A Jewish haven turns 35
Families commemorate site’s Texas-style blend of community and faith
BRUCEVILLE — Shabbat services in this remote, emerald-hued oasis of lakes and hills were filled with adults in shorts and lime-green tie-dyed T-shirts Saturday. Outside, children ran around in the 95-degree heat and a slight, humid breeze that made the American and Israeli flags flap lightly beneath the clear blue sky.
Beside them, the Greene Family Camp flag — multicolored, with a Torah and a tree at its center — served as a constant reminder of what the 160-acre space is supposed to be: a safe place to proudly own and cultivate Jewish identity. This weekend, the Greene Family Camp celebrated its 35th birthday, which brought more than 1,500 current and former staffers, campers and their families to Texas’ only Reform movement-sponsored camp.
The Reform branch is the most liberal expression of Judaism in America, and an estimated 42 percent of American Jews classify themselves as Reform. The camp was started in 1976 with 40 campers in this tiny Central Texas community near Waco for families who at-
tended Reform synagogues in the Southwest. That number more than tripled in the first few years, camp leader Loui Dobin said.
“Knowing that everyone around you has the same or similar beliefs about God” makes it special, said Michael Solka, 48, whose parents helped start the camp when they moved to the Austin area from Corpus Christi.
Solka attended camp as a kid, worked there as a staffer when he got older and met his future wife, Liz, at the camp when he was 18 — “the summer romance I couldn’t let go of,” he says. Now all their children have attended the camp.
Solka said his Northwest Hills neighborhood has a higher percentage of Jews than other parts of Austin, but “most of the people around us are not Jewish. At camp, everyone around you is. It’s similar to being in Israel.”
Texas has three other Jewish camps, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Musician and humorist Kinky Friedman helped found Echo Hill Ranch, which is not exclusively for Jewish children but has Shabbat services.
Greene Family Camp is named for Edward C. Greene, one of several founding members of the camp.
Over the weekend, cars lined up and golf carts buzzed around the camp while Locomotive, a brown llama, stared into a sliver of shade. Inside the dining hall area, hundreds of people sang prayers in Hebrew and during hakafa, the marching of the Torah, reached out to touch the holy scrolls.
Old friends and bunkmates embraced and shared their tales of when they were camp- ers there, their eyes glistening from memories of their rope-climbing and gymnastics-practicing days.
After Shabbat services, a nostalgia room was open for reminiscing, and it was filled with old camp T-shirts and programs. White bins brimmed with old snapshots of campers diving into pools, learning how to make pasta in cooking class and, in some cases, posing with their future husbands and wives.
Jan Luskey, 52, one of the camp’s original employees, attended the reunion. The Lubbock native and elementary school teacher volunteers at the camp for a month each summer. Her three children have grown up attending the camp, which she said was the best thing she has ever given them.
“This is our community,” she said. “As a Jewish parent from a small town, sending my children to Greene has made Judaism a lifestyle for them.”
Maybe the feeling of solidarity is what leads two-thirds of those who attend a Jewish camp to become leaders, according to a report by the Avi Chai Foundation. It was that feeling of belonging that Rabbi Steven Folberg, who leads Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, wanted to foster when he decided to work for the camp more than 30 years ago.
As a rabbinical student in New York looking for something to do for the summer, Folberg was asked by Dobin, the longtime camp director, to come to Texas. Folberg said he was interested in reaching out to Jewish children from small cities.
“For them, the only experience they were going to have being ‘normal’ were the few weeks at camp,” Folberg said. “That was it. That was going to be their shot-in-the-arm Jewish experience.”
He recalled sitting with a young Texarkana boy with a Texas Rangers cap and a heavy Texas drawl as he attempted to teach the boy Hebrew.
It could have been frustrating enough for him to get discouraged, Folberg said. But then he talked to the boy’s mother on the phone.
“She was grateful because I was the closest he was going to get to a rabbi,” Folberg said. “That was pretty inspiring.”
More than 1,500 former staffers, campers and families came together over a 50-foot-high tower on a ropes course at the camp in Bruceville, 90 miles the weekend to celebrate the 5th birthday of Greene Family Camp, Texas’ north of Austin. Noah’s dad, Jeff, started camping at the 160-acre space in only Reform Judaism-sponsored camp. Noah Nebrat, 8, of Austin tackles 1980. See more photos from the camp with this story at statesman.com.
Lori Karp of Dallas gets a kiss from her 2-year-old son, Brady, during Saturday morning Shabbat services at the camp.
Sydney Buchman, 8, of Houston kayaks during the festivities Sat-there for 5 years. The site opened in 976 with 40 campers, with urday at Greene Family Camp. Sydney’s dad, Jason, was a camper that number tripling in the first few years, a camp leader says.
Jan Luskey, right, of Midland embraces 8-year-old Kara Hoffman of Houston at the camp. Luskey, a Lubbock native, was one of the original employees and volunteers there every summer.
Hundreds participated in the Shabbat services, which included singing prayers in Hebrew.