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University Settlement Camp and the Jewish Presence in Beacon

08/23/2021 06:34:11 PM


Ellen Kirschner

A group of teenage girls are standing and sitting in the doorway of a dark wooden building. There is a dark banner with the words “Peace Corps” in white letters hanging under the window on the outside of the building.
The author (second from right with sunglasses), takes a break with fellow Work Campers at University Settlement Camp, photo courtesy of Ellen Kirschner, 1967

When you grow up in the concrete jungle of New York City, but have the good fortune to escape to sleep-away camp for the long, hot summers, what do you do when you turn 16 and are too old to be a camper, but too young to be a Counselor-in-Training (CIT)? That problem was solved for me by University Settlement Camp (USC) in Beacon, New York, with its unique program for teens, “Work Camp.”

The camp was run by University Settlement House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, founded in 1886 by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, to serve the influx of mostly Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who had fled the bitter poverty of the shtetls and Tsar-sponsored, Cossack-led pogroms. It provided a country escape for children from the neighborhood’s notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary tenements.



Work Camp supplemented the camp’s infrastructure, with campers like me helping out with daily chores while also enjoying traditional camp activities like swimming, off-site camping trips, arts and crafts, music, theatrical productions, and, of course, hiking to the top of Mt. Beacon.

The most popular Work Camp task was Garbage Run. A staff person drove the pickup truck through camp, while we loaded full cans of garbage onto the back and drove to “The Dump” to empty them. Grimy and sweaty, we’d hang off the side of the truck, hair blowing in the hot summer wind as the truck sped back to camp, where we’d hose down the garbage cans, the truck, and each other.

Additional Work Camp assignments included kitchen duty, helping out at the camp’s working farm, and assisting counselors both in residential bunks, and also in special activities like music, and arts and crafts. In following summers, Work Campers often returned to camp as full-time staff members.



By 1967, my Work Camp summer, the demographics of the Lower East Side had changed. Campers were mostly Puerto Rican and Black. But many of the staff were second-generation American Jews, grandchildren of those same immigrants who had settled on the Lower East Side and comprised the progressive labor movement begun in the 1930s and ‘40s that was immortalized in song by Woody Guthrie and his protégé, longtime Beacon resident, Pete Seeger.

A tall man with a straw hat and a white beard is singing and skipping while playing a banjo. Young people sit on concrete bleachers and are clapping and singing along.
Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger performs “Abiyoyo” at University Settlement Camp on the outdoor Council stage, c. 1985 mp, photo courtesy of FB Page, “University Settlement Camp, ‘60s and ‘70s”

Pete Seeger—folk singer, labor activist, and environmentalist—lived two miles from USC and had a close relationship with the camp. In the early years, his father-in-law had been the Caretaker. When I was at camp, nearly every evening, Pete joined us for “Council,” the daily all-camp gathering and after-dinner sing. That’s where I learned the songs of the Civil Rights Movement and Seeger favorites like “Union Maid” and “Abiyoyo.” If USC had an anthem in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was “This Little Light of Mine.”

BHA Cantor, Ellen Pearson Gersh, grew up next door to University Settlement Camp during that era, and still lives in the same house. Pete was a treasured family friend, but Ellen admits that as a child she got nightmares from his visceral rendition of the slobbering giant, Abiyoyo.

While I spent only two summers working at camp, 1967 and 1968, they were transformative for me and others who came of age in that tumultuous time. USC inspired me to base my life on an aspirational set of values rooted in the quest for social justice, and cemented my lifelong commitment to put those values into action, similar to the notion of “Tikkun Olam”—the Jewish obligation to “Repair the World.” It also generated an enduring emotional attachment to Beacon and its environs, and a desire, in the spiritual Jewish tradition, to keep alive the memory—and blessing—of camp. This past spring, when a year-and-a-half of lockdown in a small Manhattan apartment showed me that I too, needed an “Escape from New York,” my connection to USC led me back to Beacon, where I discovered the Beacon Hebrew Alliance and became a member.



University Settlement Camp occupied the base of one of the city’s defining geographical features, Mt. Beacon. The original residents were Native Americans of the Wappinger tribe. They were driven from their ancestral home by Dutch colonists following the “discovery” of the region by European explorer Henry Hudson, whose name was given to Beacon’s other defining geographical feature, the river. The Lenape, who inhabited a hilly island, “Manahatta,” at the mouth of this great body of water, had called the river, in fact a tidal estuary, “Shatemuc,” meaning “river that flows two ways.”

A large oak tree with wide branches stands in the center of a green field. There is a tire swing hanging off one of the branches and a little boy in a red shirt is walking in front of it towards the camera.

The Big Tree stood alone in the open field at University Settlement Camp as the heart of the camp, but sadly it sickened and was cut back in summer 2021, photo by Victor Rivera from University Settlement Camp ‘60s and ‘70s FB Page

a clear blue pool sparkles behind an open shade tent and chain link fence. A large pine tree is in the foreground sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking the pool.
A view of the Beacon Pool, formerly the pool at University Settlement Camp, designed by Charles B. Stover, photo by Ellen Kirschner, 2021
 A woman with blond hair, wearing glasses, and a blue prayer shawl  smiles and sits cross-legged on a blanket in the grass. She has a book open in front of her and a loaf of braided challah bread. There is a large white wooden barn-type building behind her.
Cantor Ellen Gersh leads Kabbalat Shabbat on the grounds of University Settlement Camp, still from video feed by Michael Gersh, August 20, 2021

Following colonization, the land USC was on had once been part of “Tioranda,” the name of the Howland Estate, home to one of Beacon’s oldest and most prestigious families, dating back to the Revolutionary War. In 1911, Eliza Howland, widow of Civil War hero General Joseph P. Howland, donated her family’s 250-acre estate to University Settlement House. But the Settlement could not afford to keep up the property, and tried to sell it. Failing at first to find a buyer, the idea was floated of returning the land to Mrs. Howland, who wanted to donate it to the city as a public park.

The Settlement eventually sold the land west of what is now Rte 9D, and kept 51 acres at the base of the mountain which became USC and now Mt. Beacon Park. That site was first used as a refuge for retired carriage horses from New York City. In 1914, Charles B. Stover, a landscape architect and member of University Settlement, who had been New York City’s Parks Commissioner from 1910 to 1913 took it over to run as a camp. Stover designed the landscape, and supervised construction of the main building, dormitories, and an Olympic-size pool that we know today as the Beacon Pool, a popular summer family recreation spot. University Settlement House continued to operate the summer camp for 90 years.



Mrs. Howland’s idea of making “Tioranda” a public park finally came to fruition in 2007. When running a camp became economically infeasible, the Settlement House again had to sell. This time there were many lucrative offers—from condominium developers. With community support, the Settlement turned down every offer. Instead, they made a deal with the NYS Department of Parks and the conservation group Scenic Hudson, creating Mt. Beacon Park, to be kept in perpetuity for public use.



Lately, the demographic served by University Settlement House on the Lower East Side is mainly Pacific Rim. But the Jewish flavor remains. In 1996 I worked there writing grants. One day I was waiting in line for the copy machine behind an Asian staff person when, as usual, the copier jammed. She shook her head and lamented, “Oy vey!” 

The Jewish connection with University Settlement Camp continues, too. Since pandemic restrictions have eased, the congregation of BHA has been gathering on the former USC grounds for out-of-doors, in-person learning, davening, and Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services. When I arrived for my first service at USC, I stood for a moment, flooded with memories, and also wondering where I would sit. The website had not said to bring a chair, and I’m not 16 anymore. Within seconds a congregant approached me, saying, “I have an extra chair in the car.”

“Not only am I back at Camp,” I thought, “I’m with people who sense your need and fulfill it, before you even ask.”

Last Friday, under heavy cloud cover from an impending late summer storm, we shared wine and homemade challah from Cantor Ellen’s kitchen.

“I feel so emotional leading services here,” she said. “This is the place where I was first encouraged to sing. This is where I found my voice.” I nodded in silent understanding.

“Did you ever think that one day you’d come back to Beacon and find your home here?” Ellen asked me. “Never,” I replied, and took another sip of wine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ellen Kirschner is a retired journalist and writer whose work has been published in The New York Times and elsewhere. She now divides her time between Manhattan and Beacon, where she lives with her black cat, Smudge. She has been a member of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance since the spring of 2021.

Source References:
"University Settlement of New York City," an article excerpted from “Legacy of Light: University Settlement’s First Hundred Years,” a 32-page pamphlet written by Jeffrey Scheuer, 1985.

Other source materials were found in the archives of the Beacon Historical Society

Do you have photos or other memorabilia that relate to BHA’s story? If so, please fill out this quick google form to let us know what you have. We will reach out to you to arrange to scan your photos or collect your artifacts. BHA’s Centennial programs are made possible, in part, with funding from the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

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