By Herb Levine, Soundly Jewish Editor
"This is a jewel of a camp," Camp Solomon Schechter executive director Sam Perlin told us, "with a special place in the Pacific Northwest Jewish community." Generations of campers in our region would agree. The lakeside site in Tumwater south of Olympia offers sun, woods, water, and a bit more. "We teach the skills of Jewishness," Perlin said.
Gimmel is great
In the Pacific Northwest, Perlin said, more parents than on the East Coast want to vacation with their kids, and seem to prefer shorter camp sessions. CSS is unusual because it offers three three-week sessions separated by age, which is "great for programming."
When we visited the third session -- Gimmel -- was in full swing. There were 215 campers from those entering 8th grade to 10th, cared for by 70 staffers and an additional 20 kitchen staff. The 12 cabins each had two counselors. During the first two sessions the younger kids had also had two "Oded" campers, counselors-in-training entering 11th grade, in their cabins.
We were able to speak with four veteran CSS campers enjoying their first experience of Gimmel, all from the Soundly Jewish coverage area.
Alex Kaplowitz and Danny de Jesus of Olympia are both 13, entering 8th grade, graduates of the Beit Sefer at Temple Beth Hatfiloh. Danny was in his fourth year at CSS. Alex thought it had been about seven years.
How did they like their first summer in Gimmel? They agreed it was great, with fewer rules, and more freedom. "Everyone is more whatever about everything," Danny said, and he liked it that way. In particular, the boys appreciated the greater freedom to decide whether or not to participate in activities.
Their cabin counselors were 17, the boys said, one of them Israeli. What's he like? He likes to fool around with an air horn.
We also spoke with two 13-year-old girls, Emily Blitman and Sarah Haas. Emily is from Olympia and affiliated with Beth Hatfiloh. Sarah is from Tacoma and affiliated with Temple Beth El, the granddaughter of current Beth El president Kate Haas. Emily has attended CSS for three years, Sarah for six or seven.
Like the boys, the girls valued the increased freedom in Gimmel, including a bedtime at 10:30 p.m., not 9:30. The were glad there were "no Odeds" and they only had their two counselors in their cabin. They also enjoyed being able to listen to their own music. They appreciated the programming for teenagers, especially the dances.
Although Emily noted that "sometimes the cabins are a bit overwhelming," both girls said generally everyone gets along. Emily said, "You don't get the bullying you may experience in public school." Sarah agreed, and added, "There are no real cliques."
A 'Jewish chick' who rocks
We were able to sit in at the CSS amphitheater as Jewish rocker Naomi Less and her band, on tour from their base in Brooklyn, rehearsed the evening's entertainment. They were working up "Shout 'em Out (1 to 10)," a song about the 10 commandments (check out the cartoon video). When they took a break, they played "CSS Forever" on the sound system, a collaborative song-writing and production project they'd just completed with some of the campers.
The band includes Less (co-writer, lead singer and guitar), Shahar Mintz (lead guitar), Ziv Shalev (bass and vocals) and Glenn Grossman (drummer, co-writer, music producer and Less's husband). They released their first CD, The Real Me, last March. We caught them in the midst of their summer Jewish camp tour, stopping at CSS between Baltimore and "BB Camp" (B'nai B'rith Camp) in Lincoln City, Ore.
"First and foremost I'm a Jewish educator," Less told us, engaging kids in exploring their identities through music. Through her Jewish Chicks Rock project, she aims to "empower younger girls" as a role model and through a proactive program. She considers herself a Jewish feminist, grateful for the progress made by Jewish women before her. Last Pesach she led a University of Washington Hillel Seder in Seattle, an "inclusive Seder with a feminist lens."
An independent camp with Conservative roots
CSS is "an independent camp with our roots in Conservative Judaism," executive director Sam Perlin said. The campers come from many denominations, although most are Conservative. CSS is kosher and Shabbat observant. There are Orthodox campers, but "our halachah is Conservative," under Perlin's own supervision.
This is Perlin's fourth summer at CSS, which he first got to know as a parent. He brought 20 years of coaching and teaching to the job, including stints as the athletic director at Seattle Academy and an Orthodox day school in Baltimore. Perlin is a member of Seattle's Congregation Beth Shalom (Conservative).
Perlin said he will recruit from any synagogue that welcomes him, but CSS has a number of "affiliated" Conservative synagogues, including Congregation B'nai Torah in Olympia, two in Seattle and three in Vancouver. Some 600 campers attend each season, of whom about 125 are Canadian. Most come from the urban areas of Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Spokane.
There are some campers from other regions, and this year there are 20 from Israel, all from secular homes, most from Tel Aviv.
"We are different from Ramah," Perlin said, and nonaffiliated as a matter of policy. Why? "Conservative Jews of the Pacific Northwest are unique," Perlin explained, and CSS provides the "perfect balance of Conservative halachah and secular camping" for these Jews.
'There are plenty of Jewish kids to go around'
CSS has an annual budget of $1.6 million, Perlin said. In the off season he spends time recruiting campers and staff, but fund raising is a large part of his job.
He noted that for years CSS was the only Jewish camp in this region. Some CSS campers switched to URJ Camp Kalsman once the Reform camp opened in 2007. But "Kalsman is good for Schechter," he said. "There are plenty of Jewish kids to go around." The more kids who attend Jewish camps the better.
"The bigger the pie, the bigger Schechter's share," Perlin said. "We are collaborators in the cause of Jewish camps."
CSS has long attracted campers from Tacoma and has a "campership" program set up for Tacoma-area campers, the Robert (Bobby) Rosenthal Scholarship, named after the late son of Rabbi Richard Rosenthal (z"l), the founding rabbi of Temple Beth El. Perlin recruits at Beth El every year.
The tuition per camper for 2011 was $2,155 for three weeks. Payments from parents were supplemented by support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle for Washington State students, and incentive grants for new campers from the Foundation for Jewish Camp). But tuition from all sources only covered 75 percent of the camp's operating budget, Perlin said.
And additional 12.5, percent, he explained, came from CSS scholarship funds, and the final 12.5 percent from rental income during the off season. The cabins are heated, he said, and CSS is available during the non-camp year for rentals of all kinds, including Shabbatons, b'nai mitzvah, and synagogue and youth retreats.
Open to all points of view
CSS has Conservative roots, but recruits campers and staff with other backgrounds. "We are unabashedly Zionist," he said, "but open to all points of view."
"Like your website," he told us, CSS "unites rather than divides."