Once there was a verdant, spirited land where Hebrew songs and Zionist musings were on the lips of children. No, not Israel, but the chain of Massad summer camps in the Poconos.
They closed more than 20 years ago, but with the future of Israel more precarious and precious than ever, thoughts of the Massad dreamscape have prompted a reunion Sunday at the Ramaz Upper School.
There the dream will live again, if only for an afternoon.
Massad, a Hebrew-speaking Modern Orthodox camp, originated as a Far Rockaway day camp in the Holocaust summer of 1941, growing to three sleepaway camps — Alef, Bet and Gimmel. Then, with Hebrew and Israel fully reborn — and the thrill somewhat gone for a summer of saying “Pass the cereal” and
Jewish Theological Seminary “double play” in the holy tongue — Massad closed its camps, one by one, until in 1981 it was no more.
Rabbi Meir Moskowitz, a longtime Massad staffer and now the chairman of the Ramaz Bible and Talmud department, says the reunion will be a time for videos and memorabilia and old friends, but “at the same time to renew that commitment to Israel that was so important to us when we were campers. That’s what Massad was all about.”
The streets of the camp and its wooden buildings were named after Herzl, Chana Senesh, Henrietta Szold, Chaim Nachman Bialik and other Zionist heroes.
It was a place where children knew of Trumpeldor and Rav Kook and were literate in the basic Zionist arts and culture. Hebrew theater and literature was breathed in as naturally as the country air.
“Today,” says Rabbi Moskowitz, “aside from camp, Hebrew plays and literature are not even taught in schools,” and are alien to even modern Jewish artists and professionals.
Yet Massad was an inspiration for many. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who like Rabbi Moskowitz held various positions at Massad, told a reporter several years ago about a Tisha b’Av in 1945. He was 13, and sat with other campers on the floor of Ulam Bialek as Lamentations was read by candlelight and camp founder Shlomo Shulsinger cried as he spoke of how important it was that the Jewish people return to their homeland.
“If I had to pinpoint when Zionism became an integral part of my identity, it would be that summer night,” Rabbi Lookstein says.
Rabbi Moskowitz was a child survivor of the Holocaust who made it to prestate Israel and then America to find his mother.
Finding Massad was his “return,” at least for his summers, to the sounds of his sweet Hebrew and Zionist dreams, an imaginary future where Jews would be safe and their culture revived.
When his children grew they made aliyah, but now he sends his grandchildren bulletproof vests to wear to school.
“Its something I never imagined,” Rabbi Moskowitz says.
As the Jewish state was founded and matured, the excitement and aspiration to such literacy didn’t grow, as the Massad leaders expected, but wilted and became passe, even among families that strongly supported Israel.
Rabbi Moskowitz remembers that at the end, the camps had trouble finding campers and especially counselors who had the requisite Hebrew fluency, let alone the old Zionist spirit, even though Massad’s alumni were many and Jewish day schools were expanding. The camp increasingly relied on Israeli counselors but, says Rabbi Moskowitz, “they didn’t understand American children.”
To add to the indignity, the grounds of Massad Bet were taken over by a chasidic children’s camp, which promptly replaced all the Hebrew signs with Yiddish.
Modern Hebrew vernacular was still in its formative years in the 1940s when Massad published its own hardcover Hebrew dictionary. Every camper got one.
“The shelet [large sign] at the agam [the waterfront] listed the Hebrew words for crawl, breaststroke and so forth,” recalls Harvey Lederman, a Manhattan real estate executive.
Lederman says Massad’s Hebrew was “quite unique.”
“In high school Hebrew class one day I used the word tzimriyah [from tzemer, wool] to mean sweater. My teacher, who was Israeli, looked at me very directly and exclaimed, ‘You went to Massad, didn’t you?’ ” he recounts. “When I said I had, she proceeded to tell me that there was no such word for sweater in Hebrew and, in fact, a sweater in Hebrew was called, well, a svetter! Anyway, I still prefer tzimriyah.”
Shira Dicker remembers the fusion of American-Israeli culture: “We listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young alongside Chava Alberstein.”
David Sable, an advertising executive, calls Massad “the modern religious Zionist dream: the basketball player who could daven and lein, the unself-conscious coed atmosphere.
“For many of us, Massad was our first taste of Israel. There was a camaraderie built around our Jewishness in the most positive way,” he says.
Dicker adds, “Against the nightmarish backdrop of war, memories of my summers at Camp Massad evoke the words of the Israeli poem ‘Ve’ulai,’ (‘What If?’), in which the poet looks back on her life and the beauty of Lake Kinneret, concluding, ‘Oh, Kinneret, my Kinneret, did you really exist, or did I dream?’
“Here is my wish, on the eve of a Shabbat in a world changed beyond recognition: Return me to a Friday night at Camp Massad, let me stand in my blue skirt and white blouse, joined by friends, partaking in the ceremony known as mifkad, breathless with excitement, full of hope.”
The Massad reunion takes place Sunday, April 21, 2-5 p.m., at Ramaz Upper School, 60 W. 78th St.