Strong Campers, Strong Women

All-girl Jewish camps have a long history of successfully encouraging girls to be all they can, on the playing fields and beyond.

Camp Walden, on Walden Pond in southern Maine, and Camp Greylock for Girls, of blessed memory, on Racquette Lake in New York’s Adirondacks, are good old nonreligious all-girl camps run by smart, strong, idealistic Jewish women and attracting mostly Jewish campers. These women imprinted their values on girls who grew up to be successful women, many of them sending their own daughters to Camp Walden and other all-girl camps.

Helen Herz Cohen, 90, went from Walden camper to counselor to owner; she was the niece of one of the two women who founded the camp back in 1916. White-haired, in wrinkled khaki Bermudas, short-sleeved knit shirt and white tennis shoes, she is still the heart of the camp, though her daughter, Wendy, 51, now directs Walden.

Naomi Levine, 80 this year, special assistant to the president of New York University, chair and executive director of the NYU Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, grew up poor, never went to camp, and insists she’ll never know what compelled her to take over Camp Greylock. Once started, Levine, 32 at the time, with zero camp experience, was “driven to keep it alive.”

Both camps created safe, idealistic places that imparted the belief that all girls have something they can do well, and that girls should have opportunities for leadership.

Levine, a civil rights lawyer, was head of the women’s division of American Jewish Congress when she and her husband bought Camp Greylock. She was AJC national executive director at the end of the Greylock adventure, taking two months off each summer to run the camp. Her husband, Leonard, an accountant who died two years ago, dutifully drove up from New York City each weekend to keep the rickety place running from 1955 to 1971, when they closed the camp doors for the last time.

Greylock may be history, but what it gave its girls lives on, as demonstrated by the 1995 reunion of 110 past campers at the campsite, where the old social hall still stands near what is now city folks’ second homes. The video made by an NYU camera crew makes it clear the girls—now women—adore Naomi Levine. A no-nonsense woman, white hair, wire-frame glasses, tan pants, navy blazer, she is an unlikely object of adoration from the screaming, kissing, hugging, teary-eyed middle-aged women. They remember her as “a strong woman who said you could do anything you put your mind to.” She had, and they did.

Though many have intermarried and one baptized her son in Raquette Lake (“Insanity,” says Levine), they arrived with their Friday night prayer booklets, something Levine had put together using the Reform service and her own selections. The Sabbath candles were brown and green, Greylock team colors.

Levine was not one for sports. She says that she hated the water, was terrified of swimming and believed you should go sailing only when there was no wind. She made everyone wear breastplates on the softball field after a camper was hit by a ball. She says she took no pleasure in overnight camping: “I couldn’t figure out how to go to the bathroom in the woods.” Her idea of a perfect camp day was when rain kept everyone inside and the girls played jacks or read The New York Times. But the girls learned to excel in sports, took pride in swimming with superb form, and once they could swim to a distant island, felt unstoppable. Levine believes that part of camp is “exposing you to try things you wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Levine’s campers credit her with empowering them. They were intelligent, attractive, from Jewish homes in Philadelphia and Great Neck, and welcomed the chance for a summer away from boys. In fact, the male counselors (Levine says, “I didn’t want a nunnery; I like men.”) say their experience formed their appreciation of women as friends and colleagues, not just dates and mates. A former tennis counselor remembers the summers as “our only opportunity to see how unencumbered women are when no men are around.”

The way the former campers see these formative years in the 1950s and ’60s: “We talked about politics. Naomi taught us about women’s liberation. She expected a lot from everyone and that’s what she got.” From another Greylock girl: “When you were at Greylock, you were your real self-People saw your good, your bad. They loved you for your real self I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t come here.”

Levine sent three girls home for rudeness after the first summer. “If you picked on other girls, made people feel inadequate, you didn’t belong here,” she believed. That extended to color wars: “It’s very important to behave graciously when you win.” With little experience dealing with problem campers, after the first year Levine empowered the senior bunk to handle all discipline problems.

Levine sought out counselors who were fine teachers. One was a cultural anthropologist. Counselors from the South shared personal perspectives on civil rights. The Greylock girls remember Levine talking about privilege, “not just that you had it but that you’re called upon to do something with it.”

A kindred philosophy attracts an almost entirely Jewish group of girls to Camp Walden in Denmark, Maine. And those values extend to The Main Idea at Camp Walden, a free 10-day camp for poor, inner city girls from New York, Boston, Hartford, Connecticut, and Maine, whose families’ eligibility for food stamps determines the girls’ eligibility for the special camp session after the regular season. Since its start in 1968, The Main Idea has been funded largely by former Walden campers and their families. Contributing to the $ 100,000 budget for 100 girls, young Walden campers have given money from their allowances and bat mitzvah gifts. Helen Herz Cohen says that her goal is “to try to give [The Main Idea campers] a new window in life, see something different, inspire them to do something with their lives.”

Cohen started as a Walden camper in 1924 and worked as a counselor before taking over as director in 1940. Still playing tennis at 90, she’s “Ms. Herz” from May to September and Mrs. Cohen, wife of tax attorney Edwin Cohen the rest of the year. She believes that an all-girls’ camp “helps you develop confidence in making decisions.”

At the traditional girls’ camp, where the eight-week summer experience now costs $6,650, Walden has 140 campers ages nine to 15 who generally stay five or six years. One-third are the children, grandchildren and or nieces of previous generations of Walden campers. And traditions continue, like the Walden honor system, started by the camp’s founders as a way of dealing both with internal discipline and with the likelihood that parents and other loving relatives would try to smuggle food into camp.

When Cohen took over Walden, the first young refugees from Hitler were already among the campers. She remembers one young girl who repeatedly carved her name into the infirmary’s wooden floor. Cohen says that no matter how often she was made to sand off” her name, she kept carving away because “this is a free country.”

During the war years, campers made clothes, picked corn and beans, and were trained to spot airplanes. They raised money for refugee children’s camps in Europe, and Walden kept going with food and gas stamps.

Now, as part of Walden’s mission to help the campers develop a sense of responsibility, 12-year-olds handle the mail and 13-year-olds run the candy store. At 14, the girls begin leadership roles, with 14- and 15-year-olds invited to volunteer as junior counselors at The Main Idea. Sunday morning discussions are an enduring camp tradition, as campers of all ages discuss honesty, thoughtfulness, consideration. It may sound old-school, but it resonates both with the campers themselves and with their mothers.

One woman, connected to Walden as camper, counselor and parent, from 1937 through 1970, described Cohen’s abilities: “For her counselors, she expected excellence and got it. There was something mystifying about the way she managed to extract a little more when you thought you were doing your best. You didn’t want to disappoint her because then you would disappoint yourself…. To the campers, she was a grownup who was on your side. She saw something of value in each girl.”