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John Ruskay (left), executive
vice president of
UJA-Federation, and
Jordan Dale, executive director
of Surprise Lake Camp (SLC).

Camp Marks Centennial
As Haven from NY Heat

By Nina Boxer

OR the 100th anniversary of Surprise Lake Camp, they could have honored any one of its distinguished alumni, such as Larry King or Gene Simmons of KISS. Mercifully, executive director Jordan Dale said, it was decided that the camp would be the guest of honor “which spared you another speech.”

That was good news for the 480 guests who came to the Marriott Marquis in New York to celebrate and contribute $1,013,000 for scholarships.

John Ruskay with Marjorie Wyler,
former SLC president and current
board member, and daughter
Ruth Messinger, board vice
president. Mrs. Wyler, who died
July 22, was the former public
relations director at the Jewish
Theological Seminary and producer
of its Eternal Light radio program

“Surprise Lake Camp is driven by tradition,” said UJA-Federation chief John Ruskay. “One tradition is tzedaka. The camp gives out more than half a million dollars in scholarships every year to enable kids to go there.”

Even in 1902 when the camp first opened, some people needed assistance, since not every family could afford to send its sons out of the Lower East Side for relief from the stultifying heat. It cost a whopping $3 to send a kid away for a two-week summer session and that was a heavy sum in the old days.

Camp Alumni

Larry King

Jerry Stiller
Neil Simon
Walter Matthau
Gene Simmons
Joseph Heller
Eddie Cantor
Neil Diamond

Among those Lower East Side kids was a young orphan named Edward Israel Iskowitz who grew up to become Eddie Cantor, the world class entertainer and one of the camp’s major supporters. (His bunkmate was Walter Winchell.)

In his 1957 autobiography, Take My Life, Cantor wrote, “Grandma got me to a place where I learned more than I ever learned in school – Surprise Lake Camp, a camp for poor undernourished kids who’d never seen a blade of grass pr a tree. They scooped us off the parched summer streets of New York and sent us to heaven…”

Peter Seeger leads his
“Seegerkids” in singalong at
annual Shomrei Adamah Day
(Earth Day) at SLC.

In 1952 three young campers sneaked out on an unauthorized hike and promptly got lost in the woods. They came upon a cabin and knocked on the door. Folksinger Peter Seeger let them use the phone so they shouldn’t miss dinner.

That’s how the legendary folksinger, now 82, got involved with the camp. For 50 years the banjo-playing singer, who wrote If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Turn, Turn, Turn, has been visiting every summer to sing for the youngsters, who now include girls as well as boys.

Neil Diamond was a happy camper who got his inspiration to become a singer/songwriter by listening to Seeger. He once told the New York Daily News that performing at Surprise Lake Camp “was really the start of my career.”

Jerry Stiller (center) and Anne Meara (from
left), unidentified person, alumni association
president  Howie Berk, Eddie Cantor’s
daughter Janet Gari, SLC executive director
Jordan Dale, and Eddie Ward, camp's 100th
anniversary coordinator.

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