Written by Mitch Dorf
A few months ago, I responded when Camp reached out to alumni asking to share how Interlaken has influenced our lives. As I began to reflect, I couldn’t help but recount my Interlaken story and the years I grew up around Lake Finley.
Shalom. My name is Mitch Dorf. I have been married to my wife Lynda for 35 years. We live in Los Angeles, as do our two Camp Interlaken JCC alumni kids, Sadie (26) and Max (23). I am a post-production audio sound mixer for film, TV shows, commercials, podcasts, and video games. I spent 11 consecutive summers, from 1974 – 1984, at Camp Interlaken JCC, and there isn’t a day I don’t think about or rely upon the experiences and lessons I learned during that time.
1974, my first summer, Cabin Issachar, was the youngest boys’ cabin mixed with 10 and 11-year-olds. Now, correct me if I’m wrong Danny O, wasn’t that the first year camp changed from cabin numbers to Israeli tribe names? I met what became a lifelong friend in that cabin. We live in the same city today and communicate at least once, if not 10+ times a week. I had the back upper right corner bunk, and he was the next upper adjacent to me. The first summer is always the weirdest because you’ve heard so much about camp but truly don’t understand until you are there. Ateret Cohn was the camp director, and she felt like my second mother. After I was scared to even go to Camp in ‘73, I immediately felt at home in this beautiful place on the shores of Lake Finley because of her. Her campfire stories made us laugh, cry, and feel a sense of belonging. It was also the summer when President Nixon resigned, and I have a vivid memory of my counselors telling us to sit on our bunks and listen to his resignation speech that was played throughout the camp rom kol speakers in every cabin.
My camper years were filled with incredible counselors who awakened me to a new identity and sense of purpose. I fear leaving someone out, but Jon Mann, Jono Lurie, Danny O, David Cornfield, and countless others completely shaped who I am today. I was taught but really observed a way to live and experience life I had never conceived of before.
Those “camper summers” evolved into this fun and growing rivalry between the Dorfs and the Appels: who had more family members at camp 3rd session, and did cousins with different lasts count? The whole chadar would chant “DORF, DORF, DORF” and then “APPEL, APPEL, APPEL!” It was NUTS!! Thinking back on it, I feel it disrespected Ateret Cohn’s mantra of “Every kid’s a star,” but I was just a kid, caught up in the moment, and it somehow felt right. All of Camp recognized it, and we just went along for the ride.
I was a third-session-3-week camper back in the day. Oh, how times have changed. I remember loving to sail with Jon Mann. When I got off the bus in 1977, my cousin Mike, who was in K’far Noar, said something to me about this “Jono” guy and MIME! Mime? What’s that? I believe that was the first year where choosing chugim was set up the same way we used to pick college classes: the counselors did their shtick promoting their activity, and then you went to a table and signed up, youngest to oldest. AND IT WORKED! They completely changed the process, and no counselors or Ad-Staff had to stay up all night figuring out each camper’s chugim schedule.
I got water skiing, of course, sailing, mime, and a couple of others. As much as Jon let me take the sailboats out and Jimmy Peckarsky pulled me around the lake on one ski, I was mesmerized by Mime with Jono. It changed my life at that time. Mime got me out of my shell, and I loved to perform in front of Camp. I eventually directed the program as a counselor. I remember Jono once did an entire chug of a relaxation exercise that I seriously still use today.
1978, first-year K’far Noar, I met director Gary Hochman who was a larger-than-life monster of a wonderful human being. He had a smile that would melt your heart, and he could play his TEETH! IYKYK. That was the year my cousin Mike Dorf, Louis Spitzer, and I rode our bicycles from Milwaukee to camp instead of taking the bus. Not sure any camper had ever done that before. From what I understand, there’s still the plaque we made hanging in the Ulam commemorating it. That was the summer of 1978, the 13th/Bar Mitzvah year of Camp Interlaken. However, the “Bar Mitzvah” celebration was a disaster for all of us campers and so disruptive that it took days to get back to the normal camp vibe. But we all knew it had to be done, and we did our best to put on a great “Show” for the adults who came up.
In 1979, I asked my parents if I could attend both four-week sessions of K’far. Thankfully, they let me, and I finally realized the totality of what Camp Interlaken really was. As mentioned, I was always a 3rd session kid but being there for the entire summer opened my eyes to an Interlaken that was so much more for so many. THAT summer set me up for my next Camp Interlaken JCC phase.
1980 was my OZO year. Thanks to Facebook, most of us are still connected. We even had an “OZO” reunion during the first part of the pandemic. Cheryl Able was unquestionably THE BEST director for our group. Absolutely perfect! She had never been to Interlaken before but immediately understood who we were and where we were coming from. I am still in communication with her and most of our class.
My summer of 1981 was filled with so much joy and first love. I was finally a counselor guiding campers the way I observed during the Ateret Cohn years as a camper. The summer was fantastic, and eventually, it was intercession between sessions 2 & 3, the traditional time when 2nd session K’far took their overnight camping trip. Since K’far was out of camp, a close friend and I decided to hang out in the K’far Bayit. It was then that life at Camp changed for everyone. Out of nowhere, kids started streaming in, and David Cornfield told my friend and me the devastating news of Craig Kahn’s passing. We went to “Double O,” and I cried for what seemed like hours. Eventually, the entire staff met in the Chadar around 3 am and were informed of the situation. Our collective emotions were raw; we were terribly sad, crying and holding each other, but we knew we needed to get some sleep because the 3rd session buses were arriving in the morning. Camp needed us to welcome the campers, create Interlaken magic, and bring the ruach because the campers expected it, and they deserved it. It wasn’t just our job as counselors, but at that moment in time, it was exactly what Camp Interlaken needed.
About an hour before the first bus was to arrive, we formed a friendship circle on the athletic field. No one had slept. We were still crying and holding each other as one unit. At some point, I broke from the circle and went towards the middle. There’s a photo of me doing this, so I know it happened, but I have little recollection of this or what I said. I’m sure it had to be something like, “We are the children of the future. There are buses coming down Old Finley Lane any moment now, and they are filled with kids expecting Camp Interlaken to be Camp Interlaken – and if we can’t make that happen, then what are we doing here at all? There is no other time than now that Interlaken NEEDS us to BE US.” Everyone was crying, and then, spontaneously, we started singing B’nai He’ Atid. It started off soft and somber, still with tears flowing from our eyes, but it grew and grew as our collective voices loudly and proudly sang out, standing arm in arm. Then, that first bus emerged; we were ready and raced to the Flag Rectangle to greet those kids as they got off the bus and give them the best three weeks of their lives. We had to. We had no choice. And we did it.
I spent the next year in Israel on a kibbutz before attending the University of Miami, so I couldn’t be a counselor that summer. However, I was hired as a two-week staff member in 1982 to help out with bussing and facilitating transitions.
I was K’far Noar staff in 1983 and 1984. 1983 was a magical summer. There was never a group like them before, and I know there can’t be one like them ever again. Back in the day, K’far Noar campers had three chugim and two periods doing a group Avodah project. That summer, I had the idea to rebuild the amphitheater. The amphitheater was still in the state that the Interlaken of the Pines for Boys left it when the JCC bought the camp in 1966. It had a broken tar surface with white-painted wood benches. I approached Camp Director Paul Chase with the idea, and he was all for it.
After welcoming our second session K’far Noar campers, I made the suggestion that on the first night of our Avodah project, we rebuild the amphitheater; everyone was ALL IN! The next day, after lunch, we removed the benches to set up a temporary “Lake Side” amphitheater for Shabbat services overlooking the swim docks. We then proceeded to start removing the broken tar and grading the earth below. Delivery of the railroad ties came in, and we started the process of creating the “NEW” terraced Amphitheater. After two and a half weeks of hard labor using sledgehammers, axes, shovels, wheel barrels, our bare hands – you get the picture – we were ready for the granite to be poured in.
But something was wrong. Something looked and felt not right. The core team and I looked at it and realized we built it about 15 degrees off-axis. It was to the slope of the hill but not facing the best view. AND this would be permanent, or at least for many years to come. That night, after a shortened evening program, I informed the kids of the error and that if we wanted to make it right, it would take anyone willing to skip all their chugim and work the next week redoing what we had done so that we could all have our final Friday Night Shabbat in the new amphitheater. The next day, the kids showed up after breakfast, and we worked our tails off, tearing apart and then rebuilding and finishing correctly what we all collectively wanted. It was an incredible experience what these kids did in creating a sacred space that stood for a very long time.
1984 K’far was very strange. The Milwaukee JCC purchased Pine Haven, the property just across from the Ulam, and we put 2nd-year K’far Noar campers there to try and create a different experience while 1st-year K’far Noar campers stayed at the usual location. It didn’t work at all, and this group had some issues, but something unbelievably magical happened once again.
So, what was the next Avodah project for this group? I’m pretty sure not many of you now associated with camp know this, but the same issue we solved in 1983 was still a problem in front of Boy’s Cabin Row – broken tar and a displaced walking area that everyone tripped over all the time. When my 1984 2nd session campers K’far Noar campers arrived, I challenged them with the Avodah task of terracing boys’ cabin row. We now had some experience since some of the campers were in the second year, and we proved we could do this magnitude of a project the year before. Fact is, WE KILLED IT! Boy’s Cabin Row was terraced on time and under budget!
Oh, how I loved all the campers whom I was given the privilege of being their counselor; however, these two groups were so very special. They made me a better person, and I hope, in some way, I did the same for them. I had a feeling 1984 would be my final summer, and so did someone else. At the end of the summer, right after the final buses left, Patsi Valent presented me with a t-shirt that read, “I Rebuilt Camp Interlaken.” I still have it; it doesn’t fit, but I still got it. However, it wasn’t me; it was the campers that did that. All they needed was a little direction. Those incredible campers rebuilt Camp Interlaken JCC, and I am still so proud of what they accomplished.
Camp Interlaken JCC is a very special place for my family and me. Both our kids, Sadie and Max, grew up there from youngest campers through K’far Noar. They both did a high school semester in Israel and then came back to be Ozrim and counselors. I am so proud of them and see the deep core values Camp Interlaken JCC brought into their lives. In fact, I convinced 5 other kids from Los Angeles to go to Interlaken instead of our own temple’s Jewish resident camp in Malibu, CA, much to the dismay of that Camp Director. But he understood. He knew all about Camp Interlaken JCC. It seems everyone in the Jewish residential camping business does – and for good reason.
I was asked for this article to give a final campfire wish. I have two. My personal wish is to see a third generation of our family experience the greatest place on earth. In addition, I wish that Avodah becomes mainstream again for K’far Noar like it was in my time. I can honestly say that I really don’t care or remember too much about water skiing, sailing and mime anymore, but I do remember and know how it feels to give back to Camp in a meaningful, creative, constructive, and lasting way. Sadly, in today’s world, we can’t give an axe to a 15-year-old to swing around. We did then, and they changed camp! It can be done.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell my Camp Interlaken JCC story. This process made me laugh, smile, cry, remember and reflect on one of the best and most important periods of my life. I was once one of the children of the future. So were my kids. And hopefully, there will be more this summer and for many more summers to come. It seems like Camp has been in great hands, and that makes me very happy. If you always remember and practice Ateret Cohn’s words, “Every Kid’s a star, and everyone gets a second chance,” Camp Interlaken JCC will be just fine.