Jerry Schwartz has spent almost 40 years teaching children and building the Jewish identity of teens throughout Mercer and Bucks counties.
The director of teen travel for the JCC camp for 30 years, Schwartz is now the director of teen and adult service for the Jewish Community Center of Princeton Mercer Bucks.
Now those teens — many with families of their own — will return July 25 for a camp reunion honoring Schwartz.
In Schwartz’s honor, the JCC has created the Jerry Schwartz Inspire a Jewish Journey Camp Scholarship Fund. Schwartz has requested those attending to contribute to the fund in lieu of gifts, a gesture that will pay tribute to his life’s work.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to work with community teens over the course of 30 years,” said Schwartz in a phone interview with NJJN as he rode with campers on a bus. “I learned probably more than they did from working with them. It really has been a great experience and it has truly been an honor and privilege to help the Jewish community of Mercer and Bucks.”
The Ewing resident began working at the camp in 1980 and became director three years later. He also served as adviser for the Trenton AZA chapter of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization at the JCC. (In January he retired after 38 years as a fifth-grade math and science teacher in Bordentown.)
“I enjoy working with this age group and helping them find their Jewish identity,” he said. “Apart from their Jewish identity, they’re looking for respect, guidance, and direction.
“Of course, working with that age group every day is like a rollercoaster emotionally, but it is also very enjoyable and very rewarding.”
‘Focused on kids’
JCC executive director Drew Staffenberg called Schwartz’s interaction with the teens “magical stuff.”
“Of all the people I’ve worked with in the last 40 years, he rises to the top,” said Staffenberg. “He is just so focused on the kids. It has been a pleasure and honor to work with him.”
Schwartz said the camp’s goal is “to develop their independence and decision-making skills and obviously help them bond with other Jewish teens in the Mercer and Bucks area.”
Campers have also traveled throughout the United States and Canada, interacting with Jewish communities and seeing the sights. This year the teens in eighth-10th grade will go to Los Angeles while the sixth- and seventh-graders will travel to Niagara Falls and Toronto.
“We want to broaden their experience as much as possible,” said Schwartz. “For instance, when we were in Colorado Springs we visited the Air Force Academy and its chapel and met with Jewish cadets. We also do things on the East Coast they wouldn’t normally do, such as whitewater rafting and mountain climbing.”
The teens always visit local synagogues when traveling, bedding down for the night on a college campus or in sleeping bags at the local JCC. That “creates an understanding there is a larger Jewish community throughout the country,” said Schwartz.
In his expanded role with the adults, Schwartz has organized trips to New York and other regional venues.
While the JCC is operating as “a center with many walls” as it builds it new 77,000-square-foot facility in West Windsor, Schwartz said the adult programming would be hosted by various synagogues.
As for the July 25 bash, he said he “is looking forward to many of the teens coming back.”
“The image I have of them is as 11 or 12 years old,” said Schwartz. “For some it’s been 30 years and I’m really looking forward to seeing them grown up and to meeting their families.”