It’s the last Saturday of the summer session at Camp Boiberik in New York’s Hudson Valley, and the children are preparing for the Felker Yontev, or Holiday of Nations, a pageant that celebrates peace among all countries of the world.
The campers leave their cabins to line up in front of the large scenery set pieces in the field outside the auditorium. The sets are decorated for every nation represented in the pageant. From Japan to Austria, each has an intricate design created by the children, who now wait below, excited for the procession to begin. The campers wear approximations of the national dress of each country.
They march toward the auditorium. The oldest campers, called Boiberkaners, lead the way. After all the campers enter the auditorium, they present the songs and dances they have written to represent each people. The songs are arranged in a musical style from each country, but they sing in Yiddish. That’s the main goal here at Camp Boiberik: to teach Yiddish language and culture to Jewish American children.
In Boiberik, in Boiberik
My heart is streaming with joy
In Boiberik we are soaring free
The white dove, the dove of peace.
The Felker Yontev pageant was carried out every summer at Camp Boiberik for over fifty years, from the camp’s beginnings in 1919 until it closed in 1979.
Camp Boiberik was the first Yiddish secular summer camp in America, followed by others such as Camp Kinderland (established in 1923) and Camp Kinder Ring (1927), which emerged at a time when American Jewry was trying to reconcile religious life with the increasing pull toward the assimilation secularization brings. These camps were developed to foster Jewish identity and the concept of righteous living outside the confines of its religious branches, often with an emphasis on Yiddish culture. Jewish summer camps exist to this day and in various forms, both religious and non-religious.
Boiberik was named after a fictional resort town described by the well-known Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem in his novel Tevye the Dairyman, which also inspired the 1964 Broadway musical and 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof. “Boiberik, which is where all the rich Yehupetz Jews come to spend their summer in dachas,” he wrote. The camp was founded in 1919 in upstate New York and after several summers of experimentation settled into its permanent home near the town of Rhinebeck in 1923. It was founded by the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, a Yiddish educational movement based in New York. The Folk Institute sought to provide children in the United States an education in both Yiddish language and culture.
After a short period of growth and development, Boiberik hosted 200 to 300 campers per summer over the next fifty years. Former camper and counselor Ruth Levine recalls that many former campers formed strong bonds with friends at camp, “especially those who attended eight or nine summers.”
Campers slept in bunks, swam in the camp lake, and participated in games, sports, theatricals, and pageants like Felker Yontev. What made Boiberik special was its commitment to incorporate Yiddish and Jewish ritual in its events. Levine says that outside of ceremonies such as the Felker Yontev and Shabbes and Jewish culture classes, Boiberik was much like any other American summer camp.
“Athletics were a big deal,” she says. “And there were even rivalries with other Jewish camps. The biggest rivalry was against Camp Kinder Ring. That one is still brought up at reunions.” The dance socials were an important element as well. “Romance was a big part of summer camp life.”
Camp Boiberik served as a creative space to build cultural identity among the children of secular Jews. Invoking the ideals of the Folk Institute, the camp provided them with the history and culture of Jewish life but through a non-political and non-religious approach. In a way, Boiberik was creating and repurposing Jewish traditions to make them more modern and accessible for children growing up in America. Although the camp was non-religious, Leibush Lehrer, pedagogical theorist and the camp’s founder and director until his death in 1964, borrowed from the ritualistic side of Judaism to create new traditions like the Felker Yontev, where campers experienced the symbols and traditional elements of Jewish life, even of the synagogue, without an emphasis on religion.
In his 1959 pamphlet The Growth of an Idea, Lehrer writes, “Yet in the case of ritual something is added which is of great importance. There is a powerful attraction in social ties to a group. The feeling of being an insider with people whose social presence is attractive is a very gratifying and rewarding experience.”
In an interview with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, Itzik Gottesman, longtime Boiberik participant and folklorist, describes the effect of the Felker Yontev.
“It really instilled a love of Yiddish among the campers,” he says. “Even if they didn’t learn to speak Yiddish, these things really stayed in their memory. It created a warm community for us all.”
Similarly, Levine recalls that by the time she was a counselor in the 1960s, many of the campers did not speak Yiddish, but they would sing all of the songs in Yiddish with great gusto. “It had meaning to them even if they grew up in Jewish families with little Yiddish influence.”
As an annual tradition, Felker Yontev best encompassed Lehrer’s vision for the camp. It was developed after the First World War and celebrated each summer from 1925 until the camp’s closing. It symbolically brought together the people of the world (“felker fun der velt”) through song and drew from Isaiah’s prophetic vision that all nations would live in peace: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (The Book of Isaiah 2:4)
Lehrer saw the emphasis on peace as a tenet of Jewish faith.
“The idea of the Felker Yontev, though stressing in the most effective manner, through song, dance, scenery, costume and ritual, that all men are brothers, is still genuinely Jewish pointing up the most exalted theme of our culture,” he wrote. “For is not peace among all men the highest ideal motivating Jewish historical experience?”
The procession contained aspects of ritual performance, traditions which were repeated year after year, just as traditional religious holidays such as Passover do. Though occasional changes were made, the event’s structure and meaning remained constant, even in the years when some nations were at war.
For Levine, Felker Yontev meant the involvement of everyone at camp from the youngest campers to the men and women who prepared the sets and costumes for the children. “The ney tsimer was the sewing room, and each year, the women created costumes on the fly and on the cheap for all the children.” She remembers singing songs written by musicologist and former YIVO music archivist, Chana Mlotek.
The culmination of the event when things grew quiet and everyone stood stuck out for Levine. “The head girl and head boy—voted on by campers during the summer—stood to pull back a curtain revealing a plaque with a white dove.” Everyone would sing the final lines of Sholem March (The March of Peace).
Mir zaynen di felker, mir zaynen di velt,
Mir zingen tsuzamen a loyb.
Tseshprayt dayne fligl, neviyisher gayst,
Un zay undzer shney-vayse toyb.
We are the peoples, we are the world,
We sing praises together.
Spread your wings, spirit of the prophet,
And be our snow-white dove.
“The Jewish Year draws to a close at this time, and we blow a horn as the shofar blows its call for Jews to assemble. Boiberkaner do hear the call and come from “far and near” to join in the Felker-YomTov as Jews, to renew their hopes and work for a better world for all people.”
—Felker Yontev Program, 1978, YIVO
This line emphasizes Boiberik’s continual commitment to ritual and the hope for peace among all people from its experimental beginnings to the Felker Yontev at the end of one of its final seasons. In 1979, after fifty-six summers outside Rhinebeck, Camp Boiberik closed due to financial strain and the shuttering of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. The camp and the traditions it created have left a lasting impact on its alumni. An enthusiastic alumni community was created that gathers for reunions to this day.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies (a nonprofit educational retreat center located in Rhinebeck) was to hold a hundredth birthday celebration for the camp in 2020. In lieu of an in-person reunion, over a hundred Boiberik campers participated in an online Zoom Shabbes in April.
The world of Yiddish culture created and fostered by Camp Boiberik can be discovered in YIVO’s archive.
Olivia Reid is the research and project specialist at the YIVO Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum. YIVO sound archivist Eléonore Biezunski collaborated on this story. Special thanks to YIVO board chair Ruth Levine.
For nearly a century, YIVO has pioneered new forms of Jewish scholarship, research, education, and cultural expression. The YIVO Archives contains more than 23 million original items and YIVO’s Library has over 400,000 volumes—the single largest resource for such study in the world.