LEHMAN TWP. — How did kiddie pools on the roof of the Jewish Community Center become in-ground pools off a bucolic back road in Lehman Township? And why does the portrait of prominent Wilkes-Barre business legend Isaac Long hang in a room where little tykes who never saw his defunct department store romp while visiting the JCC camp?
The story starts deep in the history of Wilkes-Barre, when the Long family migrated from Germany to the city and set up shop — literally, in Isaac’s case. He established a department store that would become a downtown icon, amassing enough wealth to buy 40 acres and build a mini-mansion on a hillside overlooking Harveys Lake.
That house and land are now the JCC Day Camp, which will celebrate its 85th year when the gates formally open June 14. But it wasn’t always home to the camp. Back in the day, the older campers went to the Twin Lakes area. The youngest, camp director Rick Evans said, went to the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes-Barre, where little round pools were set up on the roof.
“I taught swimming at those pools 43 years ago,” Evans recalled of his early days helping with the camp. Mind you, by that time, the bulk of the camp had moved to the Long property, and frankly, parents started wondering why the youngest didn’t get the benefit of the great outdoors.
Hurricane Agnes provided motivation for a switch. “In 1973 we moved them up here, right after the flood,” Evans said.
The camp has changed in three important ways from those early days.
While sticking to its Jewish origins with camp names like “Little Menschen” for pre-schoolers, it has become very ecumenical. “About 90 percent of the children are non-Jewish,” Jewish Community Alliance of Northeast Pennsylvania President Mitch Kornfeld said.
It has expanded substantially. “We have three swimming pools, three tennis courts, three ball fields,” Evans said. “We have hockey, we have a heated gym. We have a nature area, a ropes course with a zip line, two playgrounds and four cabins.”
It also offers some sailing lessons on nearby Harveys Lake. “Some of these kids have never been on a lake before,” said Chris Miller, who teaches those lessons. “Their eyes grow as wide as their faces.”
And it has become far less regimented. Campers can pick what they want to do among the many activities, and what days they want to be there. When the people helping run it attended in the old days, “We had a schedule: Swimming, arts and crafts, lunch, archery and basketball,” Kornfeld said. “I learned how to swim here, but in my mind, I was forced to learn.”
A few important things remain the same. The camp provides bus transportation from places ranging from Clarks Summit to Mountain Top. The kitchen remains Kosher. And the overwhelming majority of counselors are former campers themselves, so much so that the offerings include a “Counselor In Training” camp for students in grades eight and nine.
“About 70 to 75 percent of the campers come back as staff,” Miller said. “They are very hands on. The kids really look up to the counselors.”
As the camp marks 85 years, it offers some 45 activities this year, providing scholarships for many of the students who may not be able to afford the costs, and extends the season from eight weeks to 10 (ending Aug. 19).
“It’s a gem of a place,” Miller said.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish.