A family-oriented, secular Jewish summer community
Naivelt means ‘New World’ in Yiddish. And a new world it was – it would provide a summer haven for the working class members of the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) who had overcome the hardships of immigration, global anti-Semitism and economic depression of the early part of the 20th century.
Camp Naivelt originated as an overnight children’s camp called Camp Kindervelt, the Yiddish word for ‘Children’s World’. Kindervelt was organized in 1925 by a group of six progressive Jewish women from the Yiddishe Arbeiter Froyen Farein (Jewish Women’s Labour League): Ray Watson, Becky Lapedes, Leah Linzon, Bella Goodis, Gertie Blugerman and Ethel Temkin. These forward-thinking women had a vision of an alternative society, and of solving a practical problem – how to keep their children off the streets of Toronto during the summer. Their families were poor; many of the women worked along with their husbands to support their families; and, there was nowhere to leave the children. So, they decided to organize a summer camp.
In the summer of 1925, they rented a furnished cottage in Long Branch on the outskirts of Toronto, from Sam and Esther Green. All of the Farein members committed themselves to two-week work shifts at the camp without pay, and they operated the camp on supplies donated from their own homes: pots, silverware, an ice box, and whatever else was needed. Although the cottage could only accommodate 16 children per week, word quickly spread through the Toronto Jewish community, and the demand soon grew extremely high.
Encouraged by this response, and to meet the growing need, the camp expanded in 1926. A farm with a stream running through it was rented in Rouge Hills, north of Toronto. Tents and beds were purchased and volunteers worked day and night to put this new camp in order. The new location could accommodate 30 children per session, but as many parents even couldn’t afford to pay the very low fee of $3.50-$4.00 a week per child, the camp began to run a deficit. At one point, it looked as though they would have to close their doors until Becky Lapedes suggested that they hold a fundraising tea – a huge success which raised over $1,000.00 (an enormous sum in those days). As a result of this endeavour, fundraising teas became an annual event.
In 1927, when registration exceeded what could be accommodated, the camp expanded once again. New tents and a dining area were put up to accommodate 70 children per session. More volunteers were needed, so more adults began spending time there. This marked the beginning of both children and adults sharing a summer experience.
In 1928, after the fourth year of camp, the women decided that running the camp had become too much of an undertaking, and they asked the male-run Labor League (the forerunner of the UJPO) to take over, which they did.
When the 10-year lease for the Rouge Hills site expired, the Labor League found a 100-acre property in what had been a public amusement park owned by the Canadian National Railways, just outside Brampton and bordering the Credit River – Eldorado Park. A sign at the gate read ‘no Jews or dogs allowed’. A holding company, Eldorado Camp & Amusements Limited, was established and community members bought shares in the camp for $5.00 in order to raise the money for the purchase.
Through lots of hard work and the generous sharing of time and money, Camp Naivelt was built, officially opening on June 28, 1936. At the same time, the children’s Camp Kindervelt changed its name to Camp Kinderland (Children’s Land). When the UJPO emerged from the Labor League in 1945, both Naivelt and Kinderland became part of this new, larger organization.
At its peak in the 1950’s, Camp Kinderland housed 12 bunks, the Camp Director’s cabin, an Arts & Crafts cabin, an infirmary and the “Ritz” (communal washrooms). The three rolling hills of Camp Naivelt had a swimming pool, some 90 small cottages, a communal dining hall, a dance hall, a youth recreation hall, a grocery store and a camp office. Activities ranged from lectures on current issues, films, poetry readings, Yiddish theatre, kultur vinkls (cultural corners), folk dancing and singing to the annual ‘campaign for Mayor’, boating and swimming, volleyball and other sports tournaments, hikes and nature walks and campfires.
Kinderland served over 300 children per session and as many as 5,000 people would come out to Naivelt on weekends to enjoy themselves in the country and to be part of the vibrancy of the cultural life which was nurtured and thrived there. Although Camp Kinderland ceased to operate as an overnight camp in 1962, it continued as a children’s day camp until 1970.
When founded, Camp Naivelt, and its sister camps in New York and Quebec, were pieces of a mosaic. They were part of a wider network of progressive political and cultural organizations that provided their members with credit, cemetery plots and health care. This network included clubs where members met for political and cultural activities, such as a chorus, a mandolin orchestra, Yiddish folkshules where children were taught the language and culture of the Jewish people, a dance troupe and sports leagues. The zumer heym (summer home) was a continuation and extension of the political, cultural and educational activities that went on all winter long in the city.
Camp was a place where children played, and their parents relaxed in a community where Yiddishkayt, radical politics, socialist values and visions mixed comfortably with the pleasures of being in the country. Naivelt was a working-class camp created by workers, and it taught socialist values to the next generation. For many, Naivelt was where close lifelong friendships were formed, and even today, the Naivelt community still feels like a large extended family.
Camp Naivelt continues to operate as a family-oriented, secular Jewish summer community glued together with humanistic, pluralistic and progressive values and that bond is very strong.
Source: Much of the information cited in this historical section was taken from ‘Camp Naivelt and the Daughters of the Jewish Left’, an essay written by UJPO member Ester Reiter. The essay can be found in Sisters or Strangers? Immigrant, Ethnic and Racialized Women in Canadian History. Edited by Marlene Epp, Franca Iacovetta, Frances Swyripa. University of Toronto Press, Canada, 2004.