Friday, June 24, 2011

A Remembrance of Massad, by Doni Remba

Massad Camps Logo
The excitement rose as we rounded the bend; we opened the windows to get closer to the crisp autumnal mountain air. But only unending forest, punctuated by the occasional stream or cabin, lay within our vista. Our wheels gripped the serpentine asphalt as we pressed anxiously ahead, half believing, half doubting we would reach our Granada. The panorama seemed never to change, as if some nature-mad artist could paint only a wilderness tableau from a palate of splendiferous green. We followed another bend to the right, careening again to the left. Soon we would cross the Delaware River, I imagined, to traverse the rickety Dingman’s Bridge, our mission unfulfilled. Had we gone too far?

Was Massad, alas, dead? There can be no doubt that Machane Massad still lives in the hearts of many who came of age in what can only be described as the most unique melding of Jewish tradition, Hebrew culture and Zionism outside of Eretz Yisrael. There can be no doubt: the soul of Massad remains alive even now. It is passed on every day to our children, our friends, our families, in every moment of ahavat yisrael, every act of mitzvah. Does the body of Massad too remain? This was the question my brother Zev and I sought out to answer for ourselves on a crisp October day.

The Remba roots are planted deeply in the soil of Massad. My father, Oded Remba, z”l, and my mother, Chaya Remba, z"l, were Massad couple number 37, having met in the summer of 1952 at Massad Beth, my mother as Rosh Plugah in the Maccabiah, my father as Sgan Rosh. Chaya rose from a counselor to become head counselor of the girls camp, and eventually director. At the age of six, by 1959, I began as a camper in Shoresh. Only Zev can claim the honor of having been practically born at Massad, summarily shipped in the summer of 1961 almost straight from the delivery room to his own little bunk in Kibbutz HaSharon.

Chaya had a friend with a vacation home in Hemlock Hedges, the community in Dingman’s Ferry; he did not remember there being any camp on Route 209. Had Massad been razed by developers, replaced by more lucrative summer home real estate? We feared the worst. I flew to Washington, DC, where Zevi lives with his wife and daughter, Rebecca, and we set out on the six-hour drive from the Potomac to the Poconos to see for ourselves. Had it yielded to rapacious real estate moguls, we feared we might not even recognize the grounds where the camp had long stood. I insisted that if anything would serve as a guide post, surely Elmer’s would—or Marcel Lake Store, the only general store in Dingman’s Ferry. If we hit Elmer’s, and didn’t find the camp, we had gone too far. We hoped too, that the agam and the dam, which could easily be seen from the road, would serve as a locator. Surely no developer would have spoiled its simple, pristine beauty. Weary now from our long sojourn, lost in a land of lake and pine, our spirits began to flag.

Suddenly a vision unfolded to our right: the two stone pillars from which the name Massad Beth had once been displayed! They remained, but the sign did not. In its place, was a small placard reading Messivta Eitz Haim Bobover Camp; and a chain link fence surrounding the entire side of the camp which faced the road. We pulled in to the broad grassy Migrash Chanaya across the road, to be greeted by a pair of wild deer. As we approached the fence, we noticed that a hole had been cut, through which we could easily pass. Relieved that we would not be scaling the high fence, we moved stealthily, our voices hushed as we passed the caretaker’s house, a skill cultivated on many a nocturnal raid on these very grounds during the sixties under the tutelage of Yisrael Schorr, Effie Buchwald and David Gitler. Our nostrils were immediately overwhelmed by the powerful scent of pine tree—yes, the familiar sweet air of Massad!

We walked down the main pathway and surveyed the horizon: Massad remained! Every building, every feature. We were ready to kiss the ground in ecstasy! Hayeenu kecholmeem . . . we were as dreamers on our return. We turned first to the Chadar Ochel. Our hearts quickly sank. Suddenly we felt a little like Jews returning from Galut to the Temple after its desecration. The Bobover chassidim had apparently abandoned the camp after the summer of 1996, having left it in a state of ungodly balagan. The dining room gave off a noxious odor, which could be traced to the unclean state in which it had been left. Zevi quipped that an order of Dag Moshe Rebbeinu must have been left in the kitchen to ripen. The Bobover had installed central air conditioning units on top of the low roof in the front of the Chadar Ochel. As a result, the roof was sagging, a disaster in the making.

The road from Shderot Hagvurah, the main path, to the Chadar Ochel, had been festooned with festive naked light bulbs suspended from a string, as if every day was a carnival. Colorful stenciled signs were hung on trees, with such epigrams as “tsaddik katamar yifrach.” Saddest of all, we found two of the multi-colored Chagall-inspired faux stained-glass panels depicting the tribes of Israel which had long adorned the windows of the dining room; one lay intact on the floor; the other outside on the grass, shattered.

As we walked onto the hill descending from the Chadar Ochel to Ulam Hamachon, what struck me immediately was that the agam was no longer visible, the trees and foliage having grown to obstruct the view. One could not survey the Chadar Ochel without finding oneself amidst a rush of memories: the daily excitement of scanning the “tafreet” to discover the specialite du jour, the festive Shabbat dinners and zemirot, the countless zimriot and “shidurei radio,” Louie Bernstein’s mystical, magical tales of the Ba’al Shem Tov in the hushed twilight of Shabbat afternoon. And now the Ba’al Shem’s spiritual heirs had inherited this very space. It was on the grassy lawn of Ulam Hamachon that Louie had, one Shabbat, once posed the question to several dozen campers: what makes Judaism different from other religions? An awkward silence engulfed the group. I raised my hand, and ventured: It’s an entire way of life. Exactly, Louie beamed. A way of life. Halacha.

The most radical change which the Bobover had made to the camp now loomed ahead. Where once had been the pastoral expanse of Meegrash Hatzanhanim, was now the largest edifice in the camp: a massive grey, stone-block two-story building. The first floor remained unfinished, a construction site left in disarray, cement bags and wheel-barrows left in midstream. We bounded up a flight of outside stairs to the second, and main, floor of the building, entering through a pair of doors. We found ourselves inside a cavernous room, clearly a shul. The Aron Kodesh, emptied of its Sifrei Torah, was built in the front, its curtains drawn. In the rear, floor-to-ceiling book cases spanned the entire length of the structure, still populated with hundreds of sifrei kodesh: Talmud Bavli, Pirke Avot, Mishne Torah LaRambam, the Shulchan Aruch, and numerous other commentaries. Dozens of white and black kitels and umbrellas were oddly suspended from racks behind the bookcases. Outside we found large Carrier central air conditioning units which had already been installed. We had thrived at Massad for decades without air conditioning; we wondered why the Bobover so needed it.

We left the shul and walked a short way to the fork in the road, to the intersection of Rehov Haneviim (the Path of the Prophets) and Rehov Ahad Ha’am, the prophet of cultural Zionism. Though the trees had turned to their fiery fall hues, smothering the ground in a dense blanket of pine needles and leaves, they still formed the extraordinary graceful wish-bone canopy, enclosing what had once been Massad’s heavenly garden, Gan Moshe Sharett. It was the garden, I reminded Zev, where he had become a Bar Mitzvah in the summer of 1974. I could see the benches filling the grassy knoll between the trees, in an arc around the table on which the Sefer Torah was read. It was the last vision I had of Massad Beth until that very moment: here I was, in that same spot, twenty-three years later. Three days after Zevi’s Bar Mitzvah, I left for Israel, where I lived for the next four years, as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was never to see Massad again. Until today. Zevi had returned for another two summers, graduating from Alufim, consummating what for him had been fifteen almost-consecutive summers at Massad. We sat on the flat rocks on the roadside and marvelled at what lay before us.

We took the right fork in the road and proceeded down Rechov Haneviim, past Kikar Mordei Hagettaot (the Plaza of Ghetto Resistance Fighters), towards Beit Betzalel and the Marpeah. All had remained frozen in time. We reached the twin silver migdelei mayeem, where on Erev Shabbat, the boys would kiss the girls goodnight, before sending them on their way to Kibbutz Hasharon. The Migrash Kadoor Basees remained but without its defining foundation: the chain-link fence backstop behind home plate had been removed. Passing the tennis courts, we stopped to visit the first bunk before entering the girls’ camp, Beit Menahel Hamashek, next to the guest houses. We remembered it as the bunk where Chaya had lived for many a summer; I recalled that before she had taken it over, Harry Berman had used it.

From there, we descended Shderat Weizmann into the Sharon and checked out the girls’ bunks. Almost all remained unchanged, with but one exception. The small bunk at the end of the girls’ camp where Zevi had spent his first summers with a metapelet, was no more, having been replaced by a large aluminum-sided trailer, out of which a bunk had been devised. The area around Ulam Nordau had been converted into an outdoor day care center, dozens of haphazardly-strewn tricycles still littering the terrain. We found one of the old green wooden ping pong tables on which we had so often played, especially when our father visited, laying overturned in front of Ulam Nordau. It was here that I remembered the oversized tents in which some had lived during the summers of the 50’s and early 60’s, and the vegetable gardens we had cultivated like kibbutzniks by Beit Betzalel in those pioneering years.

We ascended from the Sharon, passing Meir Moskowitz’s, Noam Shudofsky’s and Louie Bernstein’s bunks, and headed towards Kibbutz Yizrael. I was soon overcome with memories of countless yeridim and tkaseem which filled the broad field in the center of the camp. We reached the boys’ camp and entered Bunk 21, the first in the first row, called Rehov HaRav Kook, where both Zevi and I had been campers in Shoresh. The new tenants had made some changes: the bunks, once white, had now been painted a bright, garish yellow, the wooden green doors replaced with metal, chicken wire now covering wood beams on the porches, presumably a safety measure to prevent small children from crawling through and falling to the ground. Inside, the bunks had been paved with linoleum, rear doors had been added, and the rear cubby area had been eliminated, each camper’s cubby now having been built next to his bed. We had a strong urge to “french” one of the beds, but the lack of toothpaste and shaving cream (as well as sheets) dampened our ardor. Missing were the shlateem of Degania, Nahalal and so many other kibbutzim and moshavim, which had adorned the portals to each bunk, the handiwork of their denizens at Beit Betzalel.

Soon we reached Rehov Bialik and the large bunk where I had spent Prozdor and Zev Alufim. It had been converted inside into an array of smaller rooms, each with refrigerator and bathroom. It was in this bunk where I had met Tzveeka, our counselor from Israel, who had invited us to visit Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan for the following summer. The summer of 1969, my father, mother, Zev and I lived on the kibbutz; 1968 was to be my last year at Massad as a camper. I returned to Massad Aleph five years later, after my freshman year of college, to work in the kitchen, assist with Jewish music on the guitar, and edit the camp newsletter, Massad Echoes. It was there, during my budding years as a philosophy student, that I came to know and befriend Rabbis David Eliach and Meir Havatzelet, with whom I spent long hours in conversation.

From the Prozdor bunk we descended the gravel path down to Meegrash Kennedy, passing the Meegrash Kadoor Af on which we had played; the tetherball poles that had dotted the boys’ camp were no longer in evidence. Meegrash Kennedy remained exactly as we had remembered it, the site of baseball games, Maccabiah track and field contests, and my personal favorite pe’ulat erev: keebush hadegel. What was so remarkable about that game was its pure simplicity: all it took to play was a pick-up truck to shine it’s lights across the midsection of the field, creating a border between the two sides, two small flags, and we felt we were spies fighting some patriot’s game in the midst of the Second World War or Meelchemet Hasheechrur. The entire game was created whole out of the fabric of imagination: passwords and a “Keleh” where prisoners were kept if discovered without the right password on the wrong side of the border. The medurot and tent camping we did on the left side of the field by the agam were unforgettable experiences, charging us with a rustic sense of the outdoors from the earliest age. The lazy reeds still congregated at the edge of the agam, a reminder to turn one’s canoe about.

We continued along the path by the shore of the agam, hoping to stumble on the Indian arrow-heads once so commonplace there. On the lake’s opposite shore, we could detect the signs of vacation homes which had been developed since our last visit more than two decades before. Several docks extended from the water’s edge, mooring for small fishing boats. Indeed, we soon encountered two fisherman astride a wide platform, suspended over twin canoes, gently plying the lake for the day’s catch. Finally we reached the swimming section of the agam: the Massad docks were no more, the lake having been restored to its primal serenity. Only a few poles poked out of the murky water, remnants of a possible floating dock, so Zevi speculated. The shed where water accouterments for the lifeguards and swimmers had been stored was gone—the long bamboo poles, the canoes and row-boats. Here whistles had blown, and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were chanted out in unison, always by pairs, as in Talmud study, wafting their way to Heaven, weaving their own secret language which only the Lord might divine: aleph, bet, gimel, dalet . . .

We started up the steep gravel path back up to camp; a thick tree, felled by lightening, blocked our way. Someone had attempted to saw it into pieces to remove it, but had abandoned the project midway. Everywhere we trod, Massad had the feel of an unfinished symphony. We quickly ascended the path, and found ourselves behind Ulam Channah Senesh—she who had given her life parachuting behind German lines to aid the Jewish resistance against the Nazis. “Even if they catch me,” she had remarked, “that will become known to the people in the concentration camps. They will know that someone was coming to try to help them.” The young Chana was not only caught, but executed. Yet somehow, she lived on at Massad. Even now, her defiant spirit cried out.

We returned from our reveries: the ascent had always seemed to take so much longer, Zev remarked; we were wet, shivering and wearing thongs, I rejoined. And we had little legs, he opined. I was ready for my “meetz (aka “bug juice”) and Tam-Tams,” but alas we had to settle for a taste of memory. We found rooms on the underside of Senesh which looked as if their inhabitants had fled from Pharoah in haste: cartons of milk, boxes of cereal, languishing on tables. Zevi wondered whether we might still find meeschakeem shkayteem inside the Senesh closet had we succeeded in entering. What, too, had become of the large pen and ink drawing of Camp Muncie which had hung on the Senesh wall? But Senesh was locked; her secrets would remain unplumbed. It was here that I had sung my first solo as a six-year old: Keli ata, ve-odeka . . . We reached Misrad Hachinuch, from which Noam, Meir and Chaya had awakened us: Boker Tov Machane Massad Bet! Hasha’a shesh vachaytsee! Na lakoom meen ha-meetot uleheetlabesh b'meechnasayeem ketzareem! We would scurry out into the crisp morning mountain air for shachareet and breakfast.

Ulam Herzl, the site of many a movie and musical performance—I had played mandolin there, sung in countless makaylot, danced Yesh Lanu Tayeesh on Erev Shabbat—was closed, filled to the brim with cement bags for the Bobover construction site nearby. It was here, as a child, that I first saw the film “Let My People Go,” and began to sense the enormity of the Shoah. It was here, too, that I first saw “A Raisin in the Sun,” and learned the lesson I had discovered so many times again: that all men and women, black and white, Jew and non-Jew, are created by one God, each with the same God-given dignity, b’tselem elokim. And it was here that I first understood that a mouse could roar.

No small irony, this, for a place named after the founder of political Zionism. For these became the articles of faith of my Zionism, as they had been Herzl’s: “Hold fast,” urged Herzl in Old-New Land, “to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion.” It was Moshe Sharett who may have best voiced its essence: “In this vision will be found the quintessence of our ancient tradition, before the sojourns and dispersion, which always emphasized the universal in our spiritual world and all which is supranational in our road to morality and progress.”

How ironic, too, that we honored with an “ulam” Max Nordau, Herzl’s atheist Zionist colleague, who had suggested the abolition of the Shabbat in the Jewish state, rather than Ahad Ha’am, who celebrated its sacred centrality to Judaism, and whose own spiritual Zionism placed a revival of Jewish tradition and culture at its heart. It was Shabbat, after all, which symbolized the brit between God and man, bearing witness to Judaism’s universal message. In the words of one of the great religious-Zionist Mizrahi sages of mandatory Palestine, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv: “Our history begins not with the Patriarchs but with Adam . . . Our Torah is not content with nationalism alone but has regard for the whole world and general humanity precedes our Patriarchs.” It was Ahad Ha’am who could write, as Nordau never did, of the relationship between Jewish nationalism and Jewish ethics in “The Character of Judaism”:
The Jewish law of justice is not confined within the narrow sphere of individual relations. In its Jewish sense the precept ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ can be carried out by a whole nation in its dealings with other nations. For this precept does not oblige a nation to sacrifice its life or its position for the benefit of other nations. It is, on the contrary, the duty of every nation, as of every individual human being, to live and to develop to the utmost limit of its powers; but at the same time it must recognize the right of other nations to fulfill the like duty without let or hindrance. Patriotism—that is, national egoism—must not induce it to disregard justice, and to seek self-fulfillment through the destruction of other nations.
Yet it was Ahad Ha’am whose name, along with that of the biblical Prophets, graced the pathway by which one entered the world of Massad. Such, I suppose, is the philosophy of “ulamot,” a pursuit whose origins I trace to Massad. We doubled back to Ulam Fishman. I was struck by how poor the condition of the paint was on the main ulamot; clearly the Bobover had not kept up the aesthetics of the camp.

The newer ulamot, like Fishman, had been built with natural knotted pine exteriors, with only a coating of shellac; the Bobover had painted them over. We entered Fishman, the site of so many machazot—remember Zev? “Hamelech erom kemo bameeklachat!” Here was the stage where I had been Mook Hakatan, Smee the Pirate, and a colleague of Bambi. It was on this stage that I first debuted, under Effie Buchwald’s tutelage, in the Ashpot, an all-male quartet which rendered Erev Shel Shoshanim in four-part harmony, while sitting on upside down garbage cans. It was here that Meir had led us in soulful Havdalah. But the stage had been removed, and the natural ceiling had been replaced with soundproofed tile and air conditioning. A porch-like abutment had been added to the room, with a waste-high wall separating it from the rest of the room: we quickly realized it was the women’s gallery, separated by mechitzah. But the beemah remained in the center, the hand-carved wood surrounding the Aron Kodesh, the original maroon carpeting and drape still in their place. A fragment of the letter “heh” had been lost from the carved epigram on the left side of the Aron: “Vehagita Bo Yomam Valayla Ve’az Taskil.” We walked past the Seefreeah, and settled down on the wooden benches in front, arrayed in a circle.

Finally we had reached our starting point, having come full circle: everywhere we turned, we knew Maccabiah might suddenly break out! By the Marpeah, multi-colored leaflets dropped from the roof; in front of Senesh, Kennedy or the agam, scattered from a low-flying plane. But only the chirping of birds broke the silence. We now stood before the Lishka Merkazeet. The door was unlocked. A building permit warned that the small structure could not be occupied until various repairs and improvements had been made. We entered nonetheless. The office was in epic disarray: these Jews must not have had time even to bake matzah before their sudden departure! Files and papers were splayed about with abandon throughout the room where Sue Moskowitz and Shlomo once sat. On the wall we spied it: a map of Camp Massad Beth, drawn in commemoration of its 25th year, Yovel HaKaf Heh, in 1965. Feeling like archeologists excavating a prior Jewish civilization, we gently removed the large yellowed map from the wall. The Bobover don’t need this. Let them draw their own map. We liberated it in memory of Mahane Massad, and all those who made it what it was.

Before leaving, we stumbled upon a statement from the Pennsylvania Pike County Assessor’s office, announcing to the camp’s owners that it’s value had been reassessed at four times its previous value: some $2.2 million. We speculated that the new building had increased the real estate tax liability of the camp, and that the Bobover could no longer afford to operate it. All indications were they had abandoned the camp in 1996. Upon my return home, I found the latest issue of Moment magazine waiting at my doorstep, which reported that two rabbis of the Bobover Hassidim had just been indicted on Federal charges of conspiring to “launder” $1.75 million in drug money! One was a former rosh yeshiva. These rabbis had sought to help their communities—if true, an evil done for noble ends. Chas veshalom! HaKadosh Baruch Hu works in mysterious ways. And yet . . . to all those who pine for the resurrection of Massad on its ancestral soil, take heart: the Bobover may be in trouble; Massad might be bought for a song. May it rise again like a phoenix from the ashes, b’ezrat Hashem. Shayneet Massad Lo Yeepol!


Harvey Lederman, Massad Bet, tzameret-machon, matzil, sgan rosh agam, rosh agam. said...

Good pre-Shabbat reading. Thanks for this. I remember being in tzameret next door to alufim when Zev was there. If memory serves, he was friendly was a couple of my bunkmates -- Andy Garay amd Marc Cooper. How long ago was your return visit?

sharon blumenthal said...

A few of us went up to massad bet, last summer (2010) and it was the last day of camp for the bobovers, the kollel has been there every summer for the last 30 years, we were allowed to walk around (kibbutz hasharon only) and we did go down to kennedy and the agam. We sat in the chadar ochel, which was being used as the dining room for the kollel boys. Some things remain the same very different.
sharon zanger blumenthal

Gidon D. Remba said...

Harvey - my story was written in 1997 after we visited. It's been updated in a few places, as it's appearing online for the first time now in June 2011. Zev remembers you. Glad you enjoyed the piece! Doni

sharon hyman fogel said...

wonderful remembrance of Massad. many of my memories are the same, and many more were evoked. thanks so much for the walk back in time.

-sharon hyman fogel-

BocaBoyntonDelray said...

powerful, poignant and touching...
Thank you so much!
Teddy Struhl - Massad until the very end...

Tamar Orvell said...

I loved every shared memory! Thank you! A question about the camp logo/semel: What do the two single Hebrew letters under the date palm stand for: ivrit and tziyonut? Or what? — Tamar (nee Chipkin)... Massad Bet: shoresh, gezah, anaf, tzameret in the 1950s.

Gidon D. Remba said...

Hi Tamar, I'm so glad that you enjoyed our walk down memory lane. Yes, I always assumed that it was Ivrit v'Tzionut. Doni