Reform Jewish parents from the Pacific Northwest who are not willing to put their children on an airplane or drive 15 hours to California so they can go to camp will have an alternative by summer 2005, thanks to the generosity of a Los Angeles family.
The Kalsman-Levy family has donated $5 million to the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to buy the property for a new camp in Washington state. Camp Kalsman, named for grandparents Lee and Irving "Red" Kalsman, will become the movement's 13th camp in North America.
Mark Levy, who along with wife, Peachy, donated the money to buy the camp, says the idea of helping build a new camp in the Pacific Northwest was very appealing to the family.
"As we grew more and more involved in Jewish life, we become convinced that the most important things to keep Jewish kids involved in a Jewish life are Jewish camps and trips to Israel," Levy said. Their children and all their grandchildren, including one family living near Seattle, have been to Jewish summer camp when they were old enough and Levy adds that Peachy's parents were also sold on the importance of Jewish camping.
Irving Kalsman and Levy were both real estate developers and Peachy Levy is a Jewish textile artist. The family has made numerous generous gifts to Jewish causes, including a naming gift for the new UCLA Hillel, and a $3 million gift to establish the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism. The institute operates on Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles campus.
More than 10 years ago, the family set up the Levy Youth Fund to distribute hundreds of scholarships to enable teenagers to participate in youth conclave weekends, summer camp and high school programs in Israel. The family also has set up a program to enable teens with various physical challenges -- mobility and visual impairments as well as autism and other disabilities -- to enjoy summer camp at one of the union camps. At last fall's annual meeting of the URJ in Minneapolis, Mark and Peachy Levy were awarded one of the movements highest honors, the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for work in service to the Reform movement.
Levy said he knew the movement was hoping to build two new camps in the near future. They were attracted to help build the camp near Seattle because they have a number of connections to the Pacific Northwest, including their daughter, Janet Levy Pauli, who lives with her family on Bainbridge Island and is involved in both the Bainbridge Reform synagogue, Congregation Kol Shalom, and a Conservative shul in Seattle, Congregation Beth Shalom.
Pauli, who grew up in Los Angeles but has lived in Washington for 25 years, has not put her kids on a plane to attend camp in California. Both her boys have attended the Conservative movement camp near Olympia, Wash., Camp Solomon Schechter, but her family has participated in Reform family camps both in California and Washington.
She is looking forward to having a new place for both kids and families to go to camp in the Pacific Northwest.
"It's exciting because I so believe in camp. That's something that has been passed on to me and my generation and I've passed it on to my kids," Pauli said, adding that she also enjoyed hearing at the Reform biennial in Minnesota last fall how excited Jews from Alaska were to have a camp a few states closer to them.
For 10 years, Rabbi David Fine, URJ regional director, and others have been pushing for a new Reform camp in the Pacific Northwest. During that decade, the region has grown from 20 to 33 congregations, with two more due to affiliate within the next year. The number of children and families interested in Reform Jewish camping has grown along with the congregations, Fine says, noting that two Seattle synagogues run their own 10- or 11-day summer camps and 200 people attend a Seattle family camp outside of the city every Labor Day weekend.
"Eric Yoffe, president of the URJ, has expressed a desire for increased camping beds," Fine said. "Camp is where our young leaders are nurtured and grown. The majority of rabbinical, educator, cantorial and communal service workers grew up in the camping movements."
The URJ runs 12 camps across the country, including two in Northern California, which attract some young people from Washington, Oregon, Montana and Alaska. Fine said he looked at 35 properties over the past three years before a bankruptcy sale made the beautiful and spacious Love Israel property a bargain the movement could not refuse.
The new camp will be about 60 miles northeast of Seattle, between the towns of Arlington and Granite Falls in Snohomish County, on the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. There's a natural lake on the property and it's less than a mile from a river.
"It's absolutely gorgeous. It's a wonderful place for reflection," Fine said. Surrounded mostly by farms and government property, the camp will also be a great place for kids to make noise and have fun during the summer.
Pauli is the only member of the Kalsman-Levy family to have seen the new camp property and gives the site rave reviews.
"It is just spectacular. The group that's been there -- the Love Israel -- people have clearly loved the property, their gardens, the fruit trees, the grape arbors," she said. "When I left I had this feeling not in the people that I met, but in the physicality of it, that the property was kibbutz-like."
The URJ paid $4.2 million for the 300-acre property as part of Love Israel's Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan to pay off a $5.2 million debt. The alternative Christian community, called a cult or commune by some, has nothing to do with the Jewish state or the Jewish people, but rather is a different way of saying the phrase, "love is real," which is the group's founding vision. Their beliefs are tied to the 1960s counterculture and the Bible.
The leader of the Love Israel family, who is also called Love Israel, was the only person willing to say anything amusing about the coincidence of the organization's name and the new owners of the property. When asked by a local newspaper, The Everett Herald, where the group would be going when they left their bucolic Arlington, Wash., ranch after living there for 20 years, he replied, "It'll be an orderly retreat, an exodus, leaving Egypt for the country. I've been able to live in a park. Now I've got to park myself somewhere else."
Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, wrote in a Jan. 2 column distributed the by Religion News Service that there is nothing very amusing about the Love Israel family. He calls the group a cult and describes them as a "bizarre combination of Christian beliefs and New Age ideology, with a charismatic, dictatorial leader." He expressed his pleasure that the beautiful camp property would now come under the stewardship of the real "Children of Israel."
Donna Gordon Blankinship is a free-lance writer living in Seattle.