This year camp is all the rage, but I’m not talking about fashion or aesthetics. Think rather of the outdoors, friendship bracelets and nostalgia for your childhood. Today there are hundreds of summer camps around the country that cater to a range of interests from theater, religion, rocket science to sports. But this is old news – summer camps have been around for over 140 years! And their origin story is deeply tied to the Lower East Side and the same immigrant community who would have prayed at the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
One of the earliest camp organizations in existence is the Fresh Air Fund founded by Reverend Willard Parsons. Fresh out of the seminary, Parsons’s first ministry assignment was in New York City. Working in places such as the Lower East Side and Brooklyn he saw firsthand what life was like for poor and immigrant families. He noted that summertime in the city was especially brutal, as families were living in squalid and stifling tenement apartments. Often, the only place for these children to play was dirty and overcrowded streets. Deadly outbreaks of cholera, small pox and tuberculosis were especially rampant in the summer months; while middle and upper class families could escape to the country or seaside, this was not an option for the city’s poorest. This experience shaped Parsons in his life’s work.
After his time in New York, Parson worked in a small rural parish in Sherman, Pennsylvania. By that time, Parsons was part of a growing Progressive movement who believed that people were molded by their environments. A theory emerged – perhaps by placing people from poor urban areas into rural bucolic settings, one could reform them in body, mind and spirit. From Parsons’ new pulpit, he preached his mission of sending poor children from the city to stay with “host” families in the countryside. The rich were willing to fund a project aimed at reforming a poverty-stricken population and Parsons garnered financial support from some of New York’s wealthiest. Appeals to support the project appeared in the New York Tribune and the New York Times.
In the summer of 1877, 60 New York City children were placed with the first host families in rural Pennsylvania. At the end of the summer, doctors and social workers noted a significant change in the children. According to one doctor’s report, “appetites improved, coughs ceased to be troublesome, ulcers healed, growing deformities were arrested, cheeks filled out and grew ruddy, spirits became buoyant, the step elastic and childlike, while the sickly smile gave way to the hearty laugh of childhood.”
As the Progressive Era moved into the twentieth century, the idea that children had a right to a childhood was strengthened; summer vacation was seen as a fundamental part of the childhood experience. Following that trend, Lillian Wald, a nurse and founder of Henry Street Settlement House opened Camp Henry for boys and Echo Hill Farm for girls in 1908. For Wald, the mission of camp was an extension of the work being done at settlement houses in the city throughout the year.
Their intentions were good, but reformers like Parsons and Wald envisioned camp as a tool of assimilation. Children were encouraged to speak English only and adopt what were deemed “American” traditions and mannerisms. They were discouraged from eating the ethnic foods of their communities and were introduced to “such classic American fare as jelly sandwiches, baked beans, beef stew, hot cocoa, and ginger snaps.” These camps also promoted Protestant values and while the goal was not conversion, the hope was for the children to learn hymns, say grace and bring those Christian values home to their immigrant families. As a result, many Jewish children were excluded from participating – or received some very mixed messages.
To remedy this, Jewish philanthropic agencies began organizing their own summer camps. In 1902 the Education Alliance founded Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, New York. Surprise Lake began with six tents, five counselors and 25 campers. The following summer, one of the campers in attendance was a boy named Eddie Cantor; a sickly boy who lived in a basement tenement on East Broadway. His time at Surprise Lake would have profound impact on him – and world culture. It was there that he discovered his love for entertaining. One of Cantor’s camp bits involved dressing in overalls and placing a tin can on his head, earning him the nickname “Happy Cantor.” Cantor would go on to become one of the most famous actors, songwriters and entertainers of the early-20th century, but he never forgot his time at Surprise Lake Camp. He served as one of the camp’s directors and used his fame and talent to fundraise for the camp. In a letter to a friend, he once wrote “The only joy that ever came into my life as a little orphan boy on the east side, was my five week stay at the Boy’s Camp at Surprise Lake, and I made up my mind even then, that when I grew up I was going to help send other little boys to that Paradise.”
Cantor would remain true to that promise for the rest of his life. Surprise Lake Camp is now the longest running Jewish sleepaway camp in the nation and it has impacted many other famous Lower East Siders including Walter Matthau and Jerry Stiller. Even our very own Manager of Public Programs, Haley Coopersmith, is Surprise Lake Camp alum!
We can imagine the 1900s halls of the Eldridge Street Synagogue were just a little quieter each summer, as the congregation’s lucky children headed upstate and out of the city for a few weeks of fresh air and open fields. And the tradition continues to this day! As summer begins to wind down here on the Lower East Side, a new generation of campers will make their way back home. They’re with art projects, summer friendships and enduring memories – there’s no telling yet where those camps experiences are going to take them!
Rachel Serkin is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Manager of School Programs.