Few females get misty-eyed over a locomotive. But the hundreds of Jewish women who went to Camp Navarac for Girls in the Adirondacks during the '50s and '60s well up over the story "The Little Engine That Could," which formed the basis of owner Sara Blum's sermon at the last Saturday morning service of every summer.
In her low, gravely voice, with great purpose and theatrics, Sara told the girls the tale of the little underpowered train, laden with gifts, that had to climb a seemingly insurmountable rise to get to a remote village before the holidays. As we listened raptly year after year, that train became a metaphor for believing in ourselves, with Sara Blum as our conductor.
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can" echoed through the yellow revival-style tent where we held our Shabbat prayers. And after Sara died in 1986 at the age of 76, many Navarac women I met told me the words "I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could" often came to mind as they fought their way to the top of their careers.
"Before anyone ever dreamed of feminism or women's liberation, Sara embodied for her campers the absolute model of female strength, purpose and achievement," says Sara's niece, Judy Slavin May of Tewksbury Township, NJ. "Sara had the uncanny ability to really know people and to uncover that uniqueness within each one that made her or him feel special. The only demand Sara Blum ever made in return was that you pushed yourself to be the best you could be."
Sara Blum, born Sara Abeles in 1910 to a socially prominent Bohemian Jewish family in Newark, NJ, was a woman who believed in nothing less than total commitment. When she set out to establish the premier Jewish girls' camp in the United States, she bought the Upper Saranac Lake fishing camp of financier Adolph Lewisohn. She toured the country, hand-picking the best college professors, physical education teachers and female athletes to be her counselors. Campers learned to be disciplined. Girls wore uniforms, couldn't receive salamis from home and were taught how to make their beds with tight hospital corners.
Activities included golf, riflery, tennis, sailing, synchronized swimming, and water skiing. On trip days, the campers went ice skating in the Lussier Olympic arena at Lake Placid or went to see summer stock. There were mountain-climbing expeditions, canoe trips through the Fulton Chain with mile-long portages, and weeklong forays to Canada. So popular was the camp that there was a waiting list from day one, and when Sara sold Navarac in 1968 there was an outcry that spanned from Florida to Maine and from New York to California.
From all accounts, Sara had two passions. Camping was one; the other was raising money to help build the State of Israel and resettle it with the displaced from Nazi Europe. Deeply committed to Jewish causes since her youth, Sara entered George Washington University in the late 1920s and found a disturbing climate of anti-Semitism. "She fought it by becoming more Jewish," recalls her only child Robert, who lives in Roseland, NJ.
She joined her mother, Ida, working for Near Eastern Relief, the precursor of UJA that sent money to Jews in Palestine. She spent hours volunteering at the Theresa Grotta Home for the Aged, of which Ida Abeles was one of the four founders.
In the mid-1930s, Sara married Irving Blum, a young lawyer, and the couple moved out of Newark to suburban South Orange, sharing a home with Sara's mother and father.
"Around that time, my grandfather, Albert Abeles, started to help people get out of Europe," says Robert. "In those days, one had to guarantee refugees housing, board, and an income. The house in South Orange became like a hotel. My grandfather was in the meat-packing business, and whole families would come over to live with us and work in his business.
"Because she heard firsthand what was happening under Hitler's rule, Mother began to realize the danger to the Jews of Europe and wanted to do something to help," Robert adds. "All her friends were assimilating and didn't want to get involved. My mother was a real rebel."
At Camp Navarac, most of us never knew about Sara's "other" life dedicated to Jewish causes, but we were always aware she was an iconoclast. Each summer, in campfire talks and her famous end-of-the-summer sermon, she'd exhort us to go against the grain if we thought that was right, to travel the opposite direction of the madding crowd. She never equivocated. "Don't be afraid to be square," Sara used to say. "I like a square. A square meal is a full meal. A square deal is a fair deal."
In the affluent community where she resided, Sara was the square demanding to fit in the round hole. She became active in the Conference of Christians and Jews of Essex County to better fight anti-Semitism. She also joined the Black Urban League to improve race relations. A staunch Zionist, Sara founded the South Orange-Maplewood chapter of Hadassah and committed herself to getting European Jewish children to Palestine. Moving on to become regional president of the Northern New Jersey Region of Hadassah, she was responsible for membership doubling in one year and raising $35,000 at the first donor luncheon. "She was constantly running off to Hadassah meetings," says Robert. "I remember the night Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, came to dinner at our house. It was a very exciting event."
By the early 1940s, Sara Blum was a leader in the United Jewish Appeal of Essex County, one of the largest giving regions in the nation. She had also become a partner in Camp Nawita, a girls' camp on Paradox Lake in New York.
Bill Lewitt, a cousin, remembers a Sara Blum driven to succeed in the business of camping so she could have the money to travel the country raising funds for UJA. Hers was a unique platform-the Jewish families across the country she met while representing the UJA ultimately sent their daughters to Nawita.
In speech after speech, says Judy Slavin May, Sara sounded the alarm over Hitler's plans to exterminate the Jewish race. "She was one of the few Jews who spoke out and said 'this is important to me,'" recalls Judy. "Even our nation's top Jewish leaders wanted to remain behind the scenes and not make waves. Sara was never afraid of making waves."
In 1946, she ascended to the presidency of the Essex County UJA's Women's Division. It had 15,000 members, but Sara sought still more. What she faced was a problem of long standing- women were content to stand behind their husband's UJA gift and did not feel they had to give. (Indeed, Sara went to work in the first place in order to earn her own money to give away.) "My mother said she didn't care if a woman gave $5 or $10, the idea was to give the money herself," reports Robert. "She raised the bar that much higher. Many who heard my mother give her fundraising speeches used to joke she could get money from a rock."
Writing in the UJA newsletter in 1946, she said, "What we need this year are 2,500 more women who are willing to give of themselves and want to work. It isn't enough to feel sorry for starving, homeless people. We must also do something about it. The only way to do something about it is to have thousands working together. I cannot urge too strongly on every woman in Essex County to become a part of the working community and join those of us who are ready and willing to make our goal the lifeline of those who look to us for help."
Later that year she ran a series of women-only parlor meetings to get emergency donations for post-War relief in France, where Jewish refugees were languishing because of starvation and disease. The very compelling theme of the campaign was "Don't Let Them Die."
In an editorial in the Women's Division newsletter We, The Women, Sara wrote, "U.S. Army Chaplain Lt. Col. Judah Nadich, speaking at the Initial Gifts Luncheon, said that thousands have died since liberation because we didn't bring them help in time. Part of the blame is ours. We must not let Chaplain Nadich make that accusation again. It's such a simple thing not to let these refugees die.
"All it takes is 20 cents a day to bring food and clothing and shelter to a child. Less than the price of two packages of cigarettes a day means life to any one of the 150,000 children still left in Europe. For $10, you can buy a pair of shoes, a blanket, a sweater, a set of underwear and socks for one of these children. For $50 you can provide supplementary aid to five Jewish families for an entire month and enable them to buy food, pay rent, and secure medical attention. For $100 you can maintain three orphans for a full month in a Joint Distribution Committee-supported institution in France, Holland or Belgium."
Women's Division members responded magnificently to Sara's call. Records indicate they contributed more than three times as much to UJA as they had the year before. Sara went on to become a national vice chairman of the UJA Women's Division, her faithful service interrupted only slightly when she left Nawita and purchased Navarac in 1952. She was elected chairman of the Women's Service Group of the Jewish Community Council of Essex County in 1956 and ultimately became vice president of the entire Council. A year later Sara was named to the National Council of the Joint Distribution Committee, and in 1957 co-chaired the program committee for the 26th General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in New Orleans. In 1958, she was named "Woman of the Year" by the Betty Chodokowsky Memorial for Crippling Diseases.
Sara's work as a fundraiser for the Essex County UJA in the '40s and '50s is legendary. Judy Slavin May says Sara was one of the few women volunteers who could call on wealthy men for their annual pledges. Her impassioned speeches about the Jewry of Europe were enough to make hard-boiled businessmen dissolve into tears. And she is still held in great regard for her forward-thinking theories on charitable giving. Sara once gave a speech where she told Jewish leaders, "It is necessary to develop a new approach to UJA giving. A gift to the UJA is no longer charity, but is a gift to maintain community and overseas services that reach into and affect every household in the community. People in our community must be made more aware of what they receive from our UJA-supported agencies."
"Sara understood early on what tzedakah is all about," says Judy. "In Hebrew it means righteousness. You are commanded to do it. You don't give out of the goodness of your heart. You do it in order to maintain a vital and healthy Jewish community. With her brilliance and wisdom and strength she mobilized a generation. Sara's work on behalf of Israel spanned three decades, during which time the conviction and passion never diminished."
"She made it fashionable to be philanthropic," adds Sara's son. "She brought her friends into her world, got them active, interested and involved." Both Robert and Judy agree that there was passion as well in these friendships, many of which dated to childhood. What she wouldn't do for a friend! "If you asked, and even if you didn't," recalls Judy, "Sara could be your psychiatrist, counselor, doctor, lawyer, business advisor, tax accountant, fashion consultant, athletic coach, even your rabbi. We all had our furniture rearranged by Sara Blum. It could be maddening. But she was so right so much of the time. She was so right about so many things."
At Camp Navarac she was a kind of demi-goddess, striding into the dining room on bright blue Adirondack mornings, her bold, confident personality filling the room and assuring each one of her charges that it was to be another wonderful, glorious day of camp, and of life.
She could be stern, for instance when a bunk of campers was not getting along. In close quarters, everyone has to learn to like each other for the sake of the group, she used to say. She could be merciless, sending campers home who crossed the line or docking counselors who abused their privileges. I'll never forget when she made the waitresses sleep in sleeping bags in her room because they'd been caught sneaking out to meet boys.
But she never took herself too seriously, either. She would show up unannounced at camper overnights and athletic meets. For that special day when campers became the staff and vice versa, she always played her camper part to the hilt and eagerly lent her signature shorts, heavy sweater and well-cushioned shoes to the camper chosen to play her. She was the one who designed the wacky stunts that heralded the start of color war. She was the one who forced you to dance with a boy from the camp across the lake at one of Navarac's rare socials. No one who attended Navarac could forget how Sara dressed as a fortuneteller and gazed at a crystal ball to announce where girls would travel on trip day.
Sara knew that each camper possessed something special within at which she could excel. Whatever that unique talent or ability or interest was, if it could be developed and honed and stretched to the utmost potential, that child would like herself. She would, in turn, be liked and would inevitably become a person of value.
A 49-year-old woman who attended the first-ever Navarac reunion several years ago took the microphone to tell everyone how when she was 12, Sara Blum turned her life around by breathing self-esteem into her crumpled form. One day, she said, Sara came into the office where campers used to receive telephone calls from their parents. The girl was there, hiding, quietly weeping after an unsettling call from her mother. "Feeling homesick?" Sara inquired.
Not at all, the girl said. She confessed she was upset because her petite, doll-like mother was so critical of her, harping long distance from New Jersey about her gawky appearance, her tall physique, her thin, scrawny neck.
Sara importuned the 12-year-old with eyes swollen from crying to hold her head up and be proud of her height and her looks. "Don't you know you have a neck like a swan," Sara pronounced. "You're beautiful." And so was Sara.
More on Sara Blum, 1910 - 1986
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Sara Blum, 1910 - 1986." (Viewed on September 25, 2023) <https://jwa.org/weremember/blum-sara>.