2017-08-02 / Local News

For Camp Aaron director, JCC Camps is a family affair

MEET LARRY HELFMAN…
By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff

FAMILY: Parents Larry and Barbara Brown; Wife Stacey; Children Morgan, 22, Andrew, 20, and Daniel, 18; Siblings Michael (and Alana) Brown and Douglas (and Randi) Brown.

HOMETOWN: Moorestown

FAVORITE CAMP FOOD: Challah and potato bourekas

FAVORITE CAMP ACTIVITY: Apache Relay

When Larry Helfman started as a Hilltop camper in the early 1970s, the Jewish Community Center’s campsite in Medford was already something like his family’s summer home.

His stepfather, Larry Brown, himself a Hilltop alumnus, had started working there the summer prior. As the first director of the newly established Camp Aaron—founded on the innovative idea of allowing tweens to chose the activities they wanted to do—Brown devoted much of his time in the early years canvassing the grounds making sure campers got to where they were supposed to go.

As for young Helfman, he looked forward to his happy place every summer, first as a camper, then as a counselor-in-training, and ultimately as a sports specialist. His younger brothers and cousins were there as well and he was even briefly introduced to his future wife Stacey when she was a CIT and he a counselor. (The real sparks didn’t fly until their undergraduate years at Rutgers University.)

When Helfman returned in 2015 as the director of Camp Aaron, it was a proud moment for the Brown and Helfman families.

“It did feel like I was reliving what my dad had done,” he said during a walk around camp on a typically hot and humid morning following flagpole, the morning gathering of all kids and counselors at the Aaron pavilion.

Camp is still a family affair for the Helfmans. With all three kids working as counselors and Stacey often coming to volunteer, there are days when the whole family is fanned out on the 120-acre campus.

As he sees it, much has changed and much remains the same about the JCC camping experience, now in its 75th year.

“When I started, there were no pools,” Helfman recalled. “We did all our swimming in the lake.”

Nowadays, there are four swimming pools, a splash park water playground, and lake inflatables featuring a giant slide, water trampoline, an obstacle course, and climbing apparatus.

While Camp Aaron has kept to the structure started by Brown, the division head no longer has to run around the grounds toting paper schedules of every camper. Technology advances have taken care of that.

Brown recalled that bringing both golf and creative writing to the oldest campers were popular activities in the early days that established Camp Aaron as a place where kids could get their fill of both sports and performing arts. Along the way, kids make their own choices—often for the first time—and are encouraged to step up to more responsibility.

Helfman, an elementary-school math teacher in Pennsauken during the academic year, said the mission remains the same—even as camp constantly updates to reflect the times. Recent additions have been a double period coding class, Yo-Yo instruction, boat making, tailgate games, and laser tag. Some of these activities have a small but enthusiastic following, but that’s the point of offering them, he said.

“If something like boat-building or coding hits 60 or so kids out of 400, it’s worth doing,” he said. “We are trying to get kids to go here as opposed to computer or theatre camp. We are still a liberal-arts camp and want to encourage the kids to try everything.”

Jewish pride has always been woven in the fabric of the camp. New this year, flagpole was extended by five minutes to incorporate more Jewish content. On a typical morning, song leader Sam Waldman whips out her guitar after morning announcements to lead the 400- plus kids in camp songs.

Helfman’s personal favorite new addition is the Apache Relay at the end of color wars. Instead of last-day parties and too much unstructured time, the entire camp participates in competitive games that culminate with a bucket brigade. With kids lined up next to a trashcan of water, they have to transfer the water to another trashcan with cups. The entire affair ends with a song competition.

“I really wanted the last day of camp to be memorable,” he said.

Unlike the campers, Helfman is planning for the next camp season by November. While he loves the job, especially the interactions with staff and kids, he knows his real mission is future-oriented.

“The buildings may change, but it’s still the same JCC Camps at Medford that have been here for 75 years,” he said. “When I leave, the next person will come along and adapt camp to the times.” 

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