Arlington’s Camp Kalsman fosters Jewish identity the fun way

ARLINGTON — Pamela Pintus grew up in Westchester County near New York City. She spent girlhood summers at a Union for Reform Judaism camp. For nearly a decade, her children and other Jewish kids in this area have had that same opportunity at Camp Kalsman.

“I was so excited knowing my kids could enjoy the same camp experience I had growing up, right in my backyard,” said Pintus, who lives in the Mill Creek area.

In 2005, the Love Israel commune sold its land — 300 acres in the Arlington area — for $4.2 million. The buyer was the Union for Reform Judaism, North America’s largest Jewish organization. Love Israel’s followers had lived a 1960s hippie lifestyle on the rural compound for some 30 years, and held an annual garlic festival on the site.

Camp Kalsman opened in 2007. This summer the camp will host about 650 kids, 250 at any one time, second-graders through high school seniors. The Northwest has other Jewish camps, in Oregon and British Columbia, but the closest other Union for Reform Judaism camp is in Santa Rosa, California.

“There was a great pent-up demand for it,” said David Berkman, Camp Kalsman’s director.

There are far fewer Jewish people in the Northwest than on the East Coast and some other parts of the country, meaning fewer places for Jewish children to be with peers who share their faith.

“Most of our kids are one of the only Jewish kids in their schools,” Berkman said. Spending time at camp with other Jewish children is “a very powerful experience,” he said.

Along with campers from Washington, the Arlington camp serves kids from Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, “a vast geographic area,” Berkman said. Nearly 60 percent of Kalsman campers come from the Puget Sound region. “More Jews live in Seattle than in Idaho,” he said.

Pintus has two children. Her son, Jeremy Pintus, 20, attended Camp Kalsman and now works there as a counselor, and her 17-year-old daughter, Marissa Tipton, was a camper.

“My kids have attended school in the Mukilteo district. They were one of a handful of Jewish children at their schools,” Pintus said. At Camp Kalsman, “they know they’re not alone. There are other Jews out there.”

Her family belongs to Temple Beth Or, a small synagogue in Everett. Through camp, her children have made lifelong friends at other synagogues in the region, and even with Israelis who come to Camp Kalsman as counselors.

Pintus said Jewish identity is fostered at camp by Friday night and Saturday services, prayers before kosher-style meals, and games that include clues related to Jewish history.

With the Love Israel group’s barn, yurts and other structures long gone, Camp Kalsman is built up with cabins and other traditional camp facilities. Its large dining hall has a stone fireplace. There is a large heated pool with a sun deck. The climbing tower is a popular attraction, and there is a sport court, an outdoor amphitheater and a retreat center.

Jewish traditions and values are integrated into camp activities “whether playing sports or with nature and the outdoors, we see those activities through a Jewish lens,” Berkman said. “Learning about being a good sport is not only a good human value, we talk about why it’s a Jewish value.”

David Kaplan, 22, grew up in Bellevue and attended Camp Kalsman before becoming a counselor and lifeguard there. He now works at another Jewish camp, but has three younger siblings who will be at Kalsman this summer.

“When everybody gets picked up from camp, they talk about something they did — like climbed to the top of the climbing tower,” Kaplan said. “But what they end up remembering are the people they experienced stuff with. I was in Israel two months ago visiting some Israeli staff members I hadn’t seen in three years.”

One of Kaplan’s favorite camp activities took place on Butterfly Lake, the large pond that was part of the Israel property.

“Teva means nature in Hebrew,” he said. “With that as a value, one very popular program I used to lead was quiet time on the lake. We’d get into canoes or kayaks and go to a place that was particularly peaceful or serene,” he said, describing how each camper experienced a moment of silence in their own way.

Families who haven’t signed kids up for this summer may be out of luck. Many sessions are already filled. “This time last year, we had 500-some kids enrolled. We’re at almost 630 right now,” Berkman said this week.

“The first session to fill up is high school,” Berkman said. “We joke about it, how rapidly those high school kids re-enroll. They have figured out how great the experience is.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

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