Sunday, August 7, 2016

Eisner Camp and the Power of Place

It's not hard to fall in love with a place.

If I remember correctly, one of my professors, Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, taught me that a place becomes truly meaningful 1) because of its innate physical beauty, or 2) because something really important happened there.  Or both.

In the case of the URJ Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA, it's both. I was a camper there in 1968, and returned at least once each year through the next decade.

Eisner was a place of so many firsts: overnight camp, experiencing Shabbat, becoming a song-leader, writing Jewish songs, making life-long friends. (At some point along the way was a first - or maybe second - kiss.)

And beauty? If you've been there, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, photographs can only suggest the divine beauty and serenity of the place.

William Hall Walker, an inventor of one of the early compact cameras, added to the God-given beauty of the place called Brookside Manor in the early 20th century.  He hired Italian craftsmen to design ornate gardens and greenhouses, and had builders recreate the feel of a little European village, with a town square surrounded by charming  buildings and a big red barn.

I went to Eisner for a brief visit yesterday, and was surprised at how deeply meaningful it felt to be there. In addition to seeing the wonderful people, friends, colleagues, students, I was struck by the confluence of beauty and history.

I want to mention two specific places in camp.

There is a small lake, still used for swimming, on which Mr. Walker built a large marble boat landing around 1912. It was torn apart some years ago, but it was still there when I was a camper in 1968 (that's my Dad and younger brother with me — nice love beads, don't you think?).

These period photos show how stunning it was. One is from the Library of Congress.  On Flickr can be found a couple of photos taken there of a woman named Mary Virginia Dyer in 1917.

Not far from the lake is Manor House, full of Old World, turn-of-the-century charm.  Its library features a balcony, marble fireplace, frescos, and a pipe organ (no longer operational) that cost $20,000 to build.

I found a stunning wedding photo taken recently by Laraine Weschler looking out from the library window. (See more here.)

It reminded me of one (of me) taken in the exact same place, teaching songs to kids on a retreat in the late '70s.

What an amazing place!

(Note: on this and a previous visit I took some photos when the camp was quiet. They give you a feeling for the beauty of the place. You can see them here.)