This year, the JCC Abrams Camps’ “Back to Camp Night” on June 23 was not only a welcome to a new season of summer fun, but a “housewarming” of sorts to show off its new facility in East Windsor.
The JCC of Princeton Mercer Bucks had been “wandering in the desert for 10 years,” said its president, Daniel Herscovici, noting moves — including the camp — from the JCC building in Ewing to Rider University to a corner lot at the Windsor Athletic Club.
“Now we have a place called home that teaches Jewish values, culture, and knowledge about what is going on [in the Jewish world] and stitches together affiliated and unaffiliated Jews” throughout the region, Herscovici said. He expressed thanks to the generosity of Bernard Burkhoff, who owns the property, the Abrams Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, and the other funders.
For Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, who emceed the evening’s program, a JCC and its camps are an important part of the Jewish community — like synagogues, local agencies, and the federation. “What you need in a community is a place, a focus,” he said. With the new buildings and the new camp, he continued, “We finally have a new ‘there’ — and this is it.”
Abrams Camps director Wendy Soos thanked the foundational funders and the volunteers involved in the site’s cleanup and renovation, including major donors Nati Kushner and the Abrams Foundation, Debbie Freedman, Lynne Azarchi, and federation. “They stood behind us when we thought we didn’t have a prayer anymore,” Soos said.
Kushner — who said, “I have the honor to write the checks” from the Abrams Foundation — told NJJN that giving to the JCC Abrams Camps is not a new endeavor for her family. It goes back to the 1960 opening of the camp in Ewing, supported by Samuel Abrams, who was the uncle of Nati’s husband, Melvin, and the brother of Melvin’s mother, Jewel Abrams Kushner.
“Samuel Abrams loved children but never got married, and he decided to donate money for a camp,” Nati Kushner told NJJN, and from the camp’s genesis it bore his name: the Sam Abrams Day Camp.
“Now that they have moved, it is sort of my baby also, because I was involved from the beginning,” said Kushner, who also volunteered her time to help clean up the site and ready it for operation this summer.
Former JCC president Azarchi’s connection to the JCC also goes way back to its original beginnings in Trenton. “The YMHA, which became the JCC, was the only place my father [Arthur Azarchi] could go and not be beaten up for being Jewish,” she said. She herself was an Abrams camper and counselor, then a parent, and finally joined the board and helped “save the camp,” she said. Further, she added, “now we’re going to become a JCC with year-round programs.”
For Azarchi, reaching out to unaffiliated Jews is a crucial JCC role. Looking around the excited crowd, she said, “Half of these families are not affiliated with a shul. For 50 percent of the children in this camp, this is the only Jewish experience they have.”
Freedman, who with her mother, Anne Freedman, made a significant donation, cited several motivations. The first was the fun she herself had as a youngster at the camp. “I think it’s great for as many people as possible to have that kind of experience,” she said. Second, the camp would expose unaffiliated Jewish kids to Jewish life. Freedman said she particularly values the many scholarships the camp provides every year to kids who otherwise would not be able to attend.
Mark Merkovitz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks — which donated $75,000 to the camp, $50,000 of which was a matching grant — wrote in an e-mail: “As Rabbi Wisnia alluded to…the JCC Abrams Camps is an important ingredient for our Jewish community…and our federation is proud that we played an integral part in making this new home of the camp come to fruition.”
Burkhoff, who gave the camp a 15-plus-year lease, called his relationship with the JCC “a partnership” where both parties “want to ensure that from generation to generation there are people who step up and do anything they can to ensure the survival of the Jewish people.”
At the event, campers, counselors, staff, volunteers, and family members were all smiles, and New Jersey State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14) said she was impressed with the camp’s beauty and the fact that “everybody looks happy.”
Kindergartner Harry Stopek is a first-timer at the camp. His mother, Sara, a congregant at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, said, “We visited. He loved it. And he convinced us it was time for him to have a real camp experience.”
West Windsor resident and Beth El congregant Brooke Rosenberg, a counselor-in-training, talked to NJJN not just about camp activities but about her goals for the second-grade boys she will be working with: “that they will have friends that will last for a long time, be less shy and get out of their shells, learn to be respectful, and learn how to swim,” she said.
The renovated camp, which formerly housed Burkhoff’s nondenominational Cedarville Country Day Camp, is located off Route 195 in East Windsor. It includes three outdoor pools, a sports barn, a newly renovated air-conditioned multi-purpose building, indoor art pavilion, teen lounge with DJ booth, athletic fields with baseball stadium and batting cage, outdoor basketball and tennis courts, and a Mega 30-foot climbing rock wall.
The camp has three divisions: a day camp for pre-K through fourth grade; Alufim, a tween travel camp that is at the site two days a week and travels three days a week; and a teen travel camp, for seventh- through ninth-graders who travel five days a week.