A Jewish haven turns 35

Fam­i­lies com­mem­o­rate site’s Texas-style blend of com­mu­nity and faith

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO &STATE - By Joshunda San­ders

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.”

andy Sharp pho­tos

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.

Andy Sharp pho­tos

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.

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