As Camp Tamakwa prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary, it continues to transform the lives of Detroit-area Jewish youth, staying true to the vision of founder Lou Handler.

By ROBERT SARNER, Detroit Jewish News, February 2015

When it comes to the transformative power of summer camp, some people get it, others don’t. Mike Levinsky gets it. It’s part of his very being. After 41 consecutive summers at 10 camps in Canada and the United States, he understands camp life and its positive impact better than most.

Last June, as Levinsky arrived in Ontario's fabled Algonquin Park for his first stint at Camp Tamakwa, he was looking forward to another summer far from his normal big-city reality. Having been at many other camps since age five, he wasn’t expecting anything fundamentally different from what he’d already experienced.

“When you’ve been immersed in so many camps for as long as I have, you sort of think you’ve seen it all,” says Levinsky, 46. “But after being at Tamakwa, I realized I hadn’t.” 
Coming from someone so steeped in camp lore, that says something.

“On the surface, all camps are about child safety, kids having a good time, supervision, creating memories and all that stuff,” says Levinsky, who’s a school teacher in Toronto. “What makes Tamakwa so different is its culture. What surprised me most were its rich traditions that are still very much intact. The way the camp gets together at the end of almost every night and sings, holding hands, it’s really something. Until Tamakwa, I’d never seen a camp have everyone go down to the docks to say goodbye to canoe trips on their departure and then likewise greet them on their return. The tears and authenticity of those moments are breathtaking. All camps try to do things that make them special but Tamakwa just does so many neat little things I’d never seen before.”

Those neat little things, many rooted in decades-old Tamakwa traditions, help define the camp. For all its excellent water and land sport activities, canoe trips, and arts programs, it’s especially the folksy, good-spirited, sometimes goofy customs and its ‘unplugged’ nature that make Tamakwa more inclusive, setting it apart from most other camps.

"Tamakwa is like a home away from home for me," says Abby Seifman, 14, who lives in Franklin, MI and has attended Tamakwa since 2008. "I love the atmosphere, especially the spirit, the singing and cheers of each age group, and the quality of the friendships you develop there."

For two months every year, Tamakwa is a separate civilization of sorts. Located three hours north of Toronto on a stunningly beautiful site on South Tea Lake and accessible only by boat, it’s a temporary home to about 450 people. Within a rustic, technology-free environment, there’s an almost timeless focus on living in nature, developing skills, building character and being resourceful. It’s a self-contained community, rich in its own rituals, symbols, legends, mysteries, ceremonies, spirits, lexicon and governing body.

Mention the following to a Tamakwan and see the delight it instantly triggers: Wakonda, Dirty Dog, Beaver Council, how-how, The Slope, Alligator Anchor, schlect, Eye-Full Tower, liquid sunshine, Biffy, pulling a shreck, golden day, Tamagama, Lone Pine, Tootsie-Frootsie, Unca Lou, Peach Pie, Woof-Woof.

The list is long and, if space allowed, could easily be much longer. To the uninitiated, it’s bewildering, almost exotic. To Tamakwa’s owners Vic Norris and Craig Perlmutter, these insider traditions and gags are second nature, an inseparable part of the camp’s culture, heritage and overall shtick. Many date back to the camp’s co-founder Lou Handler, and all are consistent with his original vision for Tamakwa as a children’s village.

"We consciously try to stay true to Lou's values and his passion for camping,” says Norris, 64, who’s been involved with Tamakwa since 1967 and is also a practicing attorney and managing partner in the Detroit law firm of Hertz Schram PC.  "Every summer, campers and staff learn of Tamakwa’s history, Lou and his many adages. The kids love the traditions. Ask any alumni, they still remember and live by many of Lou’s adages: 'There are no problems in life, only challenges'; 'There are golden and silver days, life’s a package deal'; 'Always leave your campsite better than you found it,' and many others."

These sayings still resonate with today’s campers. 

"My favorite Tamakwa expression is 'liquid sunshine," says Melanie Hirsch, 9, who lives in West Bloomfield, MI and has spent the past two summers at camp. "I like it because it's a nice, positive way to say rain and not make you feel sad about the weather. I also like how we say ‘golden day’ when it’s sunny out.”

Handler, a larger-than-life naturalist, violinist and former boxer from Detroit, established Tamakwa in 1936 with Canadian outdoorsman Omer Stringer. Handler followed his dream to give post-Depression era first-generation Jewish kids, primarily from Detroit, a taste of independence and self-reliance. He took them from the streets of Broadstreet, Dexter and Linwood to Algonquin’s remote wilderness.

While not religious, Tamakwa keeps various Jewish traditions. To welcome Shabbat on Friday, dinner is quieter and more reflective, there’s a candle lighting and Kiddush, followed by a secular service at the end of which everyone wishes each other “Shabbat Shalom.”

Handler often said, “We started building in 1936 and haven’t stopped yet.” Indeed, Tamakwa has added many new structures, renovated facilities, tripled its sports programs and creative activities, and expanded its famed canoe tripping program.

At Tamakwa, like at all good camps, there's a near-magical process by which kids derive profound, life-lasting benefits including close, enduring friendships. Former Tamakwans often cite the camp’s impact on them, saying it proved a source of inspiration that improved their attitude to life, the way they look at the world, and their myriad endeavors and successes. A camp can’t ask for a better compliment.

This year, as Tamakwa prepares to mark its 80th anniversary, it has a lot to celebrate. At a time when kids have far more options for spending their summer, it’s a fitting testament to Handler’s vision and legacy that Tamakwa still attracts hundreds of campers every year. And to think not one of them can use a cell phone or computer while at camp. Shocking!

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