Bunk 19, Forever: Reuniting After 58 Years

By Rebecca Dube

Published August 05, 2009, issue of August 14, 2009.
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It began, as so much does these days, with Google.

Gita Segal Rotenberg, 71, and living in Toronto, wondered what had become of her old friends from Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the girls she’d spent summers with in the early 1950s. So she entered a name into the search engine.

Several months later, her search yielded one amazing result: Ten women in their 70s reunited at Camp Ramah and spent a fine August day reminiscing, resuming old friendships where they’d left off 50-plus years ago, and sharing their experiences with awestruck current campers.

Gail First Farber, 70, a pediatrician from Philadelphia: “You know, when we went here, Israel was two years old.”

Reactions of 16-year-old campers:

“Wowww….”

“Wait, what?!”

“That is soooo weird!”

As Camp Ramah in the Poconos celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, camp director Todd Zeff said that many groups have arranged reunions — but the girls from Bunk 19 set a new record for longevity. After Rotenberg set the wheels in motion last winter, the women met up in New York in March. What was supposed to be a brunch over bagels and lox turned into a seven-hour conversational marathon, and plans were soon hatched to reunite again at the source — Camp Ramah.

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“I remember on the last day of school we counted the hours to camp, and then on the last day of camp we cried all the way home,” said Rotenberg, who ran an independent bookstore in Toronto for many years. “It was paradise, on some level. I don’t want to romanticize it, but there was this freedom.”

The physical landscape of the Poconos camp has changed so dramatically that the women hardly recognized the place when they visited on August 4, aside from a few of the original bunkhouses. But the emotional landscape felt just the same as it did back in 1951.

“When I met them, the years just faded away and I was 12 again,” said Judy Borodkin Hanau, 70.

Some of the women kept in touch for a while after Ramah; some went to the same college; a few exchanged letters and e-mails sporadically over the years. But mostly, the women drifted apart, pulled further into their own families and careers and further from the innocent and slightly mischievous girls they were back in their Ramah days. They became doctors and lawyers, librarians and teachers, mothers and grandmothers. Their religious status ranges from Orthodox to atheist. But none of them ever forgot Ramah.

Of course, what they remember is not usually the formal camp programming. Miriam Eisenstein, 70, a retired U.S. Department of Justice civil rights lawyer who lives in Washington, recalls the salami.

“People want to hear about our deep connection with Judaism [at camp], but that’s not what we remember. Kids see things differently from adults,” Eisenstein said.

Every year a few parents would send care packages with kosher salami, and the girls would break out the forbidden snack at night and munch on it in their bunks. Eisenstein also remembers the services — specifically, how the girls would peer across the room to see which boys were wearing tefillin, meaning that they had been bar mitzvahed. Their interest lay not in a boy’s religious standing, but in his age: to 12-year-old girls, 13 was the magic number.

“At that age we were interested in older men,” Eisenstein explained.

Lorna Prestin Michaelson, 70, a retired Hebrew teacher who lives in Florida, learned to curse at camp. “And I came from a home where one did not say ‘damn,’ much less anything else,” she recalled. “I remember who taught us, but I’m not going to say.”

Hanau: “I was always in trouble, I never went to any socials. Of course, when we got in trouble, what did they do to us? Left us alone in the bunks! So we frenched the beds.”

13-year-old camper: “What’s frenching the beds?”

First Farber: “Short-sheeting. And if you found a salamander, you put that in there too.”

Ramah counselor, looking nervous: “Don’t give them any ideas.”

Of course, amid the pranks and the boyfriends, a bit of Jewish learning did sink in, too. The women all fondly remember Sabbath services, held outside on Friday night, when everyone at camp would wear white. A mention of Tisha B’Av prompted a few nostalgic sighs and a flood of memories of services by the lake and candles planted in potatoes lighting their way.

“Every year at Tisha B’Av I think of it,” said Beppie May Barth, 70.

In the 1950s, Hebrew was the official and only recognized language at Ramah, and campers were supposed to speak it exclusively. For some, it was the first and only time in their lives they spoke Hebrew, and to this day the only Hebrew that some of the women remember are phrases they learned at Ramah, like “Let’s go swimming,” or “Please pass the salt.” While at camp for their reunion, they ate lunch in the dining hall, which was different from what they remembered in that the food was much better, they agreed, and the same in that the volume of chatter from 300 kids (and 10 alumnae) was deafening. They all sang along with the after-meal prayer, folding up the proffered programs to sing it by heart.

“I haven’t done that since 1953, and it all came back,” First Farber said, looking wide-eyed around her table as campers streamed out of the hall.

Why reunite after all this time? The Ramah women agreed there was something about turning 70 that made them want to look back, take stock and reconnect. Seven of the 12 women are widows. They’re obviously delighted to have found each other again, after all these years.

“I feel very, very lucky to be part of this group, especially at this later stage in life,” Michaelson said.

One thing the alumnae did not expect when they returned to Ramah was the fact that current campers would line up eagerly to talk to them. The camp director scheduled a chat with the 13-year-old girls, but then the 16-year-olds wanted to meet the ladies, too. The girls crowded into a gazebo with the women, gazing in fascination at an old photograph showing the group in 1953. The 16-year-olds are nearing the end of their final summer at camp with some trepidation about the survival of their friendships, and they peppered the women with questions about why they fell out of touch and how they reunited. Finally, the alumnae had a question for them.

Rotenberg: “They said the girls wanted to meet us, and we said [skeptically], ‘Sure — what could they possibly get out of this, except maybe to laugh at us?’ So, what are you getting out of this?”

16-year-old campers:

“That we’ll still be together!”

“Even if we don’t keep in touch, we might still be friends.”

“You’re what we want to be in 50 years.”

“It makes it seem like Camp Ramah is everlasting.”

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com


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