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Summers at Camp Machanaim, 1929-1938

Camp Machanaim, “the American Camp With Jewish Spirit” for girls and boys was established in 1929 near Monticello, New York. The name Machanaim was consciously adopted from the biblical verse in Genesis, “And Jacob said when he saw them: `This is God’s camp.’ And he called the name of that place Machanaim.” The term denotes more than one camp. The camp’s logo, a Star of David with boys and girl in separate triangles marching with American and Zionist flags in the beautiful camp grounds -- independent groups united by the structure of the Magen David -- is indicative of the Jewish and American aspects at the core of the camp’s identity.

In 1929 and 1930 the camp published lavishly illustrated brochures with photographs of the camp’s facilities and activities : mountains, fields, Indian caves, bunks, an infirmary, sports such as baseball, basketball, handball and volleyball; swimming and boating; dramatics, arts and crafts; and the camp synagogue and “Licht Bentchen,” ushering in the Sabbath at camp.

The camp directors’ message to parents in a brochure was: “If you are planning to send your children to camp for the summer – then send them to CAMP MACHANIM. The American Camp with the Jewish Spirit, the camp which introduces into the lives of the children the flames of Judaism in so subtle a fashion that it is inculcated and moulded into their consciousness without any effort on their part, and you will be sure that they will spend a happy vacation and return home better Americans, more appreciative Jews and healthier children.”

A grateful father, a doctor in Monticello, reported proudly that his son, who was not exposed to Jewish studies during the year, “…was very happy in the strictly Jewish atmosphere of the camp. … My son has awakened a Jewish consciousness to which he strictly adheres all through the year. His only aim and hope is to see the approach of summer and with it his return to Camp Machanaim.” As a physician, he also praised the camp’s “beautiful and healthful mountain surroundings.”

The camp publicity material extolled the camp’s natural and physical qualities: “Machanaim consists of four hundred acres of land and forest – some of it wild and tempting to the childish explorer, particularly its fascinating Indian caves—a great deal of it cultivated—a lesson in nature study itself—far from the hot expanses of city streets –the hustle and bustle so harmful to children’s nerves—the dangers of play on unprotected avenues—yet withal, within such easy reach of town.”

The Jewish camp even had a Jordan “River”.

Who created the camp? The camp directors were Simon S. Yellen, principal of the Hebrew Day School in Jersey City, NJ; Elias Zolt, Cantor and Shochet at Congregation Sons of Israel of Jersey City, NJ; and Benjamin Greenspan, caterer and restauranteur of Jersey City, NJ.” Prospective applicants were advised: “For information about kashrus ask: Rabbi I. Siegal, Vice-president of Union of Orthodox Rabbis of United States and Canada.”

The brochure also described the camp’s kashruth standards under the rubric of “Cuisine:” “Not enough stress can be laid upon the excellence of the food at Machanaim. Our two kitchens are equipped with the finest, and under the direct supervision of the leading caterer in Jersey City. The Jewish Dietary Laws are strictly observed, not with the apparent laxity shown by others, but with a severeness which is a requisite of our tradition.

Today’s well-known Jewish sport with the mysterious origins, Machanaim, is not mentioned on the roster of camp sports, despite the identical names of the camp and the game. A related game, volley ball, was a favorite: “Volley Ball at Machanaim during the summer of 1929 entered the fraternity of the major sports, and was accorded equal rank and privilege with such seasoned veterans as tennis and basketball. The reason for this probably lies in the Blue and Gray competition, won by the Blue team after a heartbreaking struggle. This battle popularized the sport so that it was included in the regular routine of the day.”

The camp had close connections to Yeshiva College (YC), though there were no formal ties to the college. Many camp counselors and staff were students or employees at YC, such as Jacob Hartstein, head counselor during the summer, Registrar of YC the rest of the year, and his brother Sam, who later became Public Relations director at Yeshiva University.

The camp also hosted a hotel and guest facilities; brochures list notable visitors to the camp, among them: Rabbi Bernard Revel, President of YC; Samuel Sar, Dean of Men at YC; Harris Selig, campaign manager of YC’s million dollar drive, Rabbi Siegal (mentioned above), Leon M. Kramer, “leader and organizer of the Halevy Singing Society, and dean of Jewish musicians of America,” and Yiddish journalist Ephraim Kaplan of The Morning Journal, who wrote an article about the camp after his stay there. “Machanaim cordially invites the return of these guests.” Parents of campers were of course welcome as well.

The Camp Machanaim booklet of 1930 boasts a beautiful cover with the title Brashis and a story entitled “. . . Machanaim. . .” a reprise of Jacob’s escape from his relative and father-in-law Laban in Padan Aram and Jacob’s journey back to the Promised Land with his family. The story, by A. Herbert Greenberg, ends with these lines: “He was hushed by the splendor of the place where the immensity of life and happiness had burst upon him – the pathway between the camp of servitude and a garden of harmony. And he called the name of that place Machanim.” Brashis [Genesis] means beginnings; the cover alludes to Jacob’s journey, the story explores the beauty of Jacob’s path from exile back home to new beginnings and implies that the modern Camp Machanaim is a “garden of harmony,” a place of renewal. The booklet closes with an image of a young student dreaming about returning to Camp Machanaim during the school year.

Yeshiva University Archives holds materials on the camp in the Jacob Hartstein Papers; the latest information on the camp dates from 1938.

In the past twenty-five years, academic Jewish scholarship has focused on summer camps as a force in creating Jewish identity. Camp Machanaim was a pioneering venture in this field.

Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger