The Stage is Set
World War II was over. Millions of Americans put their hopes and energy into building lives of promise and opportunity throughout the United States. The state of Israel was still a dream.
In the United States, Jewish education and summer camps followed traditional forms, offering study and education, mainly in the form of day camps for city youth. In the Poconos Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania in the summer of 1945, the American Zionist Youth Commission sponsored Brandeis Camp, featuring a new approach to education.
That summer, Harry and Rose Rosenthal, a couple from St. Paul sent their daughter, Midge and her cousin, Beth Mendelsohn, to Brandeis Camp. While they didn’t know it at the time, the experience, the approach and the opportunity suggested at Brandeis Camp germinated over the following winter. When the children came back enthusiastic about the experience, they began to think about whether such a venture with its Zionist philosophy could be organized in the Midwest. The Rosenthals contacted lay community leaders and Rabbis from St. Paul and Minneapolis concerning their idea.
As they attacked the goal of establishing a Zionist camp, the Rosenthals adopted the same can-do attitude that has characterized Herzl Camp going forward. They gathered a visionary group to work to open a camp in the summer of 1946.
A New Regional Camp is Born
Herzl Camp’s first site was a campsite previously operated by the National Council of Jewish Women in White Bear Lake, outside St. Paul, Minnesota. Ethel Levey, in her spirited account in the Twenty-fifth anniversary booklet, notes, “We rented a dilapidated and abandoned campsite at White Bear Lake as our first experiment in Jewish camping…At the end of the season the objectives of the camp had been fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams.” From the very first summer, the intention was to make Herzl available to all Jewish youth, wherever they lived, and whatever their financial means.
In its first summer, Herzl welcomed 60 campers from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. A three-week session was $40. Campers were selected on the basis of merit, personality, Jewish background, possibilities for leadership and general interests. For the camp to be successful, a strong leader was needed. Rabbi Walter Plaut and his wife Hadassah were chosen as Herzl’s first directors, coming to camp with backgrounds in camping and youth work.
The Herzl Camp we know today bears a strong relationship to the Herzl Camp molded by the Plauts. Our concepts of ruach, involvement, acceptance and learning about ourselves, Israel and Judaism in a fun environment are Herzl traditions that began with the Plauts.
In its first brochure, Herzl Camp’s aim was “to bring a child closer to Jewish life and the Jewish people… to prepare the child to absorb the content and values of modern Palestine… to enlist the child’s interest and help in building of the Jewish national homeland.” In its first year, camp sessions were offered for children ages 12 and above. From the beginning, athletics, waterfront activities, recreation, music, dancing, cultural and creative events were all components of the Herzl experience.
In the first summer, the vision of the founders was no longer a dream. The objectives of the original board had been met: Campers had a good time; they wanted to return to camp.
Going to Webster
Even though Herzl Camp’s first summer was successful programmatically and filled the White Bear Lake site, the board of directors had its hands full making sure camp would continue. The White Bear Lake campsite had been sold to developers and a new site had to be found. Harry and Rose Rosenthal and Irv and Celia Waldman spent winter weekends searching for another campsite.
Eventually, they found the site on Devils Lake in Webster, Wisconsin. With the help of 30 donors, who each contributed $1,000, The Log Cabin Inn, ironically a “gentiles-only” establishment, became the home of Herzl Camp. The farmhouse was converted into a dining hall and kitchen. One of the larger fishing cabins became an activities building and a minimum of additional plumbing was added to make the site accessible to campers.
As the camp built its reputation, its regional character grew. Children came to Herzl Camp from dozens of small communities where Jewish children had few role models and limited cultural institutions. At Herzl Camp, they learned what it meant to be Jewish, to practice cultural and religious traditions, and to live a Jewish life.
The Fifties: the Ulam Arrives
Camp continued to grow: 60 campers in 1946 were followed by 159 campers the next year. They came from 10 states and 40 cities. They included children from China and Yugoslavia, as well as Holocaust survivors. Herzl Camp was a success from almost its first minute. Twin Cities community members saw to it that there were adequate funds to modify the existing facility so that campers from far and wide could attend.
In 1949, Mr. and Mrs. George Kaplan donated $17,000 to build a new recreation building – the Ulam. The Kaplans also chaired a building campaign raising enough money to build three new cabins and purchase a walk-in freezer and cooler. The Camp’s archives record the fact that before the end of the 1940s, Herzl Camp was attracting campers from “coast to coast.” Herzl Camp was ready to enter the 1950s.
Except for some time off to go to Israel, Rabbi and Mrs. Plaut remained directors of the camp through 1953. That fantastic ruach seeped into Herzl campers. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, most staff, after just a few years, were being recruited from those who had been campers, for they had caught the magic and wanted to participate in passing it on. Rabbi Theodore Gordon followed Rabbi Plaut as director until 1954, when a new director was recruited. Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz and his wife Tova came to Herzl Camp from Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City. Rabbi Dershowitz noted that “we believe in creating an atmosphere in which our campers would feel the nachas of Judaism—the exciting “do” rather than the stultifying “don’t.”
Attendance, some 250 to 300 campers during Rabbi Dershowitz’s first summer as director, more than doubled by the time he spent his last summer at Herzl in 1961.
The physical campsite grew as well. In 1956, the board purchased an additional 60 acres immediately north of the existing camp facility. With this land came additional cabins, a staff residence house and double the shoreline. The ever-aggressive and caring board built a new dining hall in 1956, the eleventh summer of Herzl camping.
Besides hosting and training young leaders on its own, Herzl Camp was the site of the Young Judea training seminar during many of these years. It also hosted the Midwest Regional United Synagogue Youth leadership training during many of these summers. By the mid-1950s, more than half of the staff were former Herzl campers.
Camper activities broadened as well. There were boat trips and camping trips, as well as a kibbutz-building adventure, where campers would be awakened in the middle of the night to do the work that was done in Palestine to establish Jewish communities as quickly as possible. Campers would arrive at a site, some by truck, some on foot, some by boat, and would make campsites, cooking sites, resting accommodations, all in a spirit of cooperation, singing the songs of Israel.
Bigger and Better; Modern, too… the First Ozrim
Keeping up with the times, Herzl Camp even had a cadre of trucks and two-way radios. Those charged with getting the campers to and from boat trips heard Zvi say with great authority many times, “16W3425 unit one to unit two, come in please.” Somewhere in Burnett County, the response would come back “16W3425 unit two to unit one, go ahead.”
The 1950s saw a camp doubled in physical size, doubled in camper population, modernized with radio gear, and far-flung boat trips. Thanks to the generosity of Louis Klugman, long time board member and philanthropist, 40 acres of land two miles south and west of Webster was donated to camp. Known as Klugman’s Forty, this became an off-site camping destination.
Besides going “high tech,” the board had the vision to take the commitment to training leaders one step further. In 1957, the Ozer Program began. It was designed to specially train junior counselors in leadership and camp counseling skills. They would gain an understanding of Herzl Camp’s mission and return to the camp the following year as effective counselors. The dividend was that they returned to their home communities as leaders. Ozrim came from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and the Dakotas. The first group of Ozrim lived up to the promise the program intended.
The Sixties: New Directions… Expanding Programs
As the 1960s brought sweeping change to our nation and our world, Herzl Camp saw changes, too. Singing in the chadar with friends remained. As new songs were learned, the old remained popular, including those that motivated the Jewish people to build the State of Israel.
Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz was still at the helm when Herzl Camp entered the 1960s. In 1960 longtime caretaker Albert Kaatz and his workers built the Mercaz. Facing east and overlooking Devils Lake, it added a dedicated spiritual space and became the site for creative and inspirational daily and Shabbat services. While 1961 was Zvi’s last summer as director, it began the tenure of a charismatic and creative graduate student as program director. The program director, Moshe Dworkin, broadened Herzl Camp’s perspective as well. Taking over as director in 1962, Moshe recruited many friends and colleagues from Detroit and the East Coast to work at camp. The board introduced the Ivriah program in 1960, a 6-week Hebrew immersion program. During the years Dworkin served as director, the Ivriah program grew and thrived.
The 60s were a time of experimentation in society at large and at Herzl Camp. With the introduction of the Bogrim program, youth a year older than Ozrim took on tasks for modest pay. They served as assistant specialists and general helpers; maintenance and kitchen help. The belief was that if the State of Israel was a Jewish state for Jewish people where Jews performed all of the tasks required to run the country, the Herzl Camp would follow suit, employing Jewish people to fill all of the jobs needed to make the camp function.
After Moshe Dworkin’s tenure as director, Rabbi Ben Marcus became director. Rabbi Sam Mendelowitz followed Rabbi Marcus.
Then, in the summer of 1967, before camp even began, the Six Day War flared like a match in the Middle East, and just as quickly it was over. A new group of songs and a new attitude about Israel’s strength and spirit spread all the way to Webster, Wisconsin.
Herzl was fortunate to see the return of Rabbi Bill Horn, serving as director in the late 1960s. Bill and his wife, Dena, had been at Herzl Camp in the mid 1950s and their sunny faces and warm manner contributed greatly to the permanent culture of the camp as a welcoming, accepting place.
Into the Seventies: A Silver Decade
Herzl Camp was growing. In 1970, the camp boasted 60 buildings, 166 wooded acres, a spacious recreation hall, a fully-equipped infirmary, a sandy beach, Klugman’s Forty for overnight camping and a modern dining room and kitchen serving kosher food. Herzl Camp celebrated its silver anniversary. The camp was out of debt and had more than 700 campers each summer.
In 1970, the camp and the community paid tribute to Rose and Harry Rosenthal with a book titled Love Story. Its dedication reads, “Fame cannot be bought, it can only be earned with love, deeds, devotion, dedication, commitment, blood and sweat and tears.” In this way fame justly belongs to the Rosenthals, whose names are synonymous with Herzl Camp.
Harvey Leviton ushered out the 1960s serving as director from 1969 to 1971. As a licensed psychologist, Harvey added a child-centered training component for the staff in addition to the already well-defined Jewish and Zionist programming.
The Seventies: Maba and Bogrim
As had happened before, in 1956 and 1967, serious battle erupted in the Arab-Israeli War with the Yom Kippur attack on Israel. The summer of 1972 brought new Israeli songs to camp. Campers mourned the loss of former campers, both Americans who had made Aliyah and one of our Israeli scouts who died during the fighting.
In 1972, a former Herzl camper and counselor decided it was time to try his hand as camp director. Bruce Golob led camp for three years in the 1970s and then returned in the 1980s, staying on into the 1990s. Camp served 700 campers during each summer of Bruce’s service, and long waiting lists began to develop.
After Ron Heiligman served as director in 1975, Herzl hired its first full-time director in 1976. Josh Arnold came to Herzl Camp from the East Coast, experienced in Jewish camping. He had a vision for the camp, which he forged for the next two years with the help of his wife, Janet.
Programs at camp expanded in the 1970s. An alliance with the Minneapolis Talmud Torah helped create MABA, an intensive experience for campers to experience Hebrew immersion firsthand. Partially staffed by Talmud Torah faculty, MABA produced a camp newspaper and drama productions entirely in Hebrew.
In the late 1970s, the “Peterson House” (also known as the Bet Am) burned down. The residence of the camp’s property’s original owner, Monroe Peterson, the building had served as guest housing and staff quarters as well as a general meeting site. Fortunately, the Harold and Mickey Smith and Donald and Rhoda Mains families immediately stepped up to the task of rebuilding. Thanks to their generosity, a new infirmary was built on the site.
As the 1970s came to a close, Andy Halper, a young, charismatic former camper and staff member became the director. Andy brought energy to Herzl’s core program. Camp featured three aliyot lasting three weeks, a six-week Kadimah program, senior citizen campers known as K’shishim, strong Ozer and Boger programs, as well as MABA.
Into the Eighties: Growth and Expansion
Herzl thrived in the 1980s, which helped make the decade one of continuing change. The Board, recognizing the age of some of the facilities, launched into a capital improvement campaign. Once again, through the farsighted community people in the Midwest, Herzl began to be rejuvenated physically while the programs flourished.
A new, modern bath and shower house was added. Five new cabins were built. The lakeshore was enhanced with a new boating area and campfire/cookout site. Older buildings were spruced up and the grounds manicured. New tennis courts with proper water drainage were added, as well as a new basketball court.
Bob Wolk served five summers as director, bringing both strong administrative and Judaic skills to Herzl.
Herzl had a horseback-riding program in the mid 1980s, and a computer session was sponsored. Although the computer camp was forward thinking, it did not last. The horses were fun while they lasted, too. Since the main thrust of Herzl was its Judaic program, the added costs necessary to responsibly run a horse program made it infeasible to continue.
One of the camp’s strongest traditions has become the stepping stones of Herzl life. Campers wanted to be at camp for longer than three weeks, and the demand for participation in Kadimah was so great that during the 1980s, it split into Kadimah Aleph and Kadimah Bet to better accommodate all the campers. Both sections had their own directors and staff.
But what was a die-hard Herzl camper to do after tenth grade? They all knew exactly what they were going to do: become Ozrim. This counselor-in-training program became so popular that unfortunately, interested candidates often exceeded the limited number of spots available. The selection process became extremely difficult, and potential Ozrim waited with bated breath at their mail boxes in anticipation of their Herzl letter. Unfortunately, not all applicants could be Ozrim, but many returned to camp in later years as counselors.
In an attempt to offer more programming for older campers, the Board of Directors introduced the N’divim program in 1988. Intended to offer a deep camping experience for the summer between Kadimah and becoming staff, tenth graders were given a program of their own.
Many interesting “people” visited camp in the 1980s. King Faruke was often heard wandering through the boys’ cabins in the middle of the night; Forkman flew through the chadar; Kermit the Frog sang wonderful renditions of Rainbow Connection; and during any Friday afternoon picnic, three chartreuse buzzards wrecked havoc on themselves and anything in their way.
The 1980s were also the decade of the kuntz. Counselors found their bedrooms set on top of the Ulam, the Bet Haks (bathrooms and showers), the chadar and even on floating rafts. Wondering where their campers had gone, counselors found whole cabins switched. Campers were baffled when they thought they were going to be in big trouble and it turned out to be Bikkurim.
The Nineties: Moving Toward 50 years
Bruce Golob returned to Herzl in the late 1980s and had a hand in guiding the camp into the 1990s. Mary Lou Allen, another former camper and staff member, became director in the early 1990s. During her tenure, camp remained fully enrolled. In addition to the traditional program, campers could choose to attend Maba, Kadimah, or N’divim, which became B’yachad in 1995.
Reaching out to both ends of the age spectrum, young campers could experience a one-week Taste of Herzl while senior citizens relived their youth as K’shishim. Herzl Camp blossomed. Programs conceived by the Board of Directors took on the personality of the staff, yet carried on the hallmarks of the founders.
Feeling pressure to serve the needs of a generation searching for an identity, programs were shuffled allowing Herzl Camp to grow to serve 750 campers a summer in the early 1990s. When Mary Lou left, Bruce Golob returned to direct camp once again, grooming others to take his place in the years to come. For the 49th and 50th summers in Webster, Debbie Minkin directed camp.
Heading to a New Millennium
When Debbie left, Anna Simon stepped up from her role as Head Counselor to be Interim Director. Anna held down the fort for the 1997 season while the Board of Directors prepared for and executed a national search for a new director. Sixty-eight candidates were identified and six finalists interviewed. Steve Mintz joined the camp as a full time professional director. His first summer was record-breaking in terms of the number of campers and the size of the waiting list. In 1999, under Steve’s guidance, Herzl introduced three new programs, including Teva Trek, an outdoor adventure program conceived two years previously by the Board of Directors. The new programs filled and camp served more campers than it had ever served previously.
Herzl Camp’s role in creating a vibrant Jewish community in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area was recognized by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the United Jewish Fund and Council of St Paul with a significant donation to partially-fund the construction of a new $4 million Chadar Ochel (dining hall). This air-conditioned facility opened in 2000.
The new Chadar opened the door to many opportunities for Herzl and the Jewish community at large. It represented not only the growing numbers of campers and staff, but also a new generation of Jewish children who would find a wonderful way to blend the old traditions of Herzl with the new future visions of what Herzl could become. Former campers and staff of previous decades were now given proud tours of the Chadar by their children and grandchildren. Community groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, found the new facility to be more than just a building to host their weekend retreats, but a wonderful home to reconnect with people and purpose. The new Chadar was home to Herzl staff reunions, youth group retreats, family camps and other events that just wouldn’t have felt the same in a Minneapolis hotel. And while the new Chadar brought so many positive changes to camp, there was one thing that remained the same – the RUACH (fabulous spirit). The Herzl community quickly learned that no matter where the Chadar was moved, or what it looked like, that RUACH would remain its foundation for years to come.
The new Chadar was appropriately named Beit Chai, or “house of life” and dedicated to Ben and Bernice Fiterman, longtime friends and supporters, who devoted much of their lives working on philanthropic efforts for the Jewish community. Ben and Bernice took pride in what the Beit Chai represented: the assurance that Jewish camping would be available for generations to come. In the summer of 2005, a dedication ceremony brought hundreds of families to camp to celebrate.
In the fall of 2003, after six years of service, Steve Mintz left camping and moved on to another chapter in his life. Steve’s innovations and efforts were a key ingredient in Herzl’s success through 2003.
In 2004, after an extensive search that involved the Herzl Board and community members, Sam Bloom was hired as Herzl’s new director. Sam had many years of camp directing experience, and supporters were impressed by his strengths in the areas of camper and staff recruitment, leadership development, communication and public relations. Upon moving from their hometown in Pennsylvania, his wife Alona, and daughter Jordyn, immediately fit into the Herzl family.
Sam’s tenure ended in 2006 and an extensive search was undertaken. Happily, a leader emerged with experience in Jewish education and camping as well as deep roots in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Anne Hope has lead Herzl Camp since 2006. Anne’s focus on finding and retaining highly qualified staff with a deep love for camp, campers and Judaism as well as adding interesting and challenging programs and activities have produced double-digit increases in enrollment. Anne’s leadership builds on the strengths of the past and focuses on the demands of the future.
A Major Facelift
With growing enrollment, waiting lists began to grow and after 60 years of heavy use, Herzl’s cabins and bathrooms were moving past well-loved toward falling apart. In 2008, with lead gifts from Mickey and Harold Smith and Linda and Mike Fiterman as well as their commitments to chair the fundraising effort, Herzl launched an $8 million campaign to rebuild and expand camp.
A corps of volunteer solicitors began reaching out to friends, family, and former cabinmates. As the campaign concluded in 2012, over 900 friends had contributed over $8 million in the Here’s to Dear Old Herzl Campaign, including approximately 100 donors under the age of thirty.
The campaign’s goal was to add 20% more camper living and programming space as well as make camp fully accessible for children with physical challenges. Over five years in three separate construction phases, Herzl Camp invested over $8 million. Twenty-five cabins were built, along with two additional Haks (bathroom/shower facilities). The George Kaplan Mercaz (outdoor amphitheater) and the waterfront were rebuilt to make them larger and accessible. a new Ozo Moadon expanded the Staff Moadon, added staff housing to create more work and living space for 150 summer staff built an additional Amanut (arts and crafts) building, (lounge), expanded the infirmary and made it accessible, , and added an indoor 12,000 square foot gymnasium.
As friends of camp made this tremendous investment in Herzl’s facilities, a solid base of supporters, committed to the viability of Herzl Camp, was built. These friends and alumni have begun funding camp programs, services, and scholarships. This support ensures that camp is affordable and engaging for all.
It is interesting to note that the history of Herzl Camp very much reflects the history of the Jewish community over the same time frame. Following the despair of the Holocaust and the hope for the new state of Israel, camp sheltered survivors in those first years and developed a Zionist philosophy at the same time. Events in Israel were celebrated and mourned. Living Jewishly with joy was a goal from the beginning. There is tremendous continuity in the Herzl camp family. Campers became counselors; counselors become senior staff, counselors and other staff become parents & grandparents who then watch their children board the camp buses. Friendships thrive.
It is not unusual to trace four generations of Herzl Camp families. Nor is it unusual to hear, “I met my spouse at Herzl Camp.” Communities all over the world can thank Herzl Camp for their community leaders.
Except for that first year in White Bear Lake, the shores of Devils Lake have continuously housed a place where young people live and learn their Judaism every day, all day. They live it with joy and unbridled excitement and treasure that experience all of their lives.