Reflecting on this past summer, I find myself yearning to be back in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Like so many of our campers and staff, I live “10-for-2.” Viscerally, I feel the longing to be at camp when I am not physically there. Even though I get to live my dream and be “doing camp” 365 days a year; in so many ways, being at camp is the only real thing. Since October 7th, as I have been processing so many overwhelming emotions and meditating on what it means to be Jewish, my yearning and longing have exponentially intensified. So why do so many of us miss camp so acutely when it’s not summer time?
Dr. Sandra Fox, author of The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America, contends that “camp-sickness” is very real and just as powerful as “home-sickness.” She posits that the unique nature of summer camp only can be experienced during the summer while at camp. That is, no matter what we do to recreate that “camp vibe” in our homes, schools, synagogues, and communities; it’s not the same thing.
At the heart of Dr. Fox’s resonant thesis is the intentional choice architecture layered throughout the summer camp experience. Our leadership team, evolving the traditions and structure passed down to our generation starting way back in 1948, creates the space each summer where our campers essentially get to choose their own adventure. Of course, many of today’s campers are somewhat used to that in virtual worlds (from Tik Toks to gaming); but, it’s actually their real world at camp. Campers choose daily who they are going to talk to, what games they are going to play, which Blue Star option they are going to try, and how they are going to live their best life.
Dr. Fox asserts that sleepaway camp is “an opportunity for self-reinvention and an invitation to be messier, weirder and just more myself.” It is no surprise to those of us who are camp professionals that the same camper who is visibly homesick the first week of camp more often than not is the same camper who is crying to leave camp on closing day. Embracing “10-for-2,” as opposed to fighting that feeling, allows for those two months at camp (or one week through seven weeks, depending on the session) to work their magic. After all, Fox continues, “camp is supposed to feel different from — and, frankly, better than — home. That’s what gives camp its life-changing power.”
Praying for peace in Israel and sending compassion to all fellow beings…
Here’s to a safe, hopeful, and peaceful New Year as we already look ahead to next summer 2024!
Lessons From Camp – By Michael Popkin (Harry Popkin’s son)
I was born in April, 1950, in New Orleans to Harry and Mona Popkin. Two months later I went with them to the new site of the camp they had founded with their two brothers and their brothers’ wives (Herman and Rosalie, Ben and Florence) a couple of years earlier in North Georgia. The camp was called Blue Star (as in “the star of David”) and it was the first camp in the Southeast with a Jewish identity. It sat on a gorgeous piece of land around a small fishing lake with seven cabins at the base of Mt. Pinnacle, seven miles down Kanuga Road from Hendersonville, NC. I spent most of the next 25 summers there, matriculating from babe in arms through the ranks of camper, counselor, and eventually Director of Senior Boys and Camping Unlimited.
That first summer was a little rough. One family story has it that while resting comfortably in my crib in bottom floor of the “Infirmary” (WWII lingo was still in order back then) I was approached by a curious copperhead. Fortunately, and this part depends on which part of the family is telling the story, either my mother or one of my aunts beat the snake away with a broom. The point is that I survived and learned the first of many life lessons from camp:
Lesson #1. Safety first. Growing up in camp, the staff never assumed “everything will be okay.” They (and later, we) ran drills, reviewed protocols, and watched the campers like hawks in places such as the waterfront. Creating fun comes easy, but making sure it’s safe fun requires adult supervision. Kids just do not have the brain development yet to adequately recognize the risks and consequences of some behaviors. But they are learning, and that learning may be a drag on fun sometimes, but it sticks and makes them smarter, safer people throughout their lives.
Lesson #2. Think, “Can I help?” not “Can I have?” I recall an overnight to the top of Mt. Pinnacle when I was about twelve. The head counselor called us all together and gave a short talk about cooperation. He said that there were two types of campers: those who ask, “Can I have” and those who ask, “Can I help?” We all wanted to be the “Can I help” campers, but we were also wise cracking pre-teens. So, we peppered him the rest of the day with questions like, “Can I help…myself to more food?” or “Can I help…show you where to put up my tarp?” It became a fun game, but again the lesson stuck. Whether through cabin clean-up or in a softball game, we all learned the value of contributing, and that feeling of belonging it helped produce. Years later as a psychology graduate student I learned that one theorist, Alfred Adler, had deemed belonging the essential human quality for both survival and mental health.
Lesson 3. There is strength in unified numbers. Remembering that Blue Star was founded by three Jewish brothers soon after they returned from the second world war, it is not surprising that American patriotism and Jewish identification were core values. I recently found an old photo from the early 50’s of my father leading a flag raising with a group of campers at the flagpole that stood by the stone wall down by the lake. The earnest emotion on all their faces was inspiring. When the movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, which told the story of the Holocaust came out in 1961, Blue Star rented the entire Hendersonville theatre and took every camper deemed old enough to experience it. My cousin, Rodger, and I were eleven. We were old enough.
We also learned about Israel and “living Judaism.” We planted trees, like they did in Israel. Do you know those giant pines that line the soccer field (softball field in my day)? We planted them as seedlings out of buckets. We learned that America was strong, and that Jews were strong. On a humorous note, I once asked my father why they didn’t serve bacon at camp. “Because it’s not kosher, and we want all Jewish families to feel welcome here,” was his answer. “Why don’t they serve steak?” was my follow-up. “Because it’s not in the budget,” was his sage reply. I guess I also learned that you can’t have everything.
Humor aside, camp taught to be proud to be American, Jewish, members of our cabins, units, divisions, and Camp Blue Star. It taught us that belonging to good groups, unified for common goals, gave us a strength greater than ourselves. And by belonging, learning, and contributing back to those groups, we lifted all of us higher, and felt better about ourselves in the process.
And so, we sang, louder and louder: “We are the Pioneers of camp Blues Star; S-E-N-I-O-R-S, Seniors are the very best; the drums will beat…in the Village; I’ve got that Blue Star spirit, Havana Gila, and…”
Much, much more.
Brief bio – Michael Popkin
Building on his experiences at Camp Blue Star, Michael went on to complete a PhD in Counseling Psychology and work as a child and family therapist in Atlanta. In 1983 he founded Active Parenting Publishers to create the first video-based parenting education program. He has authored and produced over thirty books and video-based programs, including Active Parenting: First Five Years; Active Parenting, 4th Edition; and Active Parenting of Teens, 3d Ed. A frequent keynote speaker and media guest, he has appeared on over 200 television shows including multiple appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN.
Spring Blog Series 2023 – By BSC alumnus and current associate director, Matt “Fish” Eisenman
Last summer, in addition to celebrating Blue Star’s 75th anniversary, I also celebrated some personal camp milestones. It was my 20th summer on staff and my 30th summer at Blue Star. I always loved camp; I never imagined that it would become so foundational to my adult life, lifelong relationships, and my children’s upbringing – but here we are. Often when I reconnect with friends from my camper and early staff days, they ask some version of this question: “Is camp still the same?”
And I think about this a lot – is camp the same? In many ways, and in the most important ways, it is exactly the same. I remember staying at a hotel in town the night before camp (it was the one in Hendersonville that had a mini-golf course and a waterslide inside). Who would be in my cabin and what would they be like? Would I fit in? Would my counselors be as cool as I hoped they would be? While we now “pre-assign” bunks and the race to the front gate to pick your bed in the cabin no longer exists, life in the cabin is pretty much the same. We played many of the same games (rafterball dominated my life as a pioneer boy, and it is still the cabin game). The rhythms of camp life are pretty much the same – cabin clean up, swim, athletics, options, and evening programs. We ask campers to write old-fashioned letters on Shabbat (and most do). Color War and Zimriah are still the camp wide programs campers look forward to on Sundays.
The other core aspect that is the same is that the value of camp – the Blue Star Magic – is not in the daily activities and special programs, but in the relationships built over the course of a session, a season, or multiple summers. The magic is in the conversations shared between bunks, on the athletics fields, walking to the dining hall, and in all of those “little” moments throughout the summer. The magic is in the connection to a counselor that helps a camper through their “homesick” transition to camp or that first break up (following that first “real” boyfriend or girlfriend). Camp time still feels like both forever and no time all at once. And at camp the real things do take time. Relationships – the lifelong ones we often talk about when reflecting on camp – take time to build. It is only after that summer at camp, and often over many summers, that we leave camp with the friends and mentors who become the hallmark of the reflections of generations of Blue Star campers and staff.
While camp really hasn’t changed, the pace of the world “beyond the red gate” has continued to accelerate. As I was putting my oldest son, Reid, to bed a few weeks ago and we were reading one of my old Where’s Waldo? books, an envelope from a camp friend, postmarked 22 AUG 1996, fell from Waldo’s pages. Unfortunately, the letter itself was gone, but the return address and postmark brought me right back to the weeks after my summer in Senior 1. Could our current campers imagine writing a letter to a friend, waiting for them to get it, and hoping they write back? Outside of camp the speed of that response has become almost instantaneous. Our campers (and us as parents too) have become accustomed to that instant feedback. Our children’s schools post photographs, send regular classroom updates, and put grades online immediately. We email teachers and expect a quick resolution. Our kids will never know the pains of having to make sure no one is on the phone and then the “musical” sounds as the dial up internet connects. Today, these delays and so many others are foreign to our lived experience.
As I reflect on what has changed about camp, it isn’t that camp has changed all that much (though the addition of the brand new equestrian barn, the new waterski cable park on the Old Lake, a new rock climbing tower, and all of the capital improvements over the past decade certainly stand out), it is that the pace of everything outside of camp has approached near instant gratification. And not just for our kids – for us as parents and professionals as well.
This summer, let’s lean into the magic of slow time. A camper feeling homesick in their transition needs time to adjust. A camper working through the age-old middle school challenges of shifting friend groups needs the time and space to work through those challenges. A friendship, formed out of common interest and shared experience, needs the space to be nurtured. We can’t slow down the pace of change and the immediacy of feedback in the real world, but for a few weeks this summer, we can let that Blue Star Magic slow things back down into real time.
This past summer during the Friday night services at our 75th reunion weekend I had the privilege of speaking to our camp community in the Elmore Solomon Chapel. It was our first Shabbat service of our 75th season. Seth and I wanted to share this speech with you all. We are incredibly grateful for a wonderful and extra sweet 75th summer. Thank you to all our Blue Star campers and families, as well as our incredible staff, for making our 75th season of Summer Magic a true celebration of our camp’s values and spirit.
We are wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year!
Chapel Thoughts from 5-27-22:
Thank you for being here to help us celebrate our 75th season of summer magic. Herman & Rosalie (and all of the founding brothers and their families) and my Mom and Dad would be so proud. Georgia O’Keeffe said, “to create one’s own world takes courage.” Our founders not only had the courage to bring their vision of a summer camp for Jewish children to life, the world they created also became a home to over a hundred thousand camper and staff alumni over the past seven and a half decades. How wonderful, that our little planet Blue Star, our home away from home, will continue to welcome children and staff this summer and in future summers, in our 75th season and beyond!
In thinking about what I wanted to relay to you here tonight in our beautiful Elmore Solomon Chapel, I found my mind (and heart) wandering back in time to my childhood at camp, to my camper and staff years. I imagine those memories are the same ones that brought you here this weekend: what we recall from being part of this magical place when we were young.
We were given:
The freedom to figure out our “stuff” on our own.
A little privacy, some “breathing room” from our lives at home and our parents.
Space for self-discovery and the empowerment that comes along with that.
Opportunities to find out what we were good at, what we were passionate about, who “our people” were (and in so many cases, still are).
Our hearts were open, we had fun, we were mischievous. We laughed for hours at night in our bunks after lights out. Our friendships were genuine. We felt deeply connected to each other and to the place; we were part of something bigger than ourselves (our cabins, units and camp community). We were accepted. We belonged. We got to be Jewish together while also finding our own individual connections to our faith. And on top of all of that…we got to experience the magic of the natural world on this gorgeous piece of land:
The scent of the trees and the fresh air.
The wondrous night skies.
The sound of the rain on the cabin roof.
The views from the top of Mt. Pinnacle.
The cool evenings and mornings, the sunrises and twilights, the sounds of the bull frogs and the birds. How fortunate we were to get to experience life at the foot of this magical mountain when we were young…what a gift to us children, now grown, that we can share with our children as they grow up!
Blue Star gave us something to believe in because it has always been “a camp with a purpose.” Herman & Rosalie and Rodger & Candy all understood that camp was a microcosm for what we could achieve in the world outside of our front gate. They believed that through the experiences campers and staff had at Blue Star, we could build a society that was peaceful, fair, equitable, humane, and loving. Now more than ever, we need institutions, people, and places that we can put our faith in. As we continue to bear witness to the unspeakable tragedies occurring in our country and across the globe as well as the climate crisis, at Blue Star this summer, we recommit to being “kind to each other and kind to the planet.”
We have hope that we can resonate at a higher level to rebuild our communities, cities and country in ways that better reflect our true values. In our 75th season, we again get to create our own little universe at camp. Being part of it gives us a sense of possibility, gives us something to continue to put our faith in. So tonight in our Chapel, we ask for a blessing for our world….may we come through these darker times and find our collective “true north.”
May our campers always know the joy of being young at Blue Star. May they love it as much as we have. May the quality of that experience be gifted for generations to come. May the place have the power to continue to shape and change the world for the better.
We are so grateful for your presence here this weekend, for your love for camp and each other and for the enduring connection we share. Happy 75th to Blue Star and to all of us here to celebrate it!
Here’s to many more magical summers together @ Blue Star! – Lauren Popkin Herschthal
For our 75th anniversary season, Lauren & I want to be intentional about our summer theme. We hope to crystallize the internal mantra we have lived out over the past decade. Since 1948 Blue Star has been a pioneer in the sleepaway camp space, building a community every summer where loving kindness and compassion radiate at the core. To share kindness with others, we first learn to be kind to ourselves. From that place we show kindness to all of the other ‘good people’ at camp. At the same time we act with greater awareness in honoring our beautiful natural surroundings and summer home. This generation of Blue Star campers becomes the Conservation Generation by being kind to the planet, helping ensure that the camp’s natural environment is sustained for future generations.
From Derek Thompson’s poignant article in The Atlantic (“Why American Teens Are So Sad”) https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2022/04/american-teens-sadness-depression-anxiety/629524/to a recent survey out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (my alma mater) citing the spike in loneliness over the past two years among children and teenagers, the concept of a loneliness epidemic is clearly documented. For Lauren & me, the follow-up question is how can Blue Star be a positive force for addressing this reality head on? Rather than shy away from the challenge, we embrace it. In fact, this is our WHY! Framing this summer with a focus on practicing kindness blazes a path forward. Teaching and modeling for our campers how to be kind to ourselves is the giant first step. Our counselors and camp leaders can show campers how to practice forgiving themselves when they have acted unkindly to a cabin mate. In our daily Circle Ups, we can practice sharing something we love about ourselves with our cabin mates and counselors. Kindness can be learned.
When we are centered within ourselves, there is no limit to the kindness we can share with others. One of my teachers in the practice of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), Tara Brach, leads meditations rooted in radical compassion. How many opportunities exist in one day at camp to be kind to another camper? Consider the first time Blue Star camper trying to fit in with their cabin mates. This is a moment for a returning camper to invite their new cabin mate to join the Top Trumps card game or the GaGa pit or the Crazy Creek Chair chillax circle at waterfront. Our leadership team will shine a light on these moments and be there to encourage and support campers in seizing these kind moments.
During our Friday night Shabbat services and in daily one-on-one conversations with campers walking around camp, Lauren & I commit to shining a light on the beauty of the nature all around us at camp. As we walk and talk with campers, we will pick up pieces of Granny’s trash on the ground. Hopefully, campers will follow. In the dining halls we will announce that we are composting by shouting, “Compost…Boom!” At least, I will shout it out. Eventually, campers will follow as they have for years. We all live “10 for 2” and count the days until we get to camp. Being kind to the planet is a concrete way to do our part in maintaining the awesome nature that is our summer home away from home. Let’s be kind together…
Carpe diem. As educators and camp directors, Lauren & I feel the pressure to create a safe, healthy and fun ‘bubble’ where campers can simply be campers. In 75 years of Blue Star magic, camp has never been more important for our children than right now. This extra special camp season marks our 75th anniversary, also known as the Diamond Jewbilee. It’s a really big deal! What keeps us inspired, motivated and working tirelessly is the very good work of guiding children into being their best selves and evolving into good people. Lauren’s grandfather and one of the co-founders of Blue Star, Herman Popkin, spoke about the mission of camp as building good people. The phrase—the good people—is a reference to Danny Siegel’s poem of the same title.
The Good People
The Good People everywhere
will teach anyone who wants to know
how to fix all things breaking and broken in this world –
including hearts and dreams –
and along the way we will learn such things as
why we are here
and what we are supposed to be doing
with our hands and minds and souls and our time.
That way, we can hope to find out why
we were given a human heart,
and that way, we can hope to know
the hearts of other human beings
and the heart of the world. – Danny Siegel
My late mentor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ted Sizer, reminded me often that children always are watching the adults and learning from our modeled behavior. This concept helps ground us in how we speak, act and even think aloud alongside our campers. A question I grapple with is whether humans are inherently good, and how much our communities can impact whether that innate goodness expands or contracts over time. At camp we seize the opportunity each summer to create anew an inclusive and authentic community where every camper and staff member can practice doing good. Equally important is owning when we make a poor decision with our words or actions that hurt someone else. Part of the work is holding space for all campers to reflect, learn and grow from those mistakes.
One way we facilitate this growth is through our daily cabin or unit Circle Ups. These are officially scheduled activity times where the adults at camp lead the campers in sharing their feelings. Last summer one of our senior camp’s unit leaders came up with his own unit wide mantra to drive the point home: “Talking about our feelings is cool.” The format of the Circle Ups varies widely and might take the form of a “Rose & Thorn” (where everyone shares a low point and then a high point from their day), “Pass the Positive” (where everyone shares a piece of positive feedback to another member in the circle) and much more. Yes…Lauren & I do this at home with Rose & Eli around our dinner table.
After a decade of being in our roles as the 3rd generation owners/directors of Blue Star, I am grateful for the opportunity to influence positively the next generation of good people. Since I was a head counselor back in the day, I dreamed of becoming a summer camp director. Every day I wake up super energized to double down on the good work. Lauren & I feel humbled to carry the torch and do our part in teaching campers how to be good people. A massive debt of gratitude goes out to all of those who came before us and all of those who will come after us. To the good work!
With camp in our hearts and on our minds, we are pumped to share our theme for the 74th season of Blue Star Magic…
Together @ Blue Star
We know that we are not alone in our reflections from the past year…it’s been a wild one! All of us have experienced our lives differently over the past fourteen months. The shift in perspective has, at points, been tough. At the same time, it has proved to be positive and even affirming, too. For many of us, life has become more simple with a newfound clarity around our priorities.
That sense of simplicity and realigning our lives to reflect what is most important came up often as a topic during our Virtual Summer Leadership retreat in the spring. Our team most missed and most highly valued “in person” connection with friends and family and even just the feeling of inhabiting space with other humans for a concert or a little league game. As we excitedly began planning for our 74th season of Summer Magic, our summer theme became clear! Through connection and togetherness, we can not only help campers return to a sense of normalcy, but we can also highlight a simple and profound lesson that rings true to the camp experience we offer at Blue Star. Being together with our camp friends at camp is what camp is all about, and at Blue Star, happiness is real when shared!
Our intention in selecting this summer’s theme is the idea that we are all in it together. My sister (physician, mother and peaceful warrior) recently introduced me to the Raising Good Humans podcast with Dr. Aliza Pressman (developmental psychologist, parent educator and mother). On an April episode, Dr. Ken Ginsburg (renowned adolescent health expert and a father of twins) spoke with Dr. Pressman about the growth opportunities available to us if we can harness them as we emerge from the pandemic. He reminds us about children’s biological need to connect face-to-face with others.
He ALSO describes a metaphor that really hit home for us at camp… Dr. Ginsburg notes that, individually, one stick is very susceptible to breaking under the stresses of nature. “When joined with a bundle of sticks, it’s impossible to break. Together, we are more powerful than the sum of our individual parts.” This summer at camp we will all be able to be there for each other, to support each other and to be strengthened by our connections and friendships.
As we embark upon our 74th season, we are ready to be present, to return to simplicity, to lead with gratitude and most of all to provide meaningful and joyful moments of togetherness. This is the essence of the Blue Star experience! We are one happy Blue Star family and can’t wait for all our campers and staff to once again be…
Carpe diem. Waking up this morning, I felt a mix of bittersweet emotions rushing in all at once. While this complex feeling did not catch me off guard today, it nevertheless retained its initial punch. Rather than getting stuck I chose to tend to one of my new pandemic rituals. Before checking on our kids to ensure they were up and beginning their weekday morning routines, I had created just enough time and space for me to take care of myself. For no more than ten to fifteen minutes I got to work with my makeshift yoga, stretching and mostly mindfulness-based session in the kids’ playroom. Watching my thoughts pop like microwave popcorn, I worked to not let each one sweep me away for too long. From pose to stretch I kept returning to a focus on my breathing. When the family noise entered the frame I was ever so slightly more grounded and ready for the day.
In her recent New York Times article, Pandemic-Proof Your Habits, Kate Murphy urges her readers to lean into pandemic life with an openness and curiosity around finding new rituals and routines to buoy ourselves for the daily journey. She paints a picture of what the research tells us about how our brains have evolved both to help us survive on the most basic level and also to find meaning on a deeper level. In fact, it is the very rituals and routines we perform regularly that anchor us. Further, it is not even the actual behaviors in and of themselves that help us feel safe; rather, it is the regularity of practicing them (subconsciously or consciously) that provides the comfort. One of the reasons many of us are feeling an individual and collective sense of grief around the holiday season that just passed is that our pre-pandemic rituals have been thrown out the window. Here is where the opportunity lies: we can create new rituals that work for us right now.
A professor of neuroscience at the University College London, Karl Friston, says, “our brains are statistical organs that are built simply to predict what will happen next.” In other words, we condition our minds to minimize surprise. Whether it’s the way you make your coffee in the morning or the weekly Pilates class you attend, there are many things we do to help mitigate the difference between our expectations and reality. Although we can not control everything (or really not very much at all in the big picture), we absolutely can exert control over our rituals and routines. When our brains are freed up to not have to consider anew every single choice we make every day, we conserve more brainpower for higher order thinking which encompasses finding meaning in life. Last summer at camp our programming team worked smarter to build in new rituals that both were safely following our Covid-19 protocols and were fully honoring many long time traditions. For example, Color War took place over two consecutive Sundays, with the spirited competition kept within each of the twelve unit-cohorts of Blue Star. This Color War featured a second unique break out to kick start the second Sunday’s events; we even had a professional outdoor stage built on the lower athletic field for the final Sunday’s song fest where each unit-cohort sat separately in their socially distanced spaces. A camp-wide program; re-imagined during the pandemic.
One new Blue Star ritual this past winter break was our “Blue Star Virtual Winter WildCard Day.” We hope the new experience gave campers, parents and staff creative ways to connect with one another and connect with some camp favorite activities. As we begin 2021 we look forward to connecting with all of you soon…l’chaim to a brighter & sweeter New Year!