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Jewish camp alums cheer ‘Theater Camp,’ Ben Platt movie shot at former Kutz Camp

(JTA) — In January, 25 alumni of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Kutz Camp gathered on their former campus. Although the historic summer camp known for fostering Reform leadership and leaving a mark on modern Jewish music had shuttered in 2019, the alumni were back for a preview screening of “Theater Camp,” a comedy film from Jewish co-creators Ben Platt, Molly Gordon and Noah Galvin filmed on Kutz Camp’s grounds in Warwick, New York.

The mockumentary centers on a fictional upstate musical arts camp, AdirondACTS, that is striving to fend off foreclosure after its founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a strobe-light-induced seizure at a middle school production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” (Joan is intended to be the subject of the documentary, but filming soon turns to a cast of zealous teachers and campers who forge ahead with an original musical about her legacy entitled “Joan, Still.”)

Platt and Gordon star as codependent best friends and self-serious instructors, alongside Galvin as an artistically repressed “third-generation stage manager” and Jimmy Tatro as Joan’s son, an earnest finance bro humorously trying to balance her accounts. Created by four former theater kids (Platt, Gordon and Galvin wrote the screenplay while Nick Lieberman co-directed with Gordon), “Theater Camp” hopes to resonate beyond its satirized social niche when it premieres on Friday.

Although AdirondACTS is a secular arts camp, the film is peppered with Jewish references — a previous summer’s musical production was called “A Hanukkah Divorce,” and one auditioning 11-year-old chooses camp over sitting shiva for her cousin. The closing performance of “Joan, Still” reveals that Joan was born to an Eastern European Jewish family and immigrated as a young girl.

An undated view of a Kutz Camp bunk. (Jeff Klepper)

Kutz Camp leader Andrew Keene, who rented the site for a weekend in January and organized the “Theater Camp” viewing for alums, said they were moved to watch the campgrounds come back to life. Keene was involved with Kutz for 10 years, first as a participant, then as a staffer and finally as vice chair by the time the camp closed, squeezed by competition from other programs and declining attendance. Kutz was bought by the Town of Warwick and repurposed as a public recreational center.

“It really hit home for us,” Keene told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Even though it wasn’t about a Jewish camp, the themes of inclusion and belonging really resonated.”

Platt and Gordon took inspiration from their own experiences in youth theater — their collaboration dates back to the Adderley School for the Performing Arts, where they met at 4 and 5 years old. But parts of the film also drew from Platt’s summers at a California branch of Camp Ramah, a prominent network of Conservative Jewish camps.

“Molly went to Stagedoor and Noah and Nick went to youth theater camp and we did a youth theater program together, but in terms of my sleepaway summer camp experience it was all at a Jewish summer camp,” Platt said in an interview with Letterboxd. “We have this whole conceit about teachers performing a night time performance for the kids that was ripped directly from my camp experience.”

Like the fictional AdirondACTS camp, Kutz was an incubator of artistic talent. The camp was founded in 1965 and became known as a birthplace of modern Jewish folk music after Debbie Friedman, whose songs revolutionized Jewish prayer and continue to be sung in synagogues nationwide, served as its song leader in 1969.

Debbie Friedman makes a peace sign at Kutz Camp. Her songs would go on to be sung in Reform congregations across the country. (Jeff Klepper)

“I would honestly be surprised if there was another movie written about summer camp, especially a theater summer camp, that did not come from Jewish writers and artists,” said Keene. “It is such an embedded narrative in the American Jewish experience.”

The Jewish summer camp has shaped American Jewish identities for over a century, said Sandra Fox, who teaches at New York University and wrote “The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America.” In the 1920s, when Jews were largely concentrated in cities, they started going to camp amid a broader social movement concerned with how industrialization was affecting children’s physical and mental health.

But it was after World War II that camp took on a vital significance for American Jewish leadership, said Fox. Jews were moving to the suburbs and assimilating into a white middle class, while the Holocaust had left them anxious about the future of their culture and religion.

A trio of counselors get musical at Kutz Camp. (Courtesy of Jeff Klepper)

“Most American Jewish kids went to public school, where they socialized with gentiles,” said Fox. “So Jewish camps were a place where ethnic cohesion could still continue.”

According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, four in 10 Jewish Americans attended a summer camp with Jewish content. The camps became critical to educating future generations of Jewish leadership.

Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur, the last chair of Kutz, credits the camp with the formation of her Jewish identity. Tzur grew up in a secular household and first attended Kutz in 1983, hoping to learn about crafting Jewish music.

“In actuality, I was able to not only explore my musicality, but to explore my Jewish identity in a way that was profound,” Tzur told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “My summer at Kutz in 1983 was the single most influential experience that led me to the career path that I chose. Had I not gone to Kutz, I would not have become a rabbi.”

Tzur was gratified that the makers of “Theater Camp” were former camp kids themselves.

“I hope that when they walked into that place — knowing even just a little bit about the history of the camp — I hope that they felt as at home there as they did in their summer camps when they grew up,” she said.


The post Jewish camp alums cheer ‘Theater Camp,’ Ben Platt movie shot at former Kutz Camp appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Over 1,000 university professors will participate in a new campaign to show solidarity with Jewish students experiencing levels of antisemitism that are without precedent in the history of the United States, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which promotes academic freedom, announced on Tuesday.

Titled “KeeptheLightOn,” the initiative comes amid a reckoning of congressional investigations, lawsuits, and civil rights inquiries prompted by an explosion of antisemitic discrimination at some of America’s most prestigious universities. It will see the formation of a new group, the Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement (FAAM), comprising professors from across the US who will pressure senior administrators at their schools to address anti-Jewish hatred as robustly as other forms of racism.

“We have written books, op-eds, and articles, but they are not penetrating the echo chamber of anti-Zionist antisemitism,” Southwestern University English professor Michael Saenger said in a press release. “As with previous protest movements, visual displays are sometimes necessary to get people to stop demonizing marginalized groups. We need to respond to bullying and hate, directed against ourselves and Jewish students, more directly and more personally: by visibly advocating for a university that treats Jews as people, and that treats Israel as a nation.”

As part of the campaign, FAAM professors will leave their office lights on after hours to “publicly demonstrate their commitment to fighting antisemitism.” AEN added on Tuesday that the lights will “also symbolize the faculty’s commitment to ‘light a fire’ under administrators to ensure a better academic year ahead.”

“Keep the Light On” was inspired by University of California, Berkeley professor Richard Hassner, who last month held what was widely believed to be the first teacher “sleep-in” protest of antisemitism, AEN said. For two weeks, Hassner lived in his office until administrators agreed to stop an anti-Zionist group’s blockade of a campus foot-bridge which made it impossible for Jewish students to cross without being verbally abused.

Numerous Jewish faculty members at other campuses have also begun stepping up and demanding a change. Some have organized faculty trips to Israel. Others have cobbled their peers together to form groups — such as Yale’s Forum for Jewish Faculty & Friends and Indiana University’s Faculty and Staff for Israel — which have since grown exponentially and will serve as a well of support for FAAM.

“The FAAM initiative is both a distressing sign of the times and a hopeful symbol for the future not only for Jews but also for the academy,” Smith College professor and AEN advisory board member Donna Robinson Divine said. “An academy that has become the core location for an activism promoting social justice cannot sustain its credibility by tolerating hostile attacks against its Jewish student and faculty. Nor can education leaders preserve the legitimacy of the universities over which they preside by ignoring the recycling of this old and dangerous hatred. Rooting out antisemitism in classrooms, lecture halls, and social gatherings is thus as important for Jewish students and faculty as it is for the academy and the nation.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, Jewish college students have never faced such extreme levels of hatred. Since Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists invaded Israel, massacred 1,200 people, and kidnapped 253 others as hostages — they have endured death threats, physical assaults, and volleys of racist verbal attacks unlike anything seen in the US since the 1950s.

Many college officials at first responded to the problem sluggishly, according to critics, who noted universities offered a host of reasons for why antisemitic speech should be protected even as they censored students and professors who uttered statements perceived as being conservative. At the same time, progressive thought leaders came under fire for hesitating to acknowledge a swelling of antisemitic attitudes in institutions and organizations reputed to be champions of civil rights and persecuted minority groups. One recent study found that US universities have demonstrated an “anti-Jewish double standard” by responding to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel and the ensuing surge in campus antisemitism much less forcefully than they did to crimes perpetrated against African Americans and Asians.

The situation changed after three presidents of elite universities were hauled before the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for their handling of antisemitism and said on the record that there are cases in which they would decline to punish students who called for a genocide of the Jewish people. The stunning admissions prompted the resignations of Elizabeth M. Magill as president of University of Pennsylvania and eventually of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s former president, who would not leave until a series of reporters exposed her as a serial plagiarist.

The US Congress is currently investigating whether several colleges intentionally ignored discrimination when its victims were Jewish. On Wednesday, its focus will shift to Columbia University, where Jewish students have been beaten up and harassed because they support Israel. The school’s president, Minouche Shafik, is scheduled to testify, and the event promises to be a much scrutinized affair.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

The post New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one

It was close, but Toronto synagogues Adath Israel and Beth David will remain separate entities after Beth David’s vote on amalgamation fell short of the required two-thirds threshold. Adath Israel, the larger of the two Conservative synagogues by membership and facility size, voted overwhelmingly on April 14 to amalgamate, with 91 percent in favour. But […]

The post Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder

Jewish women in Ethiopia sort through grain to be used in baking matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

The Jewish community in the embattled region of Gondar, Ethiopia is preparing for the world’s largest Passover Seder this year, with nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews residing in camps and awaiting immigration to Israel expected to attend.

Over 80,000 matzot have been baked by members of the community over the past several weeks in preparation for the holiday, Jeremy Feit, the president of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) aid group, told The Algemeiner. A smaller Seder, with almost 1,000 attendees, will take place in the capital of Addis Ababa.

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, will begin next Monday evening and end the following Tuesday.

A portion of the 80,000 matzot for use during Passover in Ethiopia. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

Past Passover Seders in Ethiopia have provided attendees a rare opportunity to partake in the traditional feast, offering some their first ever taste of meat — a luxury they could not otherwise afford. But according to Feit, food price hikes of 50 percent to 100 percent have meant that this year’s feast will largely consist of potatoes and eggs.

“With the extreme price increases and the resulting hunger, the community will feel the intensity as they pray to celebrate the Seder next year with their families in Jerusalem,” Feit said.

The Seder comes on the heels of an airlift of medical supplies for the beleaguered community, facilitated by SSEJ. Ten pallets of aid were delivered to a medical clinic established by the group a year ago in Gondar, serving 3,300 children and 700 elderly. The aid was dedicated in memory of former US Sen. Joe Lieberman, who served as SSEJ’s honorary chairman and who passed away during the weeks-long airlift operation.

SSEJ, which is based in the US  and entirely volunteer-run, is the only provider of humanitarian aid to Jews in Ethiopia. The group aims to mitigate some of the hunger ravaging the community by providing more than 2.5 million meals per year, prioritizing very young children, pregnant and nursing women, and students at a local yeshiva, who Feit said were often “so hungry they would faint in class.”

SSEJ and its leaders have assisted around 60,000 Ethiopians immigrate to Israel, more than the total number brought to the Jewish state during its storied military operations in 1984 and 1991.

Jewish men in Ethiopia need the dough that will be baked into matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

According to Feit, some 13,000 Jews still remain in Ethiopia. Recent years have seen several hundred Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel at a time, especially during periods of violent civil strife, but even that trickle has dried up following the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel.

“The average person in Gondar and Addis Ababa has been waiting to make aliyah for 20 years,” Feit said, using the Hebrew term for immigration. “They left their villages with the thought that Israel was going to bring them in. And they’ve been left since as internally displaced refugees.”

Feit said the decades-long wait is especially painful for those with first-degree relatives in Israel, and is further compounded for those with relatives serving in the Israeli military.

“Jews in Ethiopia are extremely concerned about their [family members’] welfare as the IDF [Israel Defense Fores] battles Hamas terrorists” in Gaza, he explained. “They are especially concerned given the vastly disproportionate number of Ethiopian Jewish soldiers killed in Israel during the current conflict.” Jews in Ethiopia, he averred, comprise “one of the most Zionist communities in the world.”

Since Oct. 7, there has been no indication as to how many Ethiopian Jews will be brought to Israel and when. Those with relatives in Israel were struck with another blow when Israel’s economy took a hit following the Hamas onslaught, and many of those who rely on remittance from their loved ones in Israel stopped receiving money.

“This has left the Jews in Ethiopia in a dire situation, with food and medical care hard to come by. Living in squalor, without access to clean water, electricity, or even bathrooms, the malnourished Jews in Ethiopia suffer untold horrors,” Feit said.

Despite the grim depiction, Feit struck a more positive note about the upcoming holiday.

Ethiopian Jews eating matzot in synagogue last year. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

“Given that most of the year they’re feeling despair at their lack of redemption, at least Passover is a time to celebrate the possibility of redemption and reunification,” he said. “Being able to celebrate with thousands of their friends and family members in a joyous celebration of Passover is a welcome relief.”

The post Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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