Faith taking root at Eisner Camp

Thursday May 31, 2012


Scores of trees populate the bucolic Eisner Camp just off South Main Street -- the perfect setting for young Jews spending summers away from their suburban and urban homes.

But amid this picturesque natural setting, there's a different kind of tree that has organizers here smiling -- a giant aluminum tree.

"We'd be like any other camp in the country without this," said Louis Bordman, senior director for the Union for Reform Judaism camp, as he watched installation of the new "Tree of Life" sculpture on Wednesday.

The 15-foot "tree" is the new centerpiece of the camp's outdoor chapel, where campers spend Fridays and Saturdays recognizing the Sabbath. Bordman said the Tree of Life has special meaning in the Jewish faith and the sculpture will be a critical symbol of the camp's commitment to transforming campers into adults willing to make a difference in their communities.

"It becomes something that's real and tangible for the kids -- that they can touch their Judaism," said Bordman.

The multi-ton sculpture features 12 ribs -- one for each of Israel's tribes -- a canopy of faux leaves and an eternal flame. The aluminum ribs and leaves have been painted to resemble a real tree, and in the center of the entire sculpture a cabinet will hold the Torah for ceremonies.

The massive sculpture was designed and built by John F. Graney Metal Designs. The company has worked throughout the Northeast on everything from decorative front gates to wrought iron staircases, but this sculpture was something new.

Graney and his staff have worked on the design for nearly a year and have spent the past several months constructing the $50,000 tree in the company's nondescript workshop in Sheffield.

"We've never made anything like this," said Graney. "This thing sort of took off and had a life of its own."

Eisner, along with sister facility Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, attracts 1,500 Jewish campers each summer. The facilities received a major facelift in recent years, with more than $9 million spent on renovations since the late 1990s.

Bordman said the influx of donations -- the Union for Reform Judaism's two camps receive support from 190 different temples -- coincided with a shift in philosophy. Jewish leaders and philanthropists began investing heavily in summer camps, Bordman said, because studies have shown participation can lead to greater involvement in the faith when campers become adults.

Bordman said Eisner boasts a popularity among campgoers that is nearly unmatched across the country. The average camper spends 6.7 years at Eisner, and the camp has a return rate of 92 percent, according to Bordman.

It doesn't hurt that campers have 680 acres to explore on this unique property on Brookside Road. Once owned by William Stanley and later Eastman Kodak vice president William H. Walker, the property features an impressive and ornate manor along with a series of European-style buildings constructed at the turn of the 20th century. The buildings create a unique juxtaposition with the cabins, tennis courts and swimming pools that rise along East Mountain.

"It's truly a unique setting," said Bordman. "It's an unrealistic setting, but it makes this a camp of possibility."

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