It is, perhaps, only in America that a congresswoman named Gabrielle Giffords could reclaim the Jewish identity of her father’s family — originally named Hornstein — after living much of her life apart from the Jewish community. And it is no less of a tribute to American fluidity, however ironic, that the aide who died by her side under a hail of fire was a non-Jew named Gabe Zimmerman who lived a crucial segment of his life immersed in a storied corner of the American Jewish milieu.
When Zimmerman was shot dead alongside five others in a Tucson, Ariz., parking lot on January 8, shocked former campers and counselors of Camp Kinderland, a leftist Jewish summer camp in the foothills of the Berkshires, quickly began trading e-mails. Zimmerman, Giffords’s director of community outreach, had been out of touch with many of the Kinderland alumni for years. But some summer memories have yet to fade.
It was 2001 when Zimmerman first arrived at the Massachusetts summer camp — the same year Giffords began her journey to a Jewish identity through a trip to Israel. And according to those who remember, Zimmerman’s first day there could have gone very badly. At a camp where most counselors were former campers, Zimmerman, then 20 and a total outsider, had been handed the toughest bunk: counselors in training, hardened camp veterans who had been together for the better part of a decade.
“We were 15, and we were kind of bratty,” remembered Maia Falconi-Sachs, one of Zimmerman’s charges that summer at the Jewish socialist camp in eastern Massachusetts. “The year before, there was one male counselor who we disliked so much, he left.”
The campers were ready for a repeat of the previous summer’s ouster, but Zimmerman, in his red cap and what one camper called “retro” sideburns, took them by surprise. “He was the coolest person in the world,” Falconi-Sachs said.
“He was a great counselor,” wrote Zimmerman’s college friend Neal Martin-Zeavy, who brought him to Kinderland. “They really looked up to Gabe.” So much so that Zimmerman returned the following summer for another stint.
Kinderland is an idiosyncratic sort of place, a living relic of American Jewry’s red diaper past. Founded in 1923 by Jewish Communists, the camp was bound up in the sectarian politics of the interwar Yiddish-speaking Jewish left. After one schism, a faction left to form a new camp called Kinder Ring, just across the lake. Campers from one side would taunt the other with political gibes during rowboat races.
Though campers no longer salute the flag of the Soviet Union on their way to breakfast, much remains the same at Kinderland. The hardwired rituals of summer camp life, where tradition is religion and the outside world is a fantasy, have proved themselves to be perfectly suited to the preservation of a certain brand of unabashed Jewish leftism that has few contemporary analogies.
“The values and the politics are built into the programming of the camp,” said Katie Halper, a writer and comedian who has directed an upcoming documentary on Kinderland, titled “Another Camp Is Possible.”
Camp buildings are named after leftist icons: the Paul Robeson Playhouse, the Roberto Clemente Sports Shack. Bunks, too, bear storied names: one for labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill; one for poet Pablo Neruda, and one, somewhat disconcertingly, for Anne Frank.
A few times a week, each bunk gets together to sing protest songs on the porch of the dining hall. “It’s usually Phil Ochs songs and Pete Seeger songs about revolution and that kind of stuff,” Falconi-Sachs said.
And instead of a color war, campers compete each summer in a “Peace Olympics,” in which teams named for leftist movements and leaders compete for a place in camp lore. According to a Kinderland alumni website, the 1983 “Peace Olympics” saw a team named after Spanish communist leader Dolores Ibarruri face off against a team named for anarchist Emma Goldman, and another for Frederick Douglass. Ibarruri’s team, obviously, wore red. In Zimmerman’s second summer, one of the teams was named after 1999’s famously unruly anti-globalization protests in Seattle. One of the team’s fight songs, as recalled by Falconi-Sachs: “Seattle Ninety-Nine! Shake your behind!”
“I remembered getting calls from him, telling me about the cabin that was named after Harriet Tubman.” said Zimmerman’s mother, Emily Nottingham. She said that the camp’s politics were an important part of her son’s attraction to the place. “I think that’s why he agreed to do it. I don’t think he would have done just a straight, more traditional camp counseling job.”
But Zimmerman seems to have excelled at connecting with his campers. At the end of each day, counselors at Kinderland were required to stop by and say goodnight to their bunks before going off duty. While most breezed through, Falconi-Sachs said, Zimmerman was willing to stay and listen. “I can’t imagine that he didn’t want to go hang out with other people,” she said. “But he was always happy to stay, and we were always having drama with guys.”
When Zimmerman got off the bus for his second summer at the camp, Falconi-Sachs, by then a fellow counselor, ran to greet him — right past the boy who, according to the byzantine social code of summer camp society, she was supposed be dating that summer. She and the supposed boyfriend broke up.
Though there was never anything romantic between her and Zimmerman, Falconi-Sachs admits to a teenage infatuation. “It was kind of hard not to have a crush on him,” she said.
Sara Kaplan-Levenson, another of his campers, agreed. “He was an extremely loving person, and it was impossible not to love him back,” she said.
News reports immediately after the shooting indicated that Zimmerman was Jewish, which puzzled Falconi-Sachs. She said she had been known at camp for being gullible — a point confirmed by friends. Zimmerman would tease her, she remembered, saying other counselors were his long-lost cousins. He also told her he wasn’t Jewish, despite his Jewish-sounding name. Now Falconi-Sachs was disoriented by a decade-old game.
“I’ve begun to think he was joking with me,” she said, before it was clarified that Zimmerman was, indeed, a non-Jew.
“It’s a common error, because of his name,” Nottingham said of the belief that her son was Jewish. In fact, his Jewish-sounding name seems to have been an ongoing joke among his friends. “I used to pester him about it at school because not only was his last name Zimmerman, but he kind of looked Jewish and he definitely had some Jewish sensibilities,” Martin-Zeavy wrote in an e-mail. “A boy that any Jewish mother would be proud of.”
As they struggle to understand his murder, Zimmerman’s former campers and co-counselors are drafting a joint letter to his parents and thinking about fitting ways for the camp to pay tribute to him.
“He loved Camp Kinderland,” Nottingham said. “He just thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.