Sylvia Carmel is 66 years old, and she still goes to sleepaway camp every summer.
Carmel, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Glyndon, is a nurse at Stoneleigh Elementary School in Towson for most of the year. But every summer, she attends Camp Louise, an overnight camp with a Jewish focus in Washington County. She first went there when she was 6 years old, and now, as an adult, she seems more devoted to the camp than ever.
"This is a priority for me," she says.
In 2008, as in summers past, Carmel signed on as the camp nurse. Her husband Ron, worked in the art department. Daughter Leslie Salters was the swimming director, son-in-law Steve helped out in the athletics program, and daughter Marji Arnheim kept the camp's website up to date with pictures of children swimming, dancing, and otherwise enjoying themselves. Three grandchildren slept in cabins at Camp Louise and its brother camp, Camp Airy, nine miles away.
Sylvia isn't alone in maintaining her allegiance to Camp Louise well into adulthood. Mothers and grandmothers teach children to swim, take photographs, and dance, and not just so their kids can get discounts on camp tuition.
"You want to keep it going," says Arnheim, daughter of Sylvia and parent of two boys at Camp Airy. "You almost feel like you're responsible for its continuation."
To Sylvia and generations of other Jewish people in Maryland and surrounding states who have attended the camp since it opened in 1922, Camp Louise means much more than mosquito bites, swim lessons, and the smell of wood smoke in their clothes.
It is a place where Jewish traditions are passed from one generation to the next, where memories are made, and where grandparents return year after year, even if they have no relatives at camp, simply because they like being there. And the feeling of family is fostered by reunions, newsletters, and an active alumni association.
Joan Bornstein, who gives her age as "over 70" and lives in Miami, until recently held a high-powered job as CEO of a special-needs school, and now serves as president of her temple. But she returns to Camp Louise each summer, even though she has no relatives there at the moment. In fact, she taught the current swim director, Leslie Salters, how to swim.
"If they hadn't let me come for camp, I would have left them," she says of her employer. "I mean, what's important in life?"
Sitting outside at a picnic table on a warm July day, she looks content and unfazed by the heat of the afternoon. "I think we have something really special here," she says. "There's an attachment to the camp that's extremely unusual. I think it's one of the few places where I can consider a person half my age to be a really good friend."
Bornstein first attended Camp Louise in 1945, traveling from Brooklyn, NY. Her mother, Gertrude Levine, was a librarian at the camp. "I was ecstatic to be here," she says. She scheduled her 1952 marriage for August 3, so she could attend camp for most of the summer before tying the knot. Her husband, Jacob, worked at the camp as a cantor and music teacher, and fell in love with it, too. With her own children and grandchildren counted among the alums, Bornstein can boast four generations at Camp Louise and Camp Airy.
The 400-acre camp in Cascade got its start as a place for young Jewish women working in Baltimore factories and shops to escape the summer heat.
Ida Sharogrodsky, a social worker for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, found the property, which had been the Hotel Melview, and convinced Baltimore philanthropists Aaron and Lillie Meyer Straus to purchase it. As Bornstein explains it, "Miss Ida went to them and said she wanted to start a camp for working girls."
According to legend, Aaron Straus didn't like the property when he first saw it. But while touring the building, he walked out onto a third-floor balcony. Just then, the sun broke through the clouds. That was all the sign he needed, and he made the purchase.
The Strauses, who made their fortune in furniture, clothing, and jewelry stores throughout the country, opened the 450-acre Camp Airy in Thurmont two years later. Airy was the nickname for Aaron, and Louise was the name of his sister, who had died.
"This dynamic triangle—Ida with the ideas, Lillie with the heart, and Aaron with the funds—worked together successfully throughout their lives, enriching and inspiring young people for generations," reads a book published in 2006 about the Aaron Straus and Lillie Straus Foundation, which owns the camps.
The first year, 12 women attended Camp Louise. Last summer saw about 1,000 girls at Camp Louise, and a slightly smaller number of boys at Camp Airy.
Camp Louise was run by Sharogrodsky, known to one and all as Miss Ida, for more than 50 years. The Strauses, who had no children of their own, spent summers in a log cabin on the property. They were known as Aunt Lillie and Uncle Airy and were popular with youngsters there. Aaron, in particular, was known for doling out lollypops and one-liners to campers walking to the lake, Bornstein says. He would say, "Have a good time swimming, but don't get wet!" she recalls.
Alumni like Jodi Smith, on a summer tour of the campus, marvel at how little it has changed over time. Smith hasn't been to camp in almost 25 years, but her first reaction is, "It looks exactly the same." (She is joined on her tour by her 11-year-old daughter and the daughter's friend, who immediately commence a begging campaign to attend the following summer.)
As was the case when Smith was a camper, the centerpiece of the property is still the big "White House," a sprawling, structure that started life as a hotel more than 100 years earlier. Though it has been renovated and now holds residential and activity rooms, it still boasts an inviting wraparound porch with a sweeping view of the property.
Smith, who grew up in Randallstown, first went to Camp Louise when she was about 7. The camp director, Alicia Berlin, who also grew up in Randallstown and now lives in Owings Mills, started attending in 1980, when she was 10. Her first summer, she was so homesick she wanted to leave.
But before long, she fell under the Camp Louise spell. "It's a very generational camp," she says. "When you walk in, it feels like you're home."
Berlin met her husband, Neil, at Camp Airy, where he worked. Neil's sister works at Camp Louise, his mother worked at Airy, and his dad was a doctor at Louise. Alicia's mother and her father's mother are also Louise alums.
Last summer, Alicia and Neil lived at Camp Louise with their twin daughters, and both sets of grandparents came to help out. This summer, they will add a new daughter, Eliana, to the roster of family members living at the camp.
Alicia's sister-in-law, Beth Cohen, who has, in her own words, "pretty much been here since 1988," is the leadership training coordinator for new counselors.
Though the look of the camp and the philosophy of mixing fun with Jewish culture have changed little over the years, the agenda has been tweaked and expanded for modern sensibilities. Bowling and roller-skating outings have been added, for example, as well as video courses and a radio station. "There's definitely a balance between tradition and changing with the times and what kids want," says Berlin.
But kids haven't changed that much, Bornstein says. "In the '40s, we had many of the activities we have today," she says, though the pool wasn't added until the 1960s, so back then campers swam at Ritchie Lake.
"It has changed a lot, but it has stayed the same," adds Carmel, who says kids don't yearn for their cell phones, TV, and Internet when they are at camp because they're busy with all the camp programs.
"The activities have changed a lot, according to the trends of the times and what kids like to do," she says, "but the whole attitude and spirit of carrying these traditions out remains the same."
"The emotional ties of the camp never change. From year to year, they do not change."
Camper Jenny Rubin, 12, of Pikesville says she likes that moms and grandparents are at the camp because she feels part of a line of generations who enjoy being at Camp Louise.
"I think it's actually kind of nice," she says. Her mom, Sharon, attended Camp Louise, and introduced her to many of the staffers, which eased her transition to the camp experience, she notes.
Sylvia Carmel, for one, has no intention of giving up her summers at Camp Louise. "I'll keep doing this as long as my bones allow me," she says. "It's a labor of love."
Girls at Camp Louise and boys at Camp Airy can go for as many as four two-week sessions per summer, signing up for activities ranging from SCUBA diving to photography and from pottery to rock-climbing. The camp boasts a vibrant music and drama department, offers swimming every day, and takes kids on adventures like hiking, caving, and canoe trips.