Harley goes to camp

“The friendships you make, the connections to the community… they can’t be measured,” said Harley Schwartz, seen here at Camp B’nai Brith with friend Karen Groper, circa 1988.

By Harley Schwartz

I can still drive down the 329, past the gates to Camp B’nai Brith and have it elicit all kinds of feelings and responses. I can take you back to the very first day I started there as a camper, then working there as a waiter, then section head, then head of SITs and program director. I can sit here and talk to you for hours and I would have a smile from ear to ear. It was just a great time. But me sitting here, telling you about it, putting it down on paper can’t do it justice.

When you are given the opportunity to be in a place with 300 people, all from different backgrounds and the sole objective is to be at camp and have a good time and to share the Jewish experience and to be exposed to things you will never get the opportunity to be exposed to, the friendships you make, the connections you make, the connections to the community… they can’t be measured.

1,300

Last summer, more than 1,300 kids went to Jewish overnight camp locally.

I grew up in Laval and went to Chomedey High School. I didn’t go to Jewish day school – the only time I took Hebrew lessons was the year of my bar mitzvah. Maybe we’d go to synagogue on the High Holidays if my parents could convince us, but that’s as far as it went. Most of my friends were Jewish but most were of the same group that I was – there wasn’t a strong identity. It’s only when we got to camp that we sort of became exposed to some of the different parts that the culture had to offer.

When we had Shabbat, I gained a greater understanding of what it meant. It’s not so much what I learned to do with the observances, but it was about family, unity, people coming together for a special time all for the same purpose. We would sing songs and gather at flagpole. In the beginning, it was kind of a foreign concept to me.

I really enjoyed Friday nights at camp. I didn’t understand what it meant; I probably mouthed the words to songs phonetically. I didn’t know if I was getting it correct, but that was a nice time for me. That was an opportunity because I didn’t have to go far to get it, it came to me. It was right there. After spending 14, 15, 16 years at Camp B’nai Brith working, this really became my foundation and my connection to the Jewish community. We’ve attended fundraisers over the years for different organizations, but at CBB it was really the meat and potatoes of what it’s about. You get exposed to so much; it’s not like I didn’t drive on Shabbat or I didn’t do some of the other things, but the reality was it allowed me to pick what I wanted, what made sense to me, what I enjoyed being part of.

Working at camp allowed me to gain a better understanding of other peoples’ realities.  It gave me an opportunity to stand back and stand behind and support those who maybe couldn’t do it for themselves. It gave me an opportunity to train and to teach, to help others grow and to learn, whether it was a camper or other staff members.

Schwartz and wife Andrea Bertalan co-chaired the West Island Federation CJA LOL Comedy Night with John Reynolds and Michelle Myszka. Proceeds went to Camp B’nai Brith.

In all honesty, because of what I did and the population I worked with and the interaction with others, it’s what spearheaded the direction of my career. It’s only after spending all those years that I knew what I wanted to do with my career and I became a social worker with Batshaw Youth and Family Centres in the Department of Youth Protection. At camp, I learned to deal with different personalities and different people so you learn to collaborate and you become solution-focused, goal-oriented and you learn to manage conflict in a variety of situations. Given the short duration of their stay (three weeks), the challenge was to ensure that these three weeks would be the best three weeks of their year. 23 years later, I am still teaching others to manage conflict.

I have a lot of friends who met their wives at camp and got married. There are plenty of us. It became this big thing for many of us – this place where we grew up, where we met our spouse or our partner and today, where our children go. It becomes a perpetual cycle. The fact that my daughter can share in that now… It’s amazing because she went with some friends, but ended up befriending another group and that became her nucleus, her core. So that’s what CBB is all about – it’s a cordial place that operates a bit like a small city, with 300 people in close proximity and it gives you the opportunity to meet people you may never have been able to otherwise.

I think it is fair to say that each kid benefits in some way from their own Jewish experience. My daughter returned from camp this past summer and there were certain parts she really liked, such as Shabbat dinner, she liked singing the songs, she liked Israeli Day. She liked many activities and she was exposed to experiences that she isn’t at home. It allowed her to gain autonomy and strengthened her own self-worth and accomplishment. It helped her self-esteem. It made her stronger in who she was and Camp B’nai Brith gave her that.

When you see your kid’s face, when they get off the bus after a summer at camp, it’s like going to Disney World for the first time. It’s the same sensation, the same sentiments, the same excitement. Don’t take my word for it. Send your kids to Jewish camp to get an experience that they will never forget.


Federation CJA allocated $538,159 to Camp B’nai Brith.

Experience Jewish camping

For more information on Jewish summer camping and to find out if your child may be eligible for a $1,000 incentive grant through the Gen J One Happy Camper program, please contact Veronica Klein at 514.345.2645, ext. 3068 or email veronica@genj.ca You can also like their page on Facebook.

  • John Reynolds says:

    Amazing Story! Harley was my supervisor back in 1987 and we used to have huge pillow fights with the whole unit. A memory I will never forget!

    Thanks Harley!

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