When Camp Yachad at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains prepared for a new beginning in June 1991, there was no outdoor pool, no ropes course, no ga-ga pit, no basketball court. There were no shlihim bringing Israel to the campers, and no specialty programs — no travel, sports, or theater camps. There were fewer than 100 campers, who spent their days for the most part inside the JCC building on the Wilf campus. For swim time they went to the pool at the Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA just across the street and to the Springfield Community Pool, a bus ride away (which is still used as a gathering place for the travel day camp).
Twenty-five years later, Camp Yachad now boasts more than 850 campers, four satellite locations, a full travel camp, a ropes course, a zipline, a basketball court, an outdoor pool with zero entry splash pool, a full program for campers with special needs, and door-to-door transportation.
“There’s an amazing energy at camp that’s not at the JCC any other time of the year,” said Robin Brous, JCC associate executive director, who started at the camp as co-director with Susan Bennett in 1995 and served as director from 1996 until 2007. “When the campers and the counselors are together, there’s a spark. From the minute the first bus pulls up to the last second of the last day, that energy is here.”
On Friday, July 22, to celebrate 25 years since its relaunch, the Scotch Plains JCC held a Shabbat dinner and birthday bash. There were sports activities like basketball and ga-ga, of course, along with roasting marshmallows, a photo booth, crafts, and dancing.
“Camp is the best memory,” said Bennett, who served as its first director, from its inception with Linda Shear and then with Brous until 1996. “It grabs you in the heart and doesn’t let go.” She recalled the long hours. “We started at dawn when the busses rolled out and didn’t finish until midnight, when the travel camp [added in 1993] directors had gotten their kids off the busses and settled in their hotel rooms.”
In fact, Bennett started as the director of Yachad’s predecessor, Camp Noam, which was run on a 50-acre site in Bernardsville. Her first summer at camp was 1984. But, she recalled, the demographics of the Jewish community had by then shifted from Plainfield — a short bus ride up the hill to Camp Noam — to Scotch Plains, Westfield, and Springfield. “People didn’t want to send their children so far away to Noam” in Bernardsville, she said, and the numbers dropped precipitously. Bennett spent just two summers at that location and then it was sold, and they moved the camp to Scotch Plains for the summer of 1986.
After five years, she said, “we decided to give it new life with a new name, and all the units got new Hebrew names,” she said. The big difference? Housed in the JCC, it became “a city camp, not the outdoor camp on 50 acres it had been [in Bernardsville], with soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball fields, and archery.”
Those outdoor enhancements, however, were planned from the outset, and have ultimately included a pool and a zero entry splash pool for toddlers and special-needs campers, a basketball court, fields, a ropes course, a zipline, and continuing enhancements to an Adventure Course.
The camp’s boker tov ritual has been around from day one, along with camp-wide Shabbat celebrations on Friday afternoons and the Maccabiah, the camp-wide sports color war.
Brous brought to the camp a focus on staff training or, as she said, “building a staff community, growing leaders from within, and developing a camp culture.” She said, “We found ways to build our own traditions and incorporate Jewish values in ways that resonate with the Jewish community.”
Mike Goldstein, who succeeded her and led the camp with Jodi Hotra from 2007 until 2015, brought his love for camp and a background in music — including a degree in musicology from the Eastman School of Music and experience touring for three years with the rock band Ethel — when he arrived at camp in 2004, along with his children. His oldest daughter started at Camp Yachad in 2005 when she was four; now a rising sophomore, she is a CIT.
While musical Friday afternoons were already built into the camp experience, Goldstein formed a camp rock band, the Shabbatones, that includes a revolving group of musicians affiliated with the camp. There is a core group with musical bona fides, like Amy Toporek, who had a lead role in a touring production of Hairspray. On Friday afternoons, erev Shabbat music took off. But to his ear, camp offers a different kind of music.
“Camp teaches skills that can’t be taught at school or at home,” Goldstein said. “It’s a powerful force. We are in the business of creating better human beings, in addition to building Jewish identity and community. I believe in the mission of creating better human beings.”
And he views camp as offering an antidote to parenting excesses. “In a world of playdates and regimentation, where everything is so structured for kids, camp is a place to explore, find new friends, and have new experiences.”
While he is proud of the changes that have taken place, as the JCC’s current chief operating officer, he also sees challenges ahead, from the restrictions of the small space they operate in to the competitive marketplace.
“The JCC really depends on camp business as a big source of income to help keep the agency going,” he acknowledged. But, he added, “that’s a challenge. We can only increase the price so much to keep pace with increasing costs of suppliers and still remain a value proposition with respect to private day camps.”
With the arrival of Mallory Zipkin, the camp has come full circle. In 2000, she was the first and only unpaid 14-year-old CIT, and she’s been at camp ever since, with the exception of three summers when she worked at a Jewish sleep-away camp. Now 30, she is codirector of Camp Yachad with Hotra. She said that Brous has been her mentor in the field since that first summer, and, like Goldstein, she believes in the power of day camp.
“You hear so much in the field of Jewish camp that sleep-away camp is the one that is formative for children,” said Zipkin. “But I just really feel that at Yachad, we do Jewish day camp right. There’s a real sense of community here.”
She isn’t kidding. Four of the bridesmaids at her 2012 wedding were friends she made at Yachad. Looking ahead, she said, “The challenge will be staying relevant given our facility. Private camps can offer things we can never offer. But this is still a great, special, formative experience. And you don’t need boats or a lake to do that.”