Friendship, Fun and Faith

Custodian With a dry mop in a hallway

A Century of Sleepaways at Camp Airy and Camp Louise.

By Gina Galluci-White. Photos courtesy Camp Airy and Camp Louise

 Now 45 years old, Adam Clay looks back on the friendships he made decades ago as a summer camper and counselor in the hills of Frederick County as some of the most profound and important of his life.”

“It is a unique experience to live with a group of guys for two to four weeks and then, when you get older [as a counselor] even longer,” he says of his summers at Thurmont’s Camp Airy for Boys. “I just got really close with them and they are some of my best friends to this day. They were groomsmen in my wedding. We live near each other. We hang out all the time. I definitely think the friendships I made there — (they) are the longest-lasting friends I have ever had.”

This year, Camp Airy and the nearby Camp Louise in Cascade, the only brother-sister Jewish overnight camps in the country, begin their century anniversary. Baltimore philanthropists Aaron and Lillie Straus founded Camp Louise in 1922 as an opportunity for immigrant girls and women liv-ing in the city to enjoy some time in the outdoors away from cramped working conditions. Two years later, they opened Camp Airy for boys. The couple founded the camps on the principle that any child who wanted to go to overnight camp should have the opportunity, regardless of their ability to pay. The camps still adhere to this principle today, awarding $450,000 annually in financial aid.

The single-gender camps have grown throughout the years—surviving economic upheaval, World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic—but remain committed to providing youth traditional camp experiences, fun activities, life skills, appreciation for nature and a focus on their Jewish identity. “Camp has been through a lot and we are not going anywhere,” says Lauren A. Perlin, director of development for the camps. “We are in a strong and healthy place with many, many campers and staff that come every single year and it is definitely something to be really proud of. If the founders of camp … were looking down on us from above, they would be really proud of the legacy they left.”

Perlin notes the camps’ key to longevity is a combination of word of mouth, summer traditions and legacy campers. “We know about fifth-generation campers that are going to be at camp this summer,” she says. “We have a very strong tradition of ‘my parents went to camp and so I am going to camp.’ That connection crosses over between Airy and Louise.”

The camps did see an increase in interest during the past two years due to COVID lockdowns with parents wanting to give their children an opportunity for social interaction.

“Camp is fuller than it has ever been this year,” Perlin says. By spring of this year, there were wait lists in nearly every age group at both camps. Camp registration kicks off the previous summer as campers return home; the following summer quickly fills during this time. “We don’t start our recruitment season with tons of spots,” Perlin says.

“They realize they are part of a bigger community”

With extensive grounds sprawling across 700 acres, the camps offer a wide variety of activities, including sports, dancing, swimming, obstacle courses and drama. “We have all of the things and that is good because it exposes kids [for example] who never knew that they liked to be on stage—it gives them a comfortable safe place to try that,” Perlin says. “Same with cooking or arts and crafts, or archery. It allows kids to learn how to play lacrosse or soccer without feeling like they can’t fail. They are not trying out for a school  team.This is intended to be fun. We have staff from all over the world with various expertise and we really hone in on that and we take advantage of that.… We encourage safe, outside-of-your-comfort zone experiences.”

Although aimed at Jewish youth, the camps are not primarily religious. Campers come from various Jewish and interfaith backgrounds and are welcome to celebrate their beliefs consistent with their own backgrounds and comfort levels. Friday night Shabbat is observed with a pluralistic service and Saturday is reserved as a day of rest, reflection and camp traditions.

Many parents appreciate the religious grounding as well as something their children might not welcome: the screen-free policy. No phones, no TVs, no tablets.

“While some campers come into that experience a little bit nervous about how they are going to do without contact to the outside world, at the end everyone is appreciative,” Perlin says. “Everyone needs that break. Everyone needs to learn how to problem solve face to face. Everyone needs to know how to have a conversation with an adult or a peer without a screen being involved. It is a very healthy thing and something we take tremendous pride in.”

Perlin, who attended Camp Louise for three years as young teen, wants campers to take away many lessons from their experience. “What we hope is not only do they connect with the kids in their bunk but that they realize they are part of a bigger community,” she says. “That they learn kindness and respect and how to be a good person. We believe that friendship is really at the core of why campers come back every year. They bond and connect in a way that you don’t in school in a classroom. … It is that bond of brotherhood or sisterhood that keeps our campers and our staff coming back year after year.”

“I could be away from my parents and be OK”

Adam Clay attended Camp Airy from age 8 to 17 as a camper and then served as a counselor for five years while in college. A school teacher in Montgomery County, he came back as a staff member seven summers ago and now oversees the middle school age group. “I get to be outside all day and work a lot with young adults [counselors] to help them man-age the kids,” he says.

Clay made the camp experience a family affair. His wife Sarah, who went to Camp Louise as a tween, now serves as a member of the wellness team. The couple’s two sons, Alex and Benny, have been summer campers since Clay returned. Sarah Clay, who works as a school psychologist in Montgomery County, treasures the camps’ bucolic setting and scenery. “I enjoy the experience and I love to be able to experience that with my husband and my kids,” she says.

As a staff member, Adam Clay wants campers to have authentic experiences and really be present with each other. “I teach high school English and every time I go back to camp, I marvel at groups of teenagers hanging out together without any devices and they are actually talking to each other more and really laughing. … As a high school teacher, unfortunately I am seeing more and more groups of kids together but separate. I hope even more now after the pandemic that they get the opportunity for kids to have fun and hang out and take a break from the screen and build those lasting friendships that I enjoyed as well.”

Sarah Clay hopes campers learn more independence skills. “I think the biggest thing that sleepaway camp provides is that opportunity to be away from your par-ents, make your own decisions, learn to get along with all types of children, how to take on new challenges, build self-confidence and problem-solve without parents swooping in.”

When she attended Camp Louise for the first time, she was homesick and felt unsettled and out of place. Through her time there, she realized “I could do this. I can make my own decisions. I can get along with other people and make new friends if I didn’t necessarily know a lot of kids in the bunk. … I could be away from my parents and be OK.”

Now, as a staff member, she enjoys helping kids problem-solve and watching them grow throughout the session. “A lot of times you see a kid who is really upset or really homesick the first couple of days or is having trouble getting along in the bunk and you can work with the kid and work with the counselor and give them strategies and help them make connections,” she says. “By the end of the session, they are al-most all smiling and they don’t want to go home. It is great to see that growth in just three weeks, which seems like a short amount of time but I love to see that.”

“It is what I look forward to all year”

Erica Levinson came to Camp Louise at age 12 as a camper, worked as a counselor and became a staff member in 2006, currently serving as the trainee division head. “Camp is such a transformative place,” says Levinson. “It has played such a big role in my life and the life of so many of my friends.” Growing up, she went to day camps but decided to attend Camp Louise because her best friend wanted her to go with her. “I joined and never looked back,” she says. Like the Clays, Levinson works in education, so she has the freedom to spend her summers at the camp.

As a camper, Levinson enjoyed the independence and confidence-building of the camp experience. “I think it was just such a great experience to go somewhere where you could be with your friends and feel like you had independence,” she says. “The friendships that I built were so strong. Even 20 plus years later now, they are still some of my closest friends. … I really felt like I came into being my own person and I found a lot of confidence in myself and just having fun. It is a very freeing experience to just goof around or spend time with other people and just get to know a bunch of people and learn more about yourself.”

There was never a question about her becoming a counselor and staff member. “I would say from the first sum-mer, camp became my absolute favorite place,” Levinson says. “It is what I look forward to all year. In my mid-30s, I still look forward to it all year. I wanted to be a counselor and be able to give back to the kids the experience that I got. My counselors as a camper were just such great role models. Our counselors are in their early 20s and it is such an incredible thing to learn from other people that are like you and different from you.”

And yet they find common ground that bridges divides, both cultural and generational. Adam Clay enjoys attending alumni weekends, where he meets former campers who were there years and even decades before him, but their experiences are the same.

“There is a bond there,” he says. “… That is something special, I think.”

Frederick Magazine