This article was published in the Hendersonville Times-News in 2003. To link to the article visit http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20030629/NEWS/306290308/0/search
By Jennie Jones Giles
The three Popkin brothers made a pact while fighting for their country in World War II. If they survived, they would open a summer camp in the South for Jewish children. Ben was in the Navy; Harry, in the Air Force; and Herman, in the Army Signal Corps.
The brothers survived the war and, in 1948, the same year Israel became a nation, they opened Camp Blue Star in north Georgia as a haven for Jewish children from the South – children who were not allowed to attend other summer camps because of their faith.
In 1950, the camp relocated to the Crab Creek community of Henderson County, at the base of Mount Pinnacle.
The camp became the life work of Herman Popkin, who spent more than 55 summers in Henderson County.
Some 40,000 campers and staff from 40 states and 20 foreign countries have spent a portion of their summers at Camp Blue Star, wrote Herman Popkin in his book “Once Upon a Summer … Blue Star Camps: 50 Years of Memories.”
Popkin described the camp experience as a “time in our lives when youth was sweet and good; when campfires and friendships were kindled together; when the stars were brighter than any store-bought diamonds; when mountain streams ran clear and many hearts beat as one; when rain fell like kisses on uplifted faces; when a walk in the woods was as refreshing as a dive in our spring-fed mountain lakes; when a song around a campfire echoed not just in the nearby hills but even had a chance, one believed, to be heard worldwide.”
The Popkin brothers were born to Sara and Morris Popkin.
Sara Serotta came to America in 1898 at the age of 8 from Russia. Her father, Benjamin, had left Russia eight years earlier to come to America. He worked and saved his money until he could send for his family. The family settled in the Augusta area of Georgia.
In 1917, she married Morris Popkin, whose family had also fled Russia. According to family history, Morris Popkin’s original name was Oshisky. He changed his name to escape compulsory military service in the czar’s army, Herman Popkin wrote.
Morris Popkin owned dry goods stores and farmland in small Georgia towns.
“They grew up isolated in these small towns where there were only one or two Jewish families,” said Herman’s daughter, Vickie Klegerman of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Morris Popkin died in 1932, leaving his wife to raise six children alone. She moved the family to Augusta, where she opened a children’s shop.
“They didn’t go to camp when they were little kids,” said Rodger Popkin, Herman’s son. “It wasn’t that easy for Jewish kids to get to go to camp.”
The three brothers thought it was important for Southern Jews to have a place to share their heritage. After World War II, they pooled their money and opened Camp Blue Star, the oldest Jewish camp in the Southeast.
Growth and expansion
In 1948 and 1949, the brothers leased a facility in north Georgia for a boys’ camp.
Henry Popkin and his wife, Rosalie, were chaperoning a group of college students in the fall of 1949. The students were members of the Inter-Collegiate Zionist Federation of America. They were holding a conference two miles outside Hendersonville. During the conference, the Popkins contacted a real estate agent about buying land here for a camp.
Harry Diamond of Charlotte owned a fishing camp in Crab Creek at the base of Mount Pinnacle. Mount Pinnacle Lodge consisted of 160 to 200 acres, a lake and 10 cabins.
“Harry Diamond made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Popkin wrote.
Diamond said the brothers would have to pay interest for only the first three years. The fishing camp was bought for $60,000 at 5 percent interest.
“He said he felt the South really needed that kind of camp,” said Rosalie Popkin.
In the first year, the brothers built a dining hall and three small green cabins.
The people of Henderson County “were very giving and kind to us in many ways,” Rosalie said.
Ben Popkin supervised the building of the dining and recreation halls. In 1952, he died in Augusta.
Harry and Herman worked in partnership until Harry Popkin retired in 1972, when Herman bought his brother’s share of the camp. After Herman’s retirement in 1986, his son, Rodger, and his wife, Candy, bought the camp. Their son, Jason, was born the last night of camp in 1973. He is now camp director.
“It’s a legacy business,” said Rodger Popkin.
The camp now consists of about 600 acres to the top of Mount Pinnacle and bordering DuPont State Forest.
Instead of one camp, the camp now functions as six different camps of about 150 children each, organized by age and gender. The camp started out with 70 campers. Now, about 700 youths spend their summers at Camp Blue Star.
Advertising is not necessary.
“It’s a little like Johnny Appleseed,” Rodger said. “One person from Beverly Hills sends their two children and within five years about 40 kids are coming.”
“The whole camp is seen as a family,” said staff employee Allison Marks.
Marks attended camp at Blue Star in the 1960s. Her mother was a camp counselor in the early 1950s, and now Marks’ daughter attends Blue Star.
“I heard about your camp from too many people to pass it up,” said the late Howard Simons, retired managing editor of The Washington Post and director of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, when writing his book “Jewish Times: Voices of the American Experience.”
Now there are three dining rooms on the grounds, a heated pool, five tennis courts, and an equestrian center containing about 30 horses and close to 125 to 130 buildings. In addition to the original lake, a second lake was built in 1963.
The covered, open-sided chapel is a place of beauty and solemnity. It was Herman Popkin’s first major project.
The chapel is named after Elmore Solomon, a longtime friend of Herman Popkin.
Solomon was a “basically ordinary but decent man,” said Rodger Popkin.
Herman Popkin used Solomon as a role model for all the campers to live up to, an ordinary man who lived a decent and righteous life.
“You don’t have to chase glamour in life to make a mark,” Herman Popkin would tell campers. “The important things are in the work you do and the people you touch.”
Friends of Solomon’s sent their favorite Scripture verses, which are carved in wood around the top sides of the chapel.
Caretaker Newell Saltz helped to select the site and build the chapel in 1962. Saltz was the caretaker of Blue Star from 1952 to 1985.
“This mountain man was rooted deep in the valley and rolling hills, at home in the land where he was born,” wrote Herman Popkin of his caretaker. “A former Baptist Sunday school teacher helped select and build the site for the camp’s worship. He chose and prepared the trees to become the split-polished log seats.”
Saltz also did the stone masonry work at the altar.
Recently, campers and staff of Blue Star welcomed a 100-year-old Torah, the living book of the Jewish people, to Solomon’s Chapel. The Torah was brought from Clarksdale, Miss., where the congregation had decreased in membership. It was dedicated to the Blue Star community in honor of Herman Popkin and placed in the Ark of the Covenant at the chapel.
The camp from the beginning had a Living Judaism program to nurture the traditions of Judaism.
The camp is considered a unifying force for Southern Jews.
“Where else was I going to find 200 Jewish kids my own age?” asked Atlanta executive and former camper Joe Rubin in a 1997 Atlanta Journal-Constitution story.
In addition to owning Camp Blue Star, Herman Popkin worked for Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization. He was the first youth director for Hadassah in the Southeast, said Rodger Popkin. The organization did not have a summer camp in the Southeast, so in the late 1950s Herman Popkin allowed the organization to use Blue Star facilities for camp conferences before and after the regular camp season.
It was decided the organization needed to have its own camp. A camp in Edneyville was up for sale, and the former Camp Carlyle became Camp Judaea in 1961. A men’s organization that no longer exists, the Zionist Organization of America, gave the money to buy the camp.
The camp’s original 30 acres have expanded to 118 acres. About 500 children attend the camp each summer in two sessions.
The educational program is under the supervision of a full-time shaliach, educational emissary, who comes to the camp from the Jewish Agency in Israel. Several staff members also come each summer from Israel, along with Israeli Scouts.
“The idea was to offer a more grass-roots Judaism and Zionism,” said camp director Marc Howard.
Camp Judaea is a nonprofit agency camp, whereas Camp Blue Star is a for-profit, private camp.
“Judaea is a Zionist camp with an ideology imbuing kids with a loyalty to Israel,” said Rosalie Popkin. “Camp Blue Star is not an ideological camp.”
Sandra Bass, assistant director of Camp Judaea, said the camp has five missions: to instill a Jewish identity, teach a love for Israel, individual growth, teach a love for the outdoors and democratic group development.
Howard worked for Herman and Harry Popkin one summer at Blue Star.
“They were both incredible people,” he said.
“I took my unit leaders to him last year to get a history tour,” said Bass of Herman Popkin. “He was a very caring person who had a lot of passion for what he did.”
Popkin was always a member of the camp’s board, said Rodger Popkin.
A ceremony will be held today to dedicate a memorial board to Herman Popkin, who died Nov. 26, in the chapel at the far end of the lake at Camp Judaea.
The plaque on the memorial board will read, “In loving memory of Herman Popkin, a Zionist as well as a founder and friend of Camp Judaea.”
At the same time, in order to teach the children more about Herman Popkin, each cabin will attach a new mezuzah in his memory. A mezuzah is a small case placed upon the doorpost of a house as a reminder of God. The case contains a scroll and is nailed or affixed to the right side doorpost on an angle, with a small ceremony called Chanukkat Ha-Bayit, dedication of the house.
When Herman Popkin died last fall, tributes and memorials poured in from throughout the world.
“Herman left an incredible legacy,” wrote Lois Pardoll. “He shaped Jewish history in the South. He was loved and revered by all and we feel that our lives have been enriched by his example.”
His legacy will live on in the lives he touched, wrote members of the Brill family.
“How else can you explain Jewish children all over the United States calling, e-mailing, comforting and mourning together for the loss of their great leader?”
Popkin was a 1939 graduate of the University of Georgia. He majored in journalism and, before the war, worked as a reporter for the Savannah Morning News. During the war, he served with the Army Signal Corps in the China-Burma-India campaign. He later studied creative writing at Northwestern University.
For 55 years, he was known as “Uncle Herman” to thousands of campers.
“He was a man with a gentle touch, a good listener, who could empathize with a homesick 7-year-old,” said Irvin Reinhard in a eulogy to Popkin.
“He really liked teaching kids,” said daughter-in-law Candy. “He felt the classroom could be a dry place. When children went out in the wilderness or to camp, a teachable moment could be derived that would make an impression in their hearts rather than in their minds.”
The Popkin family has made Camp Blue Star a place of exploration and learning, firmly entrenched in family and tradition.
“Roots connect to the past, traditions and people,” Rodger Popkin said. “Wings allow them to use experience to grow and soar. They strengthen roots and grow wings.”
Three generations of the Popkin family have their roots embedded at Camp Blue Star and three generations of campers have used those roots to grow their wings.
Eli Evans wrote in his book, “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South,” “for the rest of our days, it seemed, one sure way that Jewish kids all over the South could start a conversation was by asking, `What years were you at Blue Star?'”