A View to the Past with an Eye to the Future: The Reform Movement Celebrates 60 Years of Camping

by Jerry Kaye

This summer marks 60 years of Reform Movement camping. This Shabbat, July 21st, we will mark this milestone at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. But the real celebration is focused on the influence of camp on generations of Reform Jews.

Born in 1952 on the shores of Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camping system has grown in leaps and bounds. The URJ now operates 13 camps across North America with specialty programs focused on the environment, special needs, Israel, sports, leadership and more. Our camp and Israel programs now serve more than 10,000 campers each summer.

But these metrics aren’t what matters most for the future of the Jewish people. As the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s study CAMP WORKS: The Long-term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp (2011) showed, “summers at Jewish camp create adults who are committed to the Jewish community and engaged in Jewish practice.” The relationships and ideas that are nourished at camp represent the real vitality and impact of the past 60 years of Reform Jewish camping.

Take OSRUI as an example. The acres have grown from a mere eight to over 200; the facilities have expanded from a few buildings to a full campus. And activity choices have expanded dramatically.

But it’s still the people who have made the difference over the years. Campers have gone on to become rabbis, Jewish educators and cantors, as well as congregational leaders, taking their rightful places in the world of Jewish leadership.

One example is Daniel Shapiro who spent years as a camper, counselor and then unit head. He is now the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Ambassador Shapiro will tell you that the many years that he spent at OSRUI were crucial to his understanding of Jewish life and to his love of Israel.

Possibly the most famous URJ Camp alum was Debbie Friedman z”l, who started in the early 70’s as an enthusiastic young woman dedicated to changing the face of Jewish music throughout the world. She spent years as a counselor teaching our campers to “Sing Unto God.” Debbie’s commitment to OSRUI didn’t end when she moved on to sharing her music in every corner of Jewish life. She always identified OSRUI as her home as she created Hava Nashira, the songleading and music workshop that now welcomes nearly 250 camp staff, cantors and music teachers from every corner of North America. Jeff Klepper, Debbie and I mentored those new to Jewish music as well as seasoned musicians. Debbie returned to Oconomowoc whenever called to create a concert or just to teach children the splendor of liturgy.

That’s what camp is all about – it’s about creating an environment where Jewish youth can find a spiritual home. The most important place at camp is not the arts or sports centers, it is a simple log on the ground with a youngster on one end and a caring rabbi or counselor on the other end, learning together to love Judaism.

The future holds great promise for Jewish camping as we create new relationships with congregations, collegians, synagogue leaders and parents who all come together to celebrate the uniqueness of a camping movement that found its roots on the shores of Lac La Belle some 60 years ago.

Jerry Kaye is the Director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

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  1. says

    Jerry, thank you for a great post and for all you have contributed, and continue to contribute, to build the field of Jewish camp. You are truly a Jewish camp icon! We salute the URJ camping movement as well as all of the other movements and camps across North America for the incredible work they do with children every summer. The Hava Nashira workshop is yet one more shining example of camps working collaboratively across movements and denominations in order to ensure that the field can offer the best possible experiences to as many children as possible.
    -Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp

  2. Raymond Capelouto says

    The North American Camp Committee, the URJ and all of Reform Judaism are so very grateful for the magic that has taken place at OSRUI for these past sixty years. For the lion’s share of those years, you have put your masterfully creative mark on so many lives, making lifelong memories and friendships happen, and doing so much to ensure the continuity and strength of Reform Judaism in our homes, congregations and in our greater Jewish communities.

    Yasher Koach!

    Raymond Capelouto
    Chair, North American Camp Committee
    Union For Reform Judaism

  3. Timi Mayer says

    Thanks, Jerry.
    Important to mention is also the impact that OSRUI and other camps have had on the hundreds, even thousands, of Israelis who have come as part of the mislachat. Getting to know the Reform and Conservative movements, American Jewish youth, Rabbis who look and sound differently than Rabbis in Israel, and the power of the overnight Jewish camp have changed them forever. Further, they are now champions of alternative forms of religious and spiritual Jewish expressions, advocates and memebers of the Reform (and the Conservative) movements in Israel.
    It really is a two way street.
    My 7 summers as staff on the shores of Lac La Belle were simply life changing for me..

  4. Hadas (Howie) Levin says

    I suppose that many of us would consider OSRUI a second Jewish home, even a family with no less impact in terms of Jewish learning & values, cultivating a love & appreciation for Israel and a deep commitment to a meaningful Jewish lifestyle. I treasure the memories, as each of my family members and so many friends live its heritage. Thank you for touching us. Yeshar Koach!

  5. Alice Gold-Pearce says

    I am so proud to see my daughter Shoshana pictured in this article. She had a wonderful 4 weeks in Tzofim and continues to call, text and facebook all of her new friends. Living in a community with a small (but strong) Jewish community is hard on my children. Shoshana is the only Jewish child in her middle school. Thank you to OSRUI and all of the Jewish organizations that have made it possible for this single mother to send her to what she refers to as her “second home.”

  6. Pat Ruby Sinervo says

    What a difference it would have made in my life if my parents had sent me to Oconomowoc in the ’50s. I am proud my grandparents Jack and Fay Ruby made their $ contributions to what is now known as OSRUI in the ’60s. At least my kids are alums of Reform Jewish camping—Camp George and Kutz. Keep it all going, Jerry!

    Pat Ruby Sinervo

  7. Sherry says

    So proud to know that my dad made a huge difference to camp by donating the first two horses to OSRUI over 40 years ago, thus creating a whole new opportunity for thousands of campers for years to come….Thank you Dad for making such a difference in the lifes of others.

  8. says

    60 Years —Wow! it seems like yesterday arriving at the Bayit….Building the DIning Room, 100 West Munroe and a thousand other memories all of which formed to make me and so many others who and what we are today. 1968 was my first year at the Union Camp Institute (OSRUI). It was light years ahead of Jewish camping in general. It motivated many young people to take positions of leadership then and now in the Reform Jewish movement. Thanks for all the wonderful gifts. It is our turn to give back a small portion of what we have received.


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