A $50,000 matching gift from a former camper launches a $250,000 campaign for CT’s only Jewish overnight camp
By Cindy Mindell
MADISON – The summer of 1960 was a transformative one for Barrie Drazen, a self-described “gawky, big-eared” 12-year-old from New Haven. He had just lost his grandfather and hero, Harry Drazen, to cancer. And he stepped for the first time onto the leafy grounds of Camp Laurelwood in Madison. While Drazen may not have known it at the time, the hours spent learning to play tennis, canoe and sing Friday night kiddush would shape him into a lifelong member of the Laurelwood family.
Drazen spent two more summers at Laurelwood, Connecticut’s only Jewish overnight camp. As an adult, he went on to found and run Drazen Development in Milford, then used his earnings to fund his two early passions: the beloved memory of his maternal grandfather, Harry Rosen, an alcoholic who died in 1946, and the summer camp that, as he says, made a grieving kid “feel part of something.”
“It’s the only time I ever felt Jewish, and whatever I learned of our traditions, I learned there,” he says.
Drazen is not alone. Study after study point to Jewish camping as an experience critical to identity-building and continuity among American Jewish youth. For that reason Laurelwood is supported by Connecticut’s various Jewish Federations for both scholarship and capitol campaigns.
In later years, Drazen created the Harry Rosen House Foundation in 1997, now home to 43 men recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse. And, he strengthened the Laurelwood legacy by sending his son and daughter to the camp in the mid-’80s.
“It never occurred to me to do otherwise,” he says. “I had such a positive experience there and I’ve been a fan of the camp ever since my first summer. It’s always been the Jewish camp for our Greater New Haven area so it was a natural progression to send them to Laurelwood.”
Drazen also contributed philanthropically to the camp, most notably in 2007, when he helped fund major renovations to Laurelwood’s physical plant and buildings. He and his wife, Joan, were honored for their philanthropic generosity in 2009 at a special celebration in the newly renovated Laurelwood dining hall.
Over the last two years, the camp has seen nearly $1 million worth of improvements, with all buildings re-sided and cabins repainted, roads repaved, pool restored, pond dredged, rec hall winterized, office and infirmary modernized, basketball courts resurfaced, and new tennis courts installed. “A lot of that work has been done with the gracious generosity of Henry Zachs [of Hartford],” says Drazen.
Now, Drazen, is again lending a hand as the only Jewish overnight camp in Connecticut prepares for its 78th consecutive summer.
This time, in addition to providing his two granddaughters with their first Laurelwood experience, Drazen has put forward a matching gift of $50,000, as part of a campaign to raise $250,000 for this year’s current needs, which include certain capital improvements, annual needs for current operations and camp scholarships.
“We typically give away between $70,000 and $90,000 worth of camperships,” says Board President Bruce Small, a former Laurelwood camper and employee of 16 summers, and an active Board member since 2005. “This year, as in past years, the financial need has outstripped our reserve and thus the need for our current campaign.”
In addition to making the Laurelwood experience possible for more kids, camp administration is expanding the standard menu of activities with two specialty camps during the last week of the summer season: a science camp, and a lacrosse camp run by coach Dan Sparks, a Laurelwood alumnus.
All that is in addition to a long list of innovative programs that, over the years, have become mainstays of the Camp Laurelwood experience – programs such as “Bonim,” a combined leadership training and travel camp that takes campers entering 10th grade to Costa Rica for the summer. Hebrew for “builders,” Bonim was created by Laurelwood’s executive director, Ruth Ann Orenstein, during the first of her 12 seasons heading up the Madison camp.
“The summer is divided into three sections: social awareness, community action and leadership components,” explains Orenstein. ”The program is led by Camp Laurelwood staff who have watched their campers grow up – it’s exciting for both campers and staff, who get to work with their campers on a whole new level.” Each camper who successfully completes the summer, says Orenstein, is guaranteed a position at Laurelwood the following year.
Beyond its remarkable chronological scope, Laurelwood is unique in its genealogical reach. The fact that three generations of Drazen’s family wave the Laurelwood banner is not unusual for the camp; some 25 percent of attendees every summer have a grandparent or parent who can still recall the name of their color war team decades ago.
And the friendships created on Summer Hill Road, as the website boasts, do last a lifetime. During his second season at Laurelwood, Drazen met counselor David Hubler, with whom he has kept in contact for 54 years. Last month, Drazen’s son, Josh, co-wrote a book with Hubler.
“Laurelwood is sacred land,” says the elder Drazen. “It was, and is today, a very warm place. An awful lot of people’s hearts are in that camp. And my grandchildren love it just as much as I do.”
Camp Laurelwood invites the community to check out the camp’s facility – including its ropes course and zip line – at a family barbecue on Thursday, June 11, 5 -7 p.m., at the camp, 463 Summer Hill Rd. in Madison.
For more information regarding the barbecue (or for those who can’t make the barbecue and would like to schedule a private tour: (203) 421-3736, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.laurelwood.org.