Shayli Liederman feels a fondness for Shabbats at Camp Kadimah in Nova Scotia. Every Friday night during the six-week overnight summer camp, everyone gathers in one of the recreational buildings, feet at the ready to jump into dancing as Israeli music blasts from the speakers.
“Everyone in the entire camp is in the same room dancing their heart out,” Leiderman described. The tradition of Oneg Shabbat (sabbath gathering) is one that is met with enthusiasm by her and many others.
Liederman, 21, is a former camper and current staff member. She feels the responsibility to continue the legacy of Camp Kadimah, which is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, but also the traditions of the camp itself.
“I really feel that responsibility but in a positive way, and I have the passion to continue and help the camp’s legacy.”
Camp Kadimah was founded in 1943 by Halifax resident Eli Zebberman to meet the needs of Jewish youth from across Atlantic Canada. It started as a community camp, but is now owned and operated by the Atlantic Jewish Council.
According to the camp, Zebberman created Camp Kadimah to bring together Jewish boys and girls. The plan was initially met with resistance from the more traditionally-minded leaders. However, Zebberman garnered support from Canadian Young Judaea and financial backing from various supporters.
The first site was purchased at Port Mouton welcoming 47 campers for three weeks in July 1943. The following year, the camp site moved to its current location on the shores of Lake William in Barss Corner. Now, three generations—some from the same family—have experienced and revelled in the hospitality and ruach (spirit) of Camp Kadimah.
When first learning about Camp Kadimah, I didn’t fully understand what made this Jewish camp different from all the others in Canada. But after viewing the 2019 documentary Camp Kadimah: The Story of Our Lives, made by former camper Lynda Suissa, I quickly came to realize it held an important place in many people’s lives: it’s informed campers’ and staffs’ Jewish identity, allowing them to relate to Judaism in a more accessible way.
In the documentary, Suissa talked to over 100 former campers and staff—the sheer size of that number alone speaks to the importance the camp has for many. In the documentary, the 75th anniversary of Camp Kadimah is filmed with over hundreds of people attending from around the world.
“For the anniversary I thought, what if we do a mini documentary, and I can interview a few people there? People liked the idea,” Suissa said. “But when I started, so many people wanted to be in it, I ended up interviewing over 100 people, so my original 20-minute documentary idea wasn’t possible. It became the teaser for the actual documentary.” The documentary clocks in at almost two hours, with an abundance of material still unused.
For Suissa, who grew up in Halifax, becoming a Kadimah camper was a no-brainer because her parents and older siblings went there.
“The camp was almost like this shtetl. Anyone who went had this maritime connection,” she explained. “For us, it’s important to have this strong vibrant Jewish education for our kids and that’s what camp provides. People kept coming back summer after summer which allowed the camp to continue on. Kids see their parent’s names on the wall, and it gives them a real connection to their past and to Judaism.”
Jeff Wolman who attended the camp for 10 summers in the 1970s and 1980s, follwed in the footsteps of his father who attended the camp in 1943.
At 10 years old he embarked on his first summer at Camp Kadimah, joining his three older sisters. “There was no discussion, it was just assumed,” he reflected. “It felt like a rite of passage.”
Born and raised in Halifax, Wolman said, Jewish kids went to schools where there were two to three other Jews in the class at most. And unless one was committed to spending a significant time at synagogue, it was “a difficult way to identify as a Jew.”
“You’d go to camp and be completely immersed in it [Judaism] and it’s not just a religious experience but also a communal experience. Before you eat you say a prayer and do Havdalah. You’re part of the fabric of camp. Everything you do, if not with Jewish purpose, is done with a Jewish person. It instills community and belonging,” Wolman described.
The sentiment is shared by Camp Kadimah co-chair, Michael Pink, who said the only real connection to other Jewish kids for the Atlantic Canadian region was camp.
“It really shaped us and gave a strong sense of who we were and the tools to be comfortable with our Judaism. It introduced us to Israel and built a foundation to Zionism,” he said.
The experience of Jewish belonging also resonated with former camper and staff member, Peter Svidler, who acted as assistant director in 2019 to 2020. Having immigrated from Israel with his family in 2009, he first attended Camp Kadimah in 2011.
Coming to Halifax from Israel was a “shock” to Svidler’s Jewish identity.
“In Halifax you’re the ‘other’ so going to camp was a very exciting experience for developing and formulating a new Jewish identity based on my experiences at camp,” he said. “It was also my first exposure to North American Jewish culture and really getting to experience what it means to be a Jew in Canada.”
While the camp is deeply rooted in tradition with generations of the same families attending, camp director Sarah Atkins noted the environment is very open to newcomers. Even Atkins didn’t attend the camp and joined as director in 2018, as she knew the co-chair Michael Soberman who suggested she take on the job.
“If you don’t have those ties, you’re just as welcome. We have new people every year and it’s important to know there’s no hierarchy in that way; if you had family here or not everyone is treated equally.”
As Soberman said, the greatest connection campers make are the friendships formed during those formative summers. “As someone in my mid-50s my closest peer group of friends are not my high school friends, or university friends, or my friends from abroad, they’re my camp friends from when I was 14 years old.” Those integral friendships, according to Soberman, are made regardless of whether one had previous generations of family attend or not.
This year, Pink, Soberman, and Atkins had to make the difficult decision to cancel camp for a second year in a row due to the pandemic. But Liederman said campers and staff have still managed to stay in touch during the year, ensuring connections remain intact. As she explained, “the community is thriving separately but together.”
“We’re trying to stay connected more than ever and I find that quite special,” she added. “There’s a strong community that is deeply ingrained to the individuals within it.”
Svidler’s time as assistant director at camp was also affected by the pandemic, but he still gained experience in the position and felt it closed the chapter on a foundational aspect to his Canadian Jewish identity.
“What sets Camp Kadimah apart in my experience is the Atlantic connection for camp. It’s the only Jewish camp in the Atlantic provinces and the history is fascinating. It was a community Jews coalesced around,” he described. “It’s this history of Atlantic Jewry that’s really powerful when you compare it to other Jewish camps in North America. You’re exposed not just to a Jewish experience but also to a Maritimer experience.”
Header image photo by Shayli Liederman.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.