Midwest Camp Habonim! A rather plain, innocuous name. Nothing romantic or exciting or exotic or even emotional about this name. And yet this name holds for us twenty-five years of memories-memories of other camps with other names, names such Tel Hai, Kinneret, Yad Ari. These are names that really bring back memories of our youth, of exciting days and romantic nights, of work and love and devotion, of singing and dancing, of bonfires and Sbabbat celebrations, memories of a glorious, carefree period in our lives where we learned and lived the principles of Labor Zionism upon which we today base our lives and our work for Israel.
For Midwest Camp Habonim is today the culmination of our work and our dreams of twenty-five years ago when the concept of Camp Kvutza first took shape in the minds of a few young people who were to be the nucleus a few years later of Habonim-tbe Labor Zionist Youth. It was a concept of a place where young Labor Zionists would build their own camp with their own hands from the ground up, where they would govern themselves in a truly democratic fashion and work out their plans for building a new Eretz Yisrael. This was a new idea, a bold, thrilling one for our haverim of those early years. It was a good idea, for it has endured (with a few changes to meet the changing times) to this very day and has grown stronger with the passage of time, and will continue to go on for many, many years.
The first Habonim camp in the Midwest (and the second to be established in the United States) was Tel Hai, near New Buffalo, Michigan. The name, Tel, Hai, today stirs beautiful memories among many of our senior haverim, who recall those days with love and tenderness. Its tenure came to an abrupt end, however, when it was destroyed by fire.
Then followed an interim period of three years, two of which were spent at a rented camp near Savannah, Illinois. In 1948, 160 acres of land were purchased near Waupaca, in north-central Wisconsin. This was camp Yad Ari, which served the Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis area. Here the ideals of Camp Kvutza could really flourish. Here was the opportunity for Habonim to truly build its own camp, and they did! They built a big, beautiful dining room, which doubled as a recreation room, and a modern shower house, containing all the necessary facilities. They planted a pine forest, which has since proven to be the most memorable part of the whole camp. No other buildings, except for a dispensary, were built, and so it remained a tent camp. The tents, however, were spacious and comfortable, and the camp itself was always clean and well kept.
Most important of all, however, was the fact that the campers and the staff were satisfied and happy. Many fine and beautiful traditions were built here. The physical facilities were not always of the best or the most modern we had our difficulties and tribulations-our lake dried up after the second year, so we had to travel ten miles to go swimming; occasionally someone would get wet at night when he forgot to close the tent flaps; or perhaps he would forget to loosen the ropes so that the tent pegs could come out of the ground and cause the tent to partially collapsebut nothing, not even the finest of facilities or the most beautiful buildings and grounds, could ever be a substitute for the most wonderful of intangibles, the true Habonim spirit, the feeling of real group living, of a closeness and oneness that could be achieved nowhere else-the indomitable spirit of Habonim, that resiliency which can change disaster to triumph, turn tears into laughter.
This was Yad Ari; this was Camp Habonim. Can you remember, haverim, the dignity of the flag raising, or the simple beauty of a Friday evening meal by candlelight, with everyone in white, with the singing and the dancing afterwards? Those of you who ever attended Camp Habonim, wherever or whenever it might have been, can never forget.
But, as all good things do, this also came to an end. At the end of the 1954 season, Yad Ari was abandoned, and 1955 saw Camp Yad Ari and Camp Kinneret combined at Camp Kinneret near Chelsea, Michigan. A new concept of camping had been born in the minds of the leadership of Habonim. A good concept, a more modern one, and one that has proven itself. This was the idea that the very small, more intimate type of camp was no longer feasible. We had to have fewer but much larger and better (physically speaking) camps. The changing times and the change in the type of youth now coming into Habonim made it mandatory that Habonim go along with these changes insofar as the physical plant was concerned. Thus, the combining of the two small camps into one large camp at Kinneret. Why choose Kinneret over Yad Ari? Mainly because of the location, The combined areas would now extend as far east as Pittsburgh and as far south and west as St. Louis and Minneapolis. Obviously, central Michigan was much nearer the center of this region than northern Wisconsin-therefore, Kinneret was the choice.
Kinneret was never meant to be the permanent new home of the large, modern Camp Habonim. It was too small and lacked the proper facilities for a large number of campers. It was to serve merely for the transition period until a new site would be found. It did just that, and did it well. The next season found us in the new camp.
We now come to the current chapter, the new Midwest Camp Habonim. In the spring of 1956, eighty acres of beautiful grounds near Three Rivers, Michigan, were purchased by Habonim. The purchase itself marked a new phase of Habonim camping in the Midwest because this was the first time that Habonim had used its own resources to purchase a camp site in this region. This camp had been a farm resort and was situated on beautiful Kaiser Lake. Negotiations were completed early in May and two additional cabins were begun. With the new buildings we can now house seventy-five campers comfortably and we have enough room to expand to a hundred and fifty. The dining hall is probably one of the most ideally situated spots in camp. Its many high windows overlook the lake and present a truly scenic picture for the diners.
Midwest Camp Habonim today is, we believe, a combination of the best of the old and of the new. We have not lost sight of the unique Habonim camping program and we retain that spirit that typifies Habonim. But to go along with more modern practices, we have improved upon many of the primitive physical facilities. The campers are now housed in cabins rather than in tents (although some of the older bonim may still live in tents at their own request). All toilet facilities are indoors-in fact, the new cabins come equipped with these appurtenances. The good old flashlight, with which all Habonim campers are so familiar, is now almost a thing of the past. The cabins are all equipped with electric lights and even the grounds are illuminated at night. In short, all the modern conveniences that one associates with the best in modern camps are present at our new Midwest Camp Habonim. Does this mean, however, that we are giving up the old idea of Camp Kvutza? Not at all. The most important features remain-self-labor, self-government, democracy, the concept of a common fund, and of course, that feeling of kinship and real comradely spirit.
We feel that we now have a camp, that can compare favorably with any in the area, and a program superior to most. For the first time, the physical plant of the camp, as well as the program, becomes an attraction for newcomers to our movement, and once a child has had a positive camping experience at camp, his chances of remaining in Habonim are excellent.
In looking back upon twenty-five years of Habonim camping, we can honestly say that we have compiled a tradition of living Judaism which would be difficult for any group or organization to match. Many graduates of Habonim camp have gone to live in Israel, in kibbutzim, moshavim, and cities, and many others have remained here to become leaders not only in the Labor Zionist movement, but in all parts of the American Jewish community. This is a record that speaks for itself.
Lenny Zurakov, 1957