Summer Camp Memories
Thanks to a Rockville man’s persistence, summer campers reunite 30 years later.
One of Allen Goldberg’s enduring memories is of movie night at Camp Tel Shalom, a Jewish summer camp that operated near Capon Bridge, W. Va., from 1974 to 1979. “There was this girl I had a total crush on—every guy at camp had a crush on her,” says Goldberg, 46, who grew up in Bethesda and Potomac. “I remember sitting next to her when we were watching The Wizard of Oz, and I put my arm around her. It was the first time I had any contact with a girl. As I mark milestones in my life, that was a starting point.”
But when Goldberg encountered his former crush 30 years later at a meeting to plan a Camp Tel Shalom reunion, he learned a brutal truth: “She has no memory of it,” Goldberg says, shaking his head with amazement. “While for me, that was lasered into my brain.”
What happens three decades later when you see across a crowded room the first girl you ever put your arm around or the first boy you ever kissed? Some alumni of Camp Tel Shalom found out when they attended a camp reunion in September at Adas Israel Congregation in Northwest Washington, D.C. “You wonder whether he’ll even remember, but he did,” Laura Apelbaum, 49, of Chevy Chase says about a long-ago summer boyfriend. Apelbaum went to Tel Shalom as a 15-year-old in 1974. “He came right over and introduced me to his wife.”
Navigating the sometimes choppy waters of romance was only part of the experience shared by the preteens and teens who spent four weeks in rustic wood cabins at a lush green campsite known as Buffalo Gap. The communal experience of Jewish faith and practice also instilled a sense of pride in many Bethesda-area campers. “By the end of camp,” says reunion organizer Barry Eisenberg, 45, of Rockville, “you went back to school and the more diverse, secular world still equipped with at least some of that gained confidence.”
Exasperated by his Hebrew school students’ reluctance to spend their vacation days in a classroom, Adas Israel Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz came up with the idea of leading them into the wilderness. “I made a deal with the kids,” says Rabinowitz, now 92. “If they would go to camp, we’d cancel Sunday school at Adas Israel. We had the whole curriculum out there, and they learned just as much.”
After only a week at camp, Eisenberg says, “you were amazed when you could chant the birkat hamazon [the Hebrew grace after meals]—and enjoy it. Camp was the sugar that made the medicine go down for a kid like me.” But camp was also a place where “you walked a little taller and with more of a strut to your step. You were more assured and flirtatious with the opposite sex than at school.”
“At camp,” Goldberg says, “I had a whole robust social life that was better than my secular life, my life at Churchill [High School in Potomac]. It was almost like I had this secret identity. I was popular. I was the emcee of the talent show. I was a funny guy. I was able to break through because it was a smaller pond, and a pond filled with like fish.”
A couple of years ago, for no reason he could discern except that he was entering his mid-40s, Eisenberg began to feel nostalgic about the summers he spent at Tel Shalom from 1974 to 1977. Although many of his fellow campers were from Montgomery County, Eisenberg, who grew up in Silver Spring and attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, lost touch with them over the years. What had become of the girls he’d fallen in love with? What about the college-age counselors whose maturity and sophistication he’d admired?
Eisenberg searched Google for Camp Tel Shalom and got only one result: a 2004 blog entry entitled “Dear Henry,” which was one of a series of letters written by Goldberg, a former fellow camper, to his son Henry, who died of Fanconi’s anemia in 2002 at the age of 9. Reporting that Henry’s younger brother Jack had just returned from summer camp, Goldberg wrote, “When I was a kid I went to Adas Israel’s Camp Tel Shalom, but that isn’t around anymore.”
Reading Goldberg’s letters, Eisenberg became acutely aware of how much time had passed since camp. “People I still pictured as kids had married, had careers, raised families and, inevitably, suffered tragedies,” he says. With some trepidation, Eisenberg sent Goldberg an e-mail and, to his relief, the response was enthusiastic. The men arranged to meet at Eisenberg’s office at The Society of the Plastics Industry on K Street, where he is director of communications and marketing. Eisenberg recalled his fellow camper as a short, skinny redhead. When Goldberg, now a 6-footer, walked into the office, Eisenberg remarked: “You’ve gotten big.”
“I grew late in college,” Goldberg replied.
A marketing officer for FKF Applied Research, which performs brain scans to assess consumers’ unconscious reactions to products, Goldberg says he’s fascinated by the disparate memories people have of a shared event. He still isn’t sure he recalls Eisenberg from camp. “The name sounded familiar,” he says, “in the way any Jewish name sounds familiar.”
The two men hit it off and began discussing the idea of tracking down other Tel Shalom campers and organizing a reunion. But how would you find people you’d known before the arrival of the Internet? Eisenberg dug up envelopes full of some faded group photos he’d saved. Goldberg was amazed that Eisenberg was able to look at the photos and match the names on the envelopes to the faces.
“I don’t know how I do it,” Eisenberg says. “Even if people really weren’t my friends, I can remember their names. I suppose it was because of the communal thing at camp, hearing their names over and over. Because if you ask my wife, I’m not like that anymore.”
“I think Barry is wasting his skills in the plastics industry,” Goldberg says. “He could be a private detective tracking down lost people.”
Goldberg and Eisenberg set up a Camp Tel Shalom Web site, and gradually, with the assistance of Internet sites that help locate people, the list of former campers grew.“ For a while, Barry and I wondered if we were the only ones into this,” Goldberg says. “Then we started hearing from people. They were just floored.” Former campers posted their own photos, building a ’70s-era slide show of cutoff jeans, guitars and free-flowing hair. When alumni couldn’t be reached online, letters were sent to their parents, using the addresses from mimeographed camp rosters. What was surprising, Goldberg says, given the Washington area’s reputation for transience, was how many families were still living in their former childhood homes. He also realized that some of the parents he’d been running into daily as they picked up their kids from preschool at Adas Israel were former campers whom he hadn’t recognized in their adult incarnations.
“We realized we needed to do the reunion as quickly as possible, before everyone became unrecognizable,” Eisenberg says.
Out of 140 former campers contacted, Eisenberg says, only two responded negatively. He was taken aback by an email he received from his “first-ever” girlfriend, the curly-haired, blond daughter of a rabbi. “She says she was at my 11th birthday party the winter after camp, and I don’t even remember inviting any girls,” Eisenberg says. “She says I called her the next day and told her in a rather cold way that I didn’t want to see her anymore. I have no memory of this, but she needed to tell me, 30 years later.”
Nearly 70 former Tel Shalom campers signed up to attend the reunion. “Everyone had this one person they wanted to connect with the most—their first love or whatever,” Goldberg says. “For me, it was my friend John Miller. But there are a million John Millers, so you can’t just Google the guy.” Goldberg started a Facebook page and posted a picture of himself with Miller. A day or two later, Miller, who also had a Facebook page, saw the photo and got in touch. It turned out that he was a professional reunion planner living in Colorado. Although Miller was unable to attend the reunion, “we were able to use his planning know-how,” Goldberg says.
On the evening of Saturday, Sept. 6, with Tropical Storm Hanna moving up the East Coast, Goldberg and Eisenberg decorated the Gerwitz reception hall at Adas Israel with balloons, reproductions of group photos and copies of an old camp newsletter. Kosher hors d’oeuvres, drinks and a surprise birthday cake for Marshall Green, the former camp director, had been ordered. Then the campers and counselors began to arrive. They were men and women in their 40s and 50s, wearing cocktail dresses, high heels and jackets and ties. People hugged and exclaimed over how wonderful everyone looked. They laughed at the old pictures of themselves—the funny clothes, the untamed hair.
“It’s like no time has passed,” says Lisa Muchnick Pote, 48, who attended Walt Whitman High School and flew in from Nashville, Tenn., where she works as a consultant to nonprofits.“ We’re all wider, grayer, but the same. I’ve run into an old romance. It was never serious, but memorable. Not a Friday night goes by when I don’t think about the Sabbaths we had at camp, the rousing singing in the dining hall.”
“I remember the guys who organized this as my kids,” says Susannah Sirkin, 53, who worked as a counselor during the summers when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Sirkin, who grew up in Bethesda, India and Greece, traveled to the reunion from Boston; she works for Physicians for Human Rights based in Cambridge, Mass. “All week I’ve been saying, ‘I’m going to seemy kids,’ and these are men in their 40s.”
Rochelle Helzner, 55, of Rockville, who attended John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, was a counselor with a crystalline singing voice that many campers remembered from 1977 and 1978. Now she is the cantor at Rockville’s Tikvat Israel Congregation. Strumming her guitar, she led a spirited singing of the Havdalah service, the candlelit prayers marking the end of the Sabbath. The women linked arms and danced the hora.
The food went mostly untouched, although everyone gathered around the cake to sing “Happy Birthday” to Green, who was turning 64. Green, a Capitol Hill resident and an administrator of The Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, says he was “overwhelmed.” He shook his head over a photo of himself sporting a mane of thick brown hair and a luxuriant mustache. “I may not remember you now,” he says, “but I remember you when you were 8, 10, 12 years old.” He recalled many trips with injured campers to the nearest hospital in Winchester, Va. “It was over dirt roads, if you even could call them roads,” Green says. “And imagine, this was before cell phones.”
Nancy Boorstein of Potomac, 44, who graduated from Churchill High in 1982, showed off a scar on her knee from five stitches she’d gotten at Winchester Hospital. Somebody threw a watermelon at her when she was 8, she says.
“Camp Tel Shalom was an experiment that worked,” declared Rabbi Rabinowitz. He is now white-haired and walks with a cane, but his voice is still resonant and authoritative.
“My mother says he could move people to tears just by reading the phone book,” Laura Apelbaum says.
“I am glad to see so many of you here, fertile and married,” Rabinowitz concluded. “Actually, married first and fertile second—and that’s the proper order.”
Eisenberg then spoke, describing how he and Goldberg originally made contact through Goldberg’s letters to his son Henry. “I think it’s just wonderful that the catalyst for a camp reunion is a child,” Eisenberg says.
The evening wore on, but people lingered. It was far better than a high school reunion, several alumni remarked: warmer, friendlier, no cliques. Old friends posed for new group photos. Future and more frequent reunions were proposed, now that everybody is back in touch—maybe regular Sabbath potlucks?
Eisenberg’s curly-haired girlfriend of 30 years ago did not attend. Later, she wrote to Eisenberg that she would have liked to come, but that her husband was away and her children were to be in a dance performance that night. The air was cleared over the fallout of his long ago birthday party, Eisenberg says, and they have since exchanged several cordial e-mails. She wrote to congratulate him on the success of the reunion, and to suggest that the next be held at her parents’ home in Bethesda: “I can make sure to be there,” she wrote, “and my dad can have Rabbi Rabinowitz to schmooze with.”
Kathleen Wheaton is a freelance writer in Bethesda.