Judi Simmons is a household name on the North Shore. A native of Winthrop, Simmons worked at Camp Menorah in Essex for 35 years, and was camp director for most of those years. She lives in Swampscott with her husband, Stephen. Judi and Steve are members of Congregation Shirat Hayam and Judi is involved in the temple’s newly formed Chesed Committee. The couple has two children, Russell (wife is Jennifer) and Jill (both siblings are graduates of Epstein Hillel School), and four grandchildren.
What was it like to grow up in Winthrop?
Winthrop, my hometown, was a wonderful place to grow up. It was a small, insulated beach community where the center of activity for my family was the JCC and Temple Tifereth Israel. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived within walking distance of each other and of the temple. My father, William Greenblatt, was president of the congregation and my mother, Ellen Greenblatt, was the temple administrator and president of the sisterhood the year the current temple was built.
At that time, Winthrop had a vibrant Jewish community. Judaism permeated all aspects of my life, from five days a week at Hebrew school, to the JCC, to BBG, and Young Judea. In fact, I met my husband Steve as a teenager at a roller-skating party at the JCC! Many of my friends from those days remain my close friends today.
Where did you go to college?
I attended Boston University and received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech and language pathology and aphasia with a minor in education. Professionally, I worked at Learning Prep School, Perkins School for the Blind, and the Boston Center for Blind Children, where I published a manual on speech therapy with visually impaired children. I recently retired as head speech therapist in the Lynn Public Schools.
How did you get involved with Camp Menorah?
When my children were young, I started an afternoon preschool program at the Revere JCC, and this led to my involvement in Camp Menorah, a beautiful and rustic day camp on Chebacco Lake in Essex, which was run by the JCC of Greater Boston. I should say that this led to a lifetime of love of and dedication to Camp Menorah. Though I did not attend camp as a child, I immediately saw the powerful impact that a Jewish camp could and did have on children.
Camp Menorah had been given to Combined Jewish Philanthropies by the Ratshesky Foundation in the early 1900s. It served as a Jewish overnight camp, Camp Chebacco, until sometime in the 1960s, when it became Camp Menorah. The late Mike Wallace, of “60 Minutes,” fondly spoke about his experiences at the camp during a speaker series at Salem State University.
When did you start working at the camp?
I began as the [Counselor-in-Training] director and assistant director and by the mid-1980s, I was the director of the camp. My job involved recruiting and retaining campers; hiring, training, and supervising staff; planning and implementing programs for each session; hiring vendors and ordering supplies; hiring and finding community housing for the counselors from Israel; overseeing the site in both winter and summer for repairs and improvements; opening and closing the facility for the season; working with the Board of Health and town of Essex for writing and implementing policies for seasonal permits; and troubleshooting and budgeting accordingly.
Eventully, camp became a family affair. My son, Russell, worked there as a teenager, and returned to work at the camp along with my daughter, Jill.
What was the best part of the job?
The most gratifying part of my job was getting to know and building relationships with campers and staff. During my tenure as director, thousands of Jewish children from all communities north of Boston attended. For many of the campers, it was their only Jewish connection. They experienced Hebrew words, songs, and dances with the [Israeli] shlichim, sports at Levine Field, swimming, boating, crafts, as well as teamwork, leadership, and friendship, all within a supportive cultural environment.
Special needs campers were integrated into the programs, as well. Many of the counselors wrote college application essays about their meaningful Camp Menorah experiences. The camaraderie that I saw among Jewish children and teens from different communities was extremely rewarding. In those days, most campers came for eight weeks, and many became counselors along with children of my friends and neighbors. It was like a family with the feel of an overnight camp with its pine needles, log cabins, and evening programs! In fact, it became a family affair for me when Jill and Steve joined the staff. I was thrilled when alumni began sending their children to camp and most excited when my own grandsons, Mason and Andrew, could attend.
You got to know a lot of people.
My job as camp director also involved recruiting campers in the offseason, and as I did informational sessions at most of the Conservative temples north of Boston, I got to know so many families. At one point, almost all of the rabbis sent their children to camp. For me, it has been a lifetime of friendships with families, campers, counselors, and adult administrative staff who came as campers and never left. I have attended bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings of campers and staff. I even reunited with a cousin from New Jersey who came to work at camp. On my 25th year at camp, I was honored with a reception at Spinelli’s that was attended by many of these alumni and friends and with the construction of the “Simmons Stage” for camp performances and special programs. Social media has enabled me to continue to stay in contact with the alumni all over the world.
The camp almost closed in 2002?
When the camp was slated to close in 2002, an incredible group of parents, alumni, staff, and friends rallied to form Eight Lights, Inc. With the help of Marcia and Mort Ruderman [of blessed memory], we took over the camp from the JCC of Greater Boston, and I continued as director.
At that point, volunteers provided legal, medical, business, computer, plumbing, engineering, musical, landscaping, and electrical assistance. We started a yearly Mitzvah Day each spring. Among other projects, parent volunteers designed and built a deck on the camp lodge. Specialty camps were added to keep up with the times – fishing, standup paddle boarding, rowing, drama, and adventure camp. Funds were raised for a ropes course. Camp staff even volunteered their time, and eventually the camp office was moved to my house. We did whatever it took to keep the camp operating successfully. I will always be grateful to the friends, neighbors, community members, alumni, and camper families who became board members, officers, and donors to Eight Lights.
In 2009, Adam Sandler filmed “Grown Ups” on the lake with Camp Menorah in some of the scenes. It was a thrill to be an extra, meet the cast, and receive a donation of tables and canoes used in the movie.
I have been incredibly lucky to spend my adult life at a place that I love, a place that made a difference in the lives of so many and where it never rained … it was only liquid sunshine. Early in the 35 years I spent at camp, I realized that directing Camp Menorah was more of a passion than a job. While I was committed to providing the best cultural experience possible for the campers, the impact that camp had on me personally is immeasurable. And as the song concludes, ‘I’ve got that Camp Menorah spirit up in my head/deep in my heart/all over me forevermore.’
The camp has closed, and now belongs to Gordon College?
In the last few years, for many reasons, enrollment has declined, and expenses have escalated. With the help of Arthur Epstein and Bob Lappin, Camp Menorah has recently been transitioned to a rowing facility for Gordon College. Despite the change in program, the powerful memories created at Camp Menorah will surely live on.