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Summer Camps for Jewish Seniors Live On

Inside the main hall of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, seven campers formed a circle and tried their best to dance in step to the lively beat of a do-se-do coming from a boombox.

Their instructor, Sylvia Rosenblatt, found them wanting.

“No, listen to me,” she said sternly. “You’re mixing it up with the ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie.’”

This was not a dance lesson from your third-grader’s summer camp. Most of the guests at Isabella Freedman’s annual Senior Summer Camp were in at least their 70s and 80s. At 73, Rosenblatt herself hardly resembled a spritely camp counselor with a whistle around her neck.

The two-week session at Isabella Freedman for Jewish seniors is one of a handful of similar programs in the Northeast, including the nearby Berkshire Hills Emanuel Adult Vacation, Block and Hexter Vacation Center, the Kislak Adult Center and the Circle Lodge.

Though the Jewish summer camps for seniors continue to operate, some of their seasons have been shortened and have turned over their weeks to programming aimed at younger demographics.

For two weeks in mid-July at Isabella Freedman, active, fun-seeking seniors, some in their 90s, dominate the scene.

As Rosenblatt’s class continued, dancer Ursula Brodek, 93, showed a particular knack for dancing to “The Electric Slide.”

No Breakdancing: But senior campers at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center still boogie during many dance classes offered in the summer. Image by Nate Lavey

“You can’t see it. It’s electric! You gotta feel it. It’s electric!” the song played, urging her on.

Brodek raised her freckled arms above her head and swayed her hips slowly from side to side. Her white sneakers moved gingerly and gracefully across the wooden floor.

When the song finished, Brodek and her fellow line dancer, Senta Koran, 94, exchanged smiles. The two women had come to camp together from their homes in West Palm Beach, Fla., with Rosenblatt and another friend.

Like many guests at the senior camps, Koran and Brodek are widows. This, Brodek explained, is a big part of why she liked the lesson in line dancing.

“I love dancing, and I’m alone now,” she said. “We all lose our husbands sooner or later…. We cannot do ballroom dances, because it’s no fun by yourself or with another woman.”

Dance instruction, which Rosenblatt offers in line, ballroom and Israeli dancing, is just one of many ways for campers to pass the time at Isabella Freedman.

Each day, the roughly 100 senior campers choose from activities ranging from standard camp fare, such as arts and crafts, to programming especially designed to appeal to seniors. The lecture “For Good, for Bad, for Better, for Worse — Cholesterol & You,” proved particularly popular, as did hands-on lessons on how to use a digital camera.

Though the senior camps vary in terms of the specifics of what programming they offer and their religious affiliation (some offer kosher meals, others do not), in many respects they’re quite similar: They offer economical, all-inclusive vacations of a week or longer, in scenic settings with lakes. For example, a 14-night stay at Isabella Freedman runs from $1,085 to $1,750, depending on whether the guest prefers recently renovated accommodations, a private bathroom, or a single- or double-occupancy room.

The senior camps draw retired Jews of various movements, many of Eastern European descent, from the New York metropolitan area and Florida.

“I like to say we take the work and worry out of their vacation,” said Laurie Epstein-Graves, director of Associated Camps Inc., the organization that runs Block and Hexter in Poyntelle, Pa. With meals, activities and even travel arrangements taken care of — Block and Hexter offers door-to-door transportation service to get seniors to and from camp — senior camps make for much less of a logistical headache than a typical vacation. Epstein compares the experience to “a cruise on land.”

Henry and Lorraine Spivak, who had suited up after a kosher lunch and were headed to the pool for a dip, estimated that this was their fourth or fifth time at the Isabella Freedman camp. After traveling extensively throughout their marriage, vacationing a short way from their home in Manhattan had become a more appealing option.

“As we got older, we found that traveling was not as convenient for us because of our advancing age,” said Henry, 91, as he placed a gentle hand on his wife’s shoulder.

The Spivaks said that the rustic scenery and varied activities, and the chance to make new, interesting friends, had kept them coming back. The prepared meals and housekeeping were a plus.

Returning campers make up the core of the population, administrators at each of the senior camps said.

“Many have been coming back for 30 years,” said Linda Askenazi, director of Berkshire Hills Emanuel in Copake, N.Y.

Phyllis Lauer, administrator of the Kislak Adult Center in Lake Como, Pa., in the Poconos, said that for many seniors, coming to camp is like returning home. “It’s not a tremendously large camp, so everyone gets to know each other,” she said.

Anne Rosenzweig, 88, first came to Isabella Freedman as a teenager in the 1930s, when it was a camp for young Jewish “working girls.” At the time, she was earning $22 a week as a receptionist at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. She returned as a senior in her early 70s, and has come back many times since, with no plans of stopping. As she puts it, “If I come back, you’ll know I’m still alive.”

Customer loyalty notwithstanding, Kislak and other Jewish senior camps have reduced their programming in recent years.

“We’re one of the few that still runs full summer senior programming,” Epstein said. “There definitely has been a decline.”

While the senior camp at Kislak used to operate all summer long, in 2009 it was cut back to make way for Camp Shoshanim, a new eight-week camp for Orthodox girls. Now the senior programming is restricted to three weeks in June and two in August. “Probably the numbers were dwindling a little bit on the adult program. I guess it was a combination of factors,” Lauer said of the change in scheduling.

Isabella Freedman, the senior camp, which has been offered for 55 years, was two months long as recently as six years ago, as opposed to the two-week session offered this year. This reduction was part of an effort to “shift away from seniors here and just move to younger, different programming,” explained Doreen Bongiolatti, coordinator of the senior program.

As David Weisberg, executive director of Isabella Freedman, explained it, “The senior camp is sort of an homage to our history here.”

The senior guests at these camps are a self-selecting bunch tending to be in good physical health.

“After all, they have to be able to climb on the bus to get there,” Lauer said. “If someone can’t do that, they’re just not going to come to our camp, because they’re not going to be comfortable.”

Often, the senior campers can do much more than board a bus.

“You walk in our gym in the morning, every machine is taken,” Epstein said.

Hikes and nature walks, water aerobics, day trips and even yoga lessons are common offerings at the senior camps.

Guests are also welcome to take their own initiative when it comes to physical activities.

“A couple of years ago I’m sitting in my office, and I see this man whizzing by on Rollerblades,” Askenazi recalled. She estimated he was in his late 70s. “It certainly makes life more encouraging than the view of 30 or 40 years ago, where you get to a certain age and you’re not able to do much of anything,” she said.

This is not to say that accommodations aren’t made for guests who need them.

“We do a lot of shuttling around in golf carts,” Bongiolatti said.

At Isabella Freedman, many of the senior campers are Holocaust survivors. This year, for the first time, the camp teamed up with The Blue Card, an organization that offers financial assistance to Holocaust survivors in need.

Mindelle Pierce, a longtime camp-goer who used to bring her mother to the senior program, helped arrange the partnership with The Blue Card, which brought nine Holocaust survivors to Isabella Freedman, tuition-free.

Phil Brown, a Brown University professor who has written two books on the Jewish experience in the Catskills vacation areas, said that besides Circle Lodge, in the Hudson Valley, he had never heard of contemporary Jewish summer programs for seniors.

“This is like a hybrid between a number of things,” he said, including the Catskills bungalow colonies and Jewish hotels that reached their peak popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, and the Elderhostel vacation programs for seniors (now operating under the name Road Scholar).

Most of the campers at Isabella Freedman seemed content just to be there.

A short, tree-lined walk away from the camp’s main buildings was Olga Leisman, who had forgone the preplanned activities for the time being and was splashing happily in the outdoor pool next to her longtime friend, Florence Phillips.

“Can you imagine, the oldies coming to camp?” said Leisman, 86, clearly amused. “I demanded a care package from my grandkids.”

Contact Gianna Palmer at [email protected]

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