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Jewish Journal

Happy Campers

Honoring Norman and Lela Jacoby

by Steve Getzug

November 23, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Norman and Lela Jacoby are talking about Camp Ramah again.

They are playfully finishing each other's sentences, aiming for the right adjectives, the right phrasing to describe a place in Ojai that they say has meant so much to their family.

Their words burst out like a riot of campers elbowing their way onto the gaga court after lunch."A fabulous place," Norman tries.

"Special," Lela counters on her way to defining a summer camp that mixes recreation, Jewish learning and prayer in four-week sessions. "So rewarding," Norman offers.

"A jewel in the crown of Conservative Judaism," Lela says finally. "It serves such a fabulous purpose and is so enlightening for children. It unlocks their Jewish lives in such a profound way."

Such testimony comes easy for the San Fernando Valley couple who have sent more children to Camp Ramah of California than anybody else - their own three daughters, plus scores of kids who have received the annual Merit Scholarship Award the Jacobys have endowed since 1989.

Through the program, one deserving fourth-grade student picked by teachers and principals at each of the six Conservative Jewish day schools in Los Angeles receives a full scholarship to attend the camp - an award worth $2,500. At times, two children at a school will split the award.

By targeting 8- and 9-year-old children for the award, Norman, a retired optometrist, and Lela, a "professional volunteer," say the scholarships become a precious investment in the future of the Jewish community.

They saw it with their own daughter, Taren Jacoby-Metson, back in 1962. The then 8-year-old spent a summer at Ramah and returned to the family's traditional home with songs, Jewish understanding and such ruach that "the Shabbat table seemed to take on a life of its own," Norman said.

"She came home and really taught us," Lela added, a refrain repeated by parents of other Ramah campers.The experience also launched friendships, Jewish discovery and Jewish traditions that have extended through Taren's life, and the lives of the Jacobys' two other daughters, Susan Jacoby-Stern and Judy Jacoby-Chiel.

Consider: The daughters were camp counselors. They married former campers. Their children attend camp. The Jacobys' cousins and their children attend or attended camp, some of them traveling from as far away as Massachusetts.

Last summer, a record 21 Jacoby cousins attended the Ojai camp, which now also boasts the Jacoby Performing Arts Amphitheater, a new 600-seat outdoor stage near the hilltop bunks.

Brian Greene, executive director of Camp Ramah in California, said the camp's executive board's decision to honor Norman and Lela Jacoby this year for their continuing support of the camp was, well, a no-brainer.The Nov. 30 event at Sinai Temple will link families and friends touched by the Jacobys' philanthropy, Greene said. It has also led to the creation of a new endowment fund supported by more than a dozen families and "inspired by the Jacobys' leadership."

"The fund will ensure that kids, based on financial need, can come to camp," Greene said. Last year, the camp provided more than $100,000 in financial assistance in addition to the assistance provided through the Jacoby awards.

"The financial need in the community is great," said Norman Jacoby, who chairs the camp's scholarship committee. "We get letters requesting assistance; some of them are heart-rending."

The Jacobys also get many letters of thanks.

"We got letters from one camper before camp, during camp and after," Lela said, "more than from our grandchildren."

,P>"Somebody who really shines in classes deserves something special," Norman added, "and I think that going to Ramah is special."

For more information about Camp Ramah of California or its scholarship funds, call the camp office at (310) 476-8571.

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