Yitzchak Blau

Camp Munk and a World That Was

A few weeks ago, I joined a Whatsapp group chat for Camp Munk alumni, a camp in Ferndale, New York that I attended from 1976 through 1985.It has been very endearing to see men in their 50s and 60s reminiscing fondly about Color War songs from the 1970s. Clearly, the camp managed to profoundly touch many campers and counselors. One noteworthy aspect of the camp was its moderate Charedi character which I will now elucidate.

Most of the campers and staff did come from Charedi yeshivot such as Chaim Berlin, Torah ve Daas, and Ner Yisrael. At the same time, Munk exhibited several strikingly moderate aspects.

  • I can think of more than twelve families of campers from my era that clearly lived more in the Yeshiva University orbit. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of these boys ended up attending YU. Nonetheless, we integrated smoothly into the camp with no tension. I do not want to over romanticize; those attending YU were usually not invited back as staff with some exceptions (my brother Binny) but while in camp, we all got along well.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s, Munk performed an annual play and the themes were not necessarily Jewish adherence to mizvot during the Inquisition and Holocaust. Among other things, they put on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Oliver, You’re a Good Man Charley Brown, The Education of Hyman Kaplan, and Harvey. Apparently, these non-Jewish cultural productions were deemed worthwhile.
  • On Shabbat afternoon, Rav Dovid Cohen ran a Machon program for staff and the oldest campers. In this format, I recall a debate about secular studies and one about Zionism. Not fully trusting my memory, I confirmed this with one of the fellows who argued in favor of a broader education. Now the debate atmosphere was not fully neutral but it is noteworthy that a Charedi camp let both viewpoints find expression.
  • Camp valued the development of a variety of talents. Yeshiva culture tends to prize aptitude at studying gemara leaving other skills kind of irrelevant. Due to a three day Color War and a Circus performed before the larger public, Munk fostered the work of artists, musicians, actors, and acrobats. Campers and counselors could shine in a host of ways.
  • The more Charedi crowd was also interested in playing and following sports. An excellent hockey player from Montreal used to entertain us with his rendition of Canadian announcers describing a Guy Lafleur goal or Henderson scoring for Canada to beat the Russians.
  • There was no assumption of yeshiva dress for non -sports activities. Even during learning groups, plenty of fellows wore polo shirts and casual slacks.

I can think of four factors contributing to this more moderate approach. The entire Charedi world was less extreme and the Orthodox community was less polarized. The Munks are a German Jewish family and yekkish Orthodoxy was often more open to the outside world. Two members of the rabbinic staff, brothers R. Shragi and R. Ezra Neuberger, were from Ner Yisrael, a yeshiva less hardcore Charedi than many New York counterparts. Finally, the towering and broad minded presence of R. Dovid Cohen encouraged the debates I enumerated above.

Though Camp Munk still exists, much has changed in the Orthodox world. My impression is that aspects 1,2,3 and 6 are no longer true whereas 4 and 5 live on. The annual play already ceased during my time as a camper, campers from more Modern Orthodox homes no longer attend, and contemporary pictures reveal a sea of white shirts and dark pants. As noted, these changes reflect larger trends of polarization.

I think it worthwhile to recall a time when things were different; perhaps one day we can enjoy attending camp together once more.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.