When Solomon Maimon, a young, energetic rabbi newly appointed to lead Sephardic Bikur Holim, scoped out a camp site on Vashon Island in the early 1950s for a Sephardic summer camp, he wasn’t deterred by the crosses. Maimon was determined to realize his vision for the camp, even if it was at a Baptist retreat.
Other Jewish and religious communities seemed to have summer retreats for their kids, places where a sense of identity and community gel. Why shouldn’t Seattle’s Sephardic community have one, too?
Fast forward to 2019, and Ruth Nahmad Hamui, of Vancouver, BC, will be among more than 100 children and teens gathering on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula for nearly three weeks of songs, sports, and limited screen time at Sephardic Adventure Camp. “There may not be any wifi at camp,” the 15-year-old says, but “there are stronger connections.” Over half a century later, Rabbi Maimon’s vision is fully realized, and Sephardic Adventure Camp (SAC) remains — against some odds — among the only Sephardic-themed overnight camps in the US — and probably the world.
At its inception in the 1950s, Sephardic Adventure Camp (then Sephardic Bikur Holim Camp) was a direct outgrowth of Seattle’s Sephardic community. There were few unfamiliar faces in those days. Many campers were neighbors back in the city, clustered around Seward Park and the Central Area.
Ralph Maimon, Rabbi Maimon’s nephew, was among the pioneering group of kids to set out to “Sephardic Camp” for three days at Camp Burton, the Baptist site on Vashon, around 1954. Also shoving off to Vashon was a young girl named Esther Calvo. While Ralph and Esther, now 72, refused to divulge the details of their first encounter, the results of the meeting were life-changing: a high school romance, marriage, and two sons who would also attend camp. Esther still remembers that summer day when the first crop of campers set out. “The bus picked us up on Cherry Street,” she says. “We had to have our own cereal bowl that had [our] initials written in nail polish.”
During the 1950s, many first- and second-generation Americans were eager to assimilate their children into mainstream culture. That was true for some even within Seattle’s tight-knit Sephardic community. Many campers were unfamiliar with the basics of Shabbat, Esther says, and few could utter more than a few words in Ladino. “A lot of kids who came to camp had no real Jewish experience at home,” she says. “Now it’s a part of their life.”
In 2019, SAC will welcome Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic campers from eight states and three countries. Still, the camp draws heavily from Seattle’s Sephardic community, even as it has dispersed throughout the region.
“We were a community camp that blossomed into a national camp,” says SAC marketing manager Beth Jacoby.
Understanding the history of Sephardic Adventure Camp means understanding the history of Seattle’s Sephardic synagogues, Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation and Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, now located down the street from each other in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood.
Both congregations were founded in the early 20th century and trace their lineage to the expulsion of Jews from medieval Spain and subsequent settlements in the Ottoman Empire. Descendants of those who landed in Marmara, in modern-day Turkey, founded Sephardic Bikur Holim, while those from the Island of Rhodes, in modern-day Greece, founded Ezra Bessaroth. True to the synagogues’ century-old relationship of friendly competition, the synagogues started out running separate camps, joined forces, separated, and eventually combined again. For a few years in the 1980s, Sephardic Bikur Holim and Ezra Bessaroth ran separate camps at Camp Bishop during different weeks. What was once a short excursion largely run by volunteers and family members finally, in 2014, incorporated into its own nonprofit entity — a formal break from the Seattle congregations.
While the name and location have changed over the years (the camp has never owned its own grounds), SAC’s formula has remained relatively constant since Rabbi Maimon’s Vashon excursion. It still includes a mix of outdoor activities and sports, skits, prayer, and of course, plenty of Sephardic food, staples like quajado (a spinach and cheese frittata), borekas (cheese- and potato-filled pastries), and huevos haminados (whole eggs slow cooked in onion skins and coffee grounds). And no meal is complete without the Sephardic rendition of Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after meals.
When it comes to imparting traditional songs, stories, and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), SAC turns to Aryeh Greenberg. Over the years, Greenberg has assumed many titles — camper, counselor, hazzan, chief cultural officer — but today Greenberg says “informal Sephardic educator” best describes his role. Greenberg, along with others running the camp today, believes SAC may be the most effective way to pass on Seattle’s unique Sephardic traditions to younger generations. “We are one of the last intact Sephardic communities,” Greenberg says. “I want to expose Sephardic kids to our traditions.”
Some of that work is straightforward, like overseeing Sephardic-style prayer services three times a day. Others are more creative. Camp songs take on a Sephardic spin, like “Huevo’s the Word” (“it’s got yolk, it’s got eggshells”) sung to the tune of “Grease” and “Ojo of the Hamsa” (referencing the ornament that is said to ward off the evil eye) sung to “Eye of the Tiger.” Greenberg also teaches campers how to write secret messages in Ladino’s nearly extinct script, soletreo, and helps create camp skits based on Sephardic folklore.
Altogether, the experience acts as a differentiator from Ashkenazic norms, says Elana Zana, a camper in the 1980s who went on to become a director. Keeping Sephardic culture alive is one of the reasons Zana is now sending her children to camp.
“Camp helps you see how those traditions are applied in the tunes we sing, in the food we eat,” she says. “Using what I call ‘kitchen Ladino,’ it helps preserve that culture.”
Talk to Sephardic campers of the 1970s and ’80s, and the name Leni LaMarche is bound to come up. Her post-breakfast Ladino lessons are the stuff of legend. Of course, teenagers learning a new language will inevitably turn their attention to the more low-brow elements of speech, and LaMarche was happy to oblige. “You got the sense that Ladino is part of a fun subculture,” says Greenberg, who cites LaMarche as one of his major influences as a camp leader.
For Rabbi Benjy Owen — a former SAC camper, counselor, director, and camp rabbi whose daughter is now education director at SAC — all of these efforts add up to what he sees as the camp’s core mission: to keep alive the distinctive traditions of Seattle’s Sephardic community.
“The camp setting, where it’s so immersive — all aspects of the community can be represented in a meaningful way,” he says. “It’s a unique way to transmit our way of life to the next generation.” Many former campers and staff say one of the long-lasting benefits of camp is developing a Sephardic identity that is not just tied to the synagogue or even family.
Today, few parents or rabbis attend SAC, but many older campers recall seeing their rabbis in a relaxed social setting while mothers served up home-cooked meals and taught funny Ladino sayings. The fathers, however, were not known to be as helpful. “The men were pyromaniacs, as I recall,” Greenberg says. Bringing extended families back into the fold, even the dads, is one of Greenberg’s long-term goals for SAC.
Just a few weeks before campers set off for the Washington coast this summer, the camp’s founder Rabbi Solomon Maimon will be celebrating his 100th birthday.
“The camp now is reaching Rabbi Maimon’s vision — the numbers have grown immensely and kids come from all across the county,” says Esther Maimon. “And it is still going after all these years.”