This story originally appeared at The Jewish Daily Forward.
It is, perhaps, only in America that a congresswoman named Gabrielle Giffords could reclaim the Jewish identity of her father’s family—originally named Hornstein—after living much of her life apart from the Jewish community. And it is no less of a tribute to American fluidity, however ironic, that the aide who died by her side under a hail of fire was a non-Jew named Gabe Zimmerman who lived a crucial segment of his life immersed in a storied corner of the American Jewish milieu.
When Zimmerman was shot dead alongside five others in a Tucson, Ariz., parking lot on January 8, shocked former campers and counselors of Camp Kinderland, a leftist Jewish summer camp in the foothills of the Berkshires, quickly began trading e-mails. Zimmerman, Giffords’s director of community outreach, had been out of touch with many of the Kinderland alumni for years. But some summer memories have yet to fade.
It was 2001 when Zimmerman first arrived at the Massachusetts summer camp—the same year Giffords began her journey to a Jewish identity through a trip to Israel. And according to those who remember, Zimmerman’s first day there could have gone very badly. At a camp where most counselors were former campers, Zimmerman, then 20 and a total outsider, had been handed the toughest bunk: counselors in training, hardened camp veterans who had been together for the better part of a decade.
“We were 15, and we were kind of bratty,” remembered Maia Falconi-Sachs, one of Zimmerman’s charges that summer at the Jewish socialist camp in eastern Massachusetts. “The year before, there was one male counselor who we disliked so much, he left.”
The campers were ready for a repeat of the previous summer’s ouster, but Zimmerman, in his red cap and what one camper called “retro” sideburns, took them by surprise. “He was the coolest person in the world,” Falconi-Sachs said.
“He was a great counselor,” wrote Zimmerman’s college friend Neal Martin-Zeavy, who brought him to Kinderland. “They really looked up to Gabe.” So much so that Zimmerman returned the following summer for another stint.
Kinderland is an idiosyncratic sort of place, a living relic of American Jewry’s red diaper past. Founded in 1923 by Jewish Communists, the camp was bound up in the sectarian politics of the interwar Yiddish-speaking Jewish left. After one schism, a faction left to form a new camp called Kinder Ring, just across the lake. Campers from one side would taunt the other with political gibes during rowboat races.
Though campers no longer salute the flag of the Soviet Union on their way to breakfast, much remains the same at Kinderland. The hardwired rituals of summer camp life, where tradition is religion and the outside world is a fantasy, have proved themselves to be perfectly suited to the preservation of a certain brand of unabashed Jewish leftism that has few contemporary analogies.