp. It’s gotten close; the campers there were evacuated last night, and there was real risk had the fire continued S from Deer Creek Road. It was certainly burning further E near Boney Ridge and Circle X. Right now, it looks to have continued N into Hidden Valley. As for camp, according to the Jewish Journal:

The flames did not reach the 200-acre property shared by Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp in Little Sycamore Canyon, situated between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The blaze reached land adjacent to the property, on the other side of a ridge in the Santa Monica Mountains, according to Howard Kaplan, executive director of WBT, which owns and operates the camps.

No camp property was damaged, and the flames nearby were put out by Ventura County Fire Department firefighters, Kaplan said.

“Right now we’re fine, but we’re on standby because we have to be,” Kaplan told the Journal on Friday afternoon.

As long as this fire is burning, the camps are in danger, so keep thinking those good thoughts, folks.

So what did we do today? Relaxed. I monitored the fire situation and sat out by the pool. Tonight is a show at New York New York, and then picking up our daughter at the airport. Tomorrow…. Elton John!


A Very Special Birthday

Camp 60thToday, I went to a very special birthday party: a 60th birthday party for the Wilshire Blvd Temple Camps. This was a day where campers from the first year of camp (back in 1952) were invited back to Malibu to celebrate 60 years of Jewish camping on the coast. I had a blast; the day wasn’t long enough to do all I wanted to do and to take the time to see everyone I could have seen.

So let’s recap a bit what this was about, why this was special, what today was, what I saw, and what the future holds.

I’ve written about camp before, so as you might guess, this is an important place to me. The Wilshire Blvd Temple Camps — Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp — were started in 1952 and moved to Malibu in 1954 (if memory serves correct). They serve Jewish youth from about 4th grade to high school, with opportunities for older high school and college folks through staff positions. Over the years, they have touched thousands and thousands of young people, instilling in them a sense of connection to the Jewish community, and for many, a need to do service for the community at large through leadership positions, teaching, or just being good people who do good.

I attended the camps starting in 1969 and continued through 1979. I was both a camper and a counselor, but never in a “leadership” session (in my day, those were only at CHK), nor did I do a year as a CIT (counselor in training). I made a number of friends over those years — perhaps not folks I see regularly, but folks that when I do see them there is an instant bond, a hug, and a friendship where we know we would be there for each other. This is what camp does when you get to know people.

I got to see a number of folks like that today — folks who were fellow campers with me, folks that were my counselors, folks that were camp leaders. When I saw these folks, the years melted away. I didn’t seem them as “old” — I saw them as my counselors and friends, and teens and young adults they were in my memory. Last week I wrote about “Follies”, and how there were younger dancers echoing the people on stage. I think that’s how camp was: we didn’t see ourselves as the adults of today at camp; when we visit camp we are eternally young. This is one reason why this place is so special.

So you have memories combined with great people. For example, the picture at the right shows three generations of camp directors of Gindling Hilltop: from the far right to left: Steve Makoff, Andrea Cohen (the current director), and Chuck Feldman. I was at Hilltop during the years with both Steve and Chuck (and I see Andrea every Alumni Shabbat), and I don’t think I’ve seen either of them for years. It was great to reconnect with them — I got to see and talk to people that I haven’t seen in real life in ages (although, for some, I talk to them regularly on Facebook). This is just one thing that made today special.

I didn’t get to spend that much time at Hess Kramer, alas. Shortly after I got there, I had lunch and took the bus up to Hilltop, where I spent most of the midday. I did get to check on my step. which I last reported on in 2009. As background, I was running the arts and crafts group that painted the back of this step in 1979. I’m pleased to say that when I checked today, my name was still (barely) visible. I”m not sure it will last another year.

But things don’t last. One of the displays they had up in Baruh Hall was some planning sketches for future camp buildout. I’m not 100% sure I like the approach, but change is uncomfortable. The changes proposed were along the lines of the changes that were discussed four years ago in 2008:

  • At Camp Hess Kramer: They plan to build across Yerba Buena Road additional conference center and staff cabins. They will rework the entrance to bring people in closer to the field with a welcome center, with better hiding of service facilities. They plan to totally redo the old staff cabins (where the camp office and infirmary are now) to provide new multistory facilities and support around the Bruer lawn area. They also appear to want to totally revamp the cabin areas, building new two-story cabins and facilities, which would greatly increase camp capacity.
  • At Ginding Hilltop Camp, it looks like they want to increase lawn space. They would remove the existing girls cabin area and build a new area, and rework the upper area to move more staff cabins there. It also looks like there would be more nature trails and circulation.

Will these changes occur? Who knows? It is a long-term master plan, and by the time funding gets in place notions may change, or they may determine something better works. What it shows, however, is a commitment to the future, and not keeping the camps static. Keeping any facility static and dated drops participation. So whether I (as an Alumni) like it or not doesn’t matter: what matters is whether future campers and conferences facility users will like it — and I think they will. That’s what is important: keeping the pieces of the past that work, paying tribute to what built the foundation, and then moving forward to make the future successful. The planning shows that this is a goal.

It was just a wonderful relaxing day, surrounded by generally good people. Now to go “friend” some of the folks I hadn’t seen in years…



Alumni Shabbat

Last night was the alumni shabbat at camp. To explain: I went to Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp when I was young (1969-1979). The last few years, the alumni association has had a problem where alumni can return to camp for a Shabbat during a session. Last night was the Shabbat I selected; it was the first Shabbat of a week-long session with campers aged 7-10.

This Shabbat, in many ways, was a typical Alumni shabbat. You arrive. You do the walk around the cabin area to collect the campers and head off to Shabbat services. You have a camp shabbat service in the chapel at the top of a mountain, overlooking the Pacific ocean. You return to the dining hall for a dinner of chicken, rice pilaf (some years, it is noodles), and broccoli, with lemon puffs for dessert. You have a song session. You have dancing, You return home. This has been the basic structure of Shabbat at camp for years on end. Of course, there have been changes. The service has gone from something based on Union Prayer Book I to creative services to the current camp siddur based on Mishcon Tephilo (the current Reform prayerbook). Dinner has remained chicken. The song session has gone from campers with songbooks at the tables, led by Chuck Feldman on the piano or others on guitar to a raucous jump around session to modern songs, with lyrics projected on a screen, in the pavillion. Dancing has gone from the older Israeli dances (think Mayim and Zamir Atik) to a mix of old and modern Israeli dances to things like Flashdance. But it remains a fun and relaxing evening.

Last night, my daughter came with me. This added to the adventure in two ways. First was the travel… she’s on a learners permit, and I let her drive. This included driving on Kanan-Dume Road (a nice wide canyon road), Pacific Coast Highway, the road to Hilltop (a one-lane very twisty canyon road with no barrier to the cliff), and Decker Canyon/Westlake Blvd (a more typical twisty canyon road). This included both evening and night driving, including use of brights. I’m pleased to say she did very very well.

Bringing my daughter also had another motive. She is a camp alumni, having been at Hilltop in 2005. But she’s also gotten alienated from modern congregational Reform Judaism. Modern large congregations have become unwelcoming. The children, especially, have become overly focused on status and money, and what schools you go to and whether you grew up there and are part of their cliques. If you don’t meet those standards, your life is miserable. Erin’s been subjected to that at both Beth Hillel and Ahavat Shalom, and right now she has no desire to be a part of it. She wants to take a break from Judaism. I had been hoping that this camp visit might remind her about the good times that are possible when the people and place are right.

Did that work? Alas, no. It’s not that she had a bad time, but right now her experiences have left her unable to see the good under things. Perhaps that’s because the wound is still so fresh. So I’ll just have to be happy with the neutral for now, and trust that she’ll find her way when she’s off at college. We did have some interesting discussions about this over dinner with the camp director. What Erin feels is not uncommon, which is reassuring. There are different things that draw people to faith, customs, and shared history. For me, it was camp, not congregational Judaism. For others, it is college and Hillel or Chabad. For still others, it is when they start a family or deal with a family crisis. At some point, you can’t push anymore, and you have to trust that the background you laid will one way work its way up.

I did learn some interesting things, in particular that Wilshire has dropped their URJ membership. This is interesting—a number of congregations are doing this in the leaner financial times due to the dues, and the fact that URJ is doing less for the congregations. Are the umbrella organizations for congregations becoming ananchronistic? Perhaps, for Conservative Judaism is having the same problems. I’m sensing we’re in for a shift in congregational Judaism: synagogues are losing members, you’re seeing less movement-affiliated Judaism. Large size is important to congregational survival, but large size turns congregations into cold marble houses focused on fundraising and the donors, and the warmth and joy often disappear. Large Christian congregations don’t appear to have this problem—it would be curious to explore why. Small congregations have the warmth, but not the facilities or the long-term survival. So how do we get the small congregation feel in a large congregation? I’m thinking of something akin to small learning communities (i.e., multiple small congregations working together): The XXX community of Congregation YYY, that does its own programming, has its own mission, but shares the staff and clergy. This was one of the the ideas we discussed over dinner.

One of the other things we discussed was the changing economics of summer camps. There was a great article on this in the NY Times last week. The camps of my days could not survive these days. Getting kids to go weeks without their cherished electronics and communications with friends is hard.

Back to camp… in terms of changes, there wasn’t that much different this year. Some new songs. Perhaps a new dance. But the essential spirit remains. And I’ll be back up there next year for Alumni Shabbats, and perhaps other events over the year.


Reflections on Alumni Shabbat 2010

Last night, I went to my annual Alumni Shabbat at camp. No pictures this time (you can look at last year’s pictures here)—the camp infrastructure hasn’t changed that dramatically, save for the introduction of a sibling menorah to CHK up on the hill at the chapel. This is not to say that their weren’t changes; there were, just more subtle.

Now that the Alumni Shabbat have been going on a few years, they’ve got the process down pat (steadily building from what I saw at the first one back in 2006). Get the alumni together. Sweep in front of the cabins then off to the chapel for services. Dinner (chicken, starch, steamed veggies, apple popovers). Zmirot. Dancing. That was all the same, all good, all high energy.

What I notice first as I go through the evening are the changes, the evolution. The new freestanding metal menorah at Hilltop is an example of this. When Hilltop first started, there seemed to be a conscious effort to distance itself from its sibling camp. It had its own traditions. It did a different Birkot (Kramer only did the really short version). Cabins were numbered, not named. Slowly, over time, there has been convergence. So, arguably, the menorah is a reflection of that: emphasizing in a physical, permanant way that these two camps are siblings, and that Hilltop is the younger smaller sibling (for the newer menorah, due to wind exposure, is shorter and squatter). Alternatively, it could symbolize that Hilltop has reached adulthood: it is no longer a “Pioneer” camp, but an adult camp in its own ramp.

This year there was also a new resident director: Andrea Cohen, and unlike with last year’s resident director (Erin), I could detect subtle changes. Back in the days of Gersh, I detected a stronger Israeli vibe. I can’t put my finger on it: perhap it was in how Hebrew was used, perhaps it was in how things were emphasized. But this year I felt a subtle shift back to positive American Judaism (which to me, at least, is a good thing). But as I said, it was subtle. The Hebrew was still there; the words hadn’t changed. Perhaps it was in the tone of the Shabbat service: there were more camper contributions (like the old days), and a new prayerbook (based on Mishkon Tephilo) that gave a modern Reform emphasis. There also seemed to be a bit more of a sense of connection with the camp history.

As I’ve noted before, some old traditions are gone. Have the kids changed? Is this a reflection of society? I can’t answer that. I do know that our Zmirot song sessions, which were in the dining hall, at the table, with the songleaders up front (and often on a piano), with a reasonable volume level, have been replaced by a full-volume, on-your-feet, in-your-face aerobic singing festival in the pavillion, with lyrics projected. The songs written at camp in my era (such as “Cherish the Torah”), the shabbat songs we thought would never die (Mi Pi Ayl, Al Teeria, Or Zarua) and the Debbie Friedman repertoire have been replaced by the modern rock of folks like Rick Recht and the artists of the Ruach albums. Chuck’s music (Justice Justice, Sanctification, Sim Shalom) has disappeared without a trace. There were some songs in English—the old standby “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler, Twist and Shout, and a version of Louie, Louie called Pharoah, Pharoah (Whoa, Baby, Let My People Go).

Dancing has also changed. In my day (ahem, whippersnapper), the emphasis was on Israeli dance, which was (not surprisingly) what you tended to see from the 1960s and 1970s. Horas. Lots of accordions. Debkas. Doubles and triple dancing. There were a few of those, but there was much more Israeli modern rock dancing. The session also seemed shorter, but that could be because I was caught up in a conversion with another Alumni.

These changes don’t bother me. Camps must evolve to survive. The American Jewish camp has evolved into the American Jewish camp. The emphasis can’t stay in the past to please the parents; it must evolve to serve the changes in Judaism and the changes in today’s youth. Traditions evolve and grow, and bring people back to camp. There is still the strong love of the campers for camp; the strong friendships that are created; the sense of camp is a place that is home and safe and an accepting family that loves you. That’s what makes this a special place. Over the years, the love of people for the place is absorbed into the fabric of the infrastructure, until it reaches the point where it just envelops you as you start up the hill.

That is why I jump at the chance to go to camp whenever I can. Be it a visit to Hess Kramer or a visit to Hilltop. They offer (at a reasonable price) and I’ll be there. The place is part of my spirit; it regrounds and recenters me whenever I visit. I thank the leaders at the Wilshire Blvd Temple Camps for the opportunities they provide to visit, and for the hard work it takes to keep the place alive.

Lastly, as you can tell by my posts on camp over the years, this place is a very important piece of my life. It was my safe summer home for 10 years, from 1969 through 1979. It shaped my Judaism, it shaped my sense of self, it shaped my sense of what I could accomplish in the world, it shaped my need to do good and right. But it was my experience. What were your youthful shaping experiences? What did you do, growing up, that had the most impact on who you are today?


Shabbat Chill

Last night, I went to the second Alumni Shabbat at Gindling Hilltop Camp. These alumni shabbat provide the opportunity for former campers and counselors to come back to camp and reexperience Shabbat there. As I never turn down the opportunity to go to either Hilltop or Hess Kramer, I had my request in the moment things opened. Traffic on the coast highway was light (quite a surprise), and after chillin’ a bit at the Trancas Starbucks (where I parked next to Angelyne‘s pink corvette), I was up to camp around 5:30p. There weren’t a lot of changes this year physically (as compared to last year, when the dining hall was rebuilt), other than they had started remodeling and rebuilding the staff lodge (figure 1). To me it looked like it was completely remodeled, but discussions with someone indicated they had only done half of it.

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A Poll, or Should That Be Pole

Tomorrow evening, I’m going up to the Alumni Shabbat at Hilltop. For those not familiar with Hilltop, this is a camp on the top of a mountain near Malibu, so I’ll be walking up and down hills. Late last year I tweaked my lower back (LJ friends only details): at times it is good; at times it can be sore. So here’s the question: Should I bring my ren-faire staff (about a 4½’ sturdy walking pole) with me for the hike to the chapel? [Facebook folk: Just give your opinion in the comments]