Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Camp Sussex 2019

For many years, it lay abandoned.  Now, I finally, after nine years, have an update.

It was located on County Road 565 in Sussex County, New Jersey.

In 2010 and several times since, I blogged about the summer camp where I spent some time for several summers as a pre teen and a teen.

 I grew up in a New York City housing project, and by the definition of a particular non profit, my family was considered poor.  So I was eligible to be sent to a sleep away camp in Sussex, New Jersey, which opened in 1924, and run by a Jewish Fresh Air Camp association (yes, I was a Fresh Air child - of sorts). Its attendees were "orphans and poor children".  Mel Brooks and Gabe Kaplan, among a handful of famous people, went to this camp.

We woke up to a recording of Reveille.  We had to make our bunks, clean our cubbies (shared with the camper next to us) and go through inspections.  At night we heard taps and then it was lights out. There was a separate house for showers, although we did have indoor bathrooms. 

On Friday night and Saturday mornings were religious services, and we said grace before meals.

Many walks through the woods introduced us to nature, and this city girl was in love with the country.

The camp closed in 2005, and had been extensively vandalized.  There were efforts through the years (according to Facebook posts) by camp alumni to raise money to open the camp again.

In researching this throwback, I found that the site was finally sold at auction in 2016 to a Korean group.

I wrote this in 2010:

I sometimes surf around Facebook and type in stuff from my past, just to see what comes up.

Today I decided to type in the name of my sleepaway camp.  It wasn't just any sleepaway camp.  You see, as a child of public housing growing up in the Bronx in the early 60's, the fact that my parents didn't own a car, plus their income, made me a disadvantaged urban youth.  Luckily, I didn't know that growing up and I wouldn't have cared.

Through a elementary school friend, I found out about a camp in northern New Jersey called Camp Sussex.  My friend went there.  She lived in a different housing project so was disadvantaged, too. Since she was going, I wanted to also.  Three weeks away from home.  It would be my first time away from home, at this camp for poor kids.  So poor, we weren't even expected to bring our own clothes.  The camp provided them.  The camp provided everything, including transportation from Manhattan.

I went to camp and a couple of things happened that first day.

First, my friend treated me like I didn't exist.

The second was, I was massively homesick.  I ended up in the infirmary overnight, as I had somehow worked myself into a fever.  Literally.

I was shown a lot of kindness there, and reported to my bunk first thing the next morning.  I never looked back.  I survived being snubbed by my "friend" and made other friends.

This camp was located in a then-rural area of northern NJ.  It was surrounded by beautiful hills.  There was a lake.  There were hiking trails (rumored to contain quicksand pits and lethal snakes).  There was the opportunity to put on a camp musical.  Every dinner, before the prayer (yes, there was a religious element to this camp) we sang "Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends".  I still remember the words.  We woke up to "Reville", made our bunks, had an inspection, watched the American flag raise, and listened to "taps" at Lights Out.

Many of the camp counselors were college students.  I became friends with one in particular, who went to Bryn Mawr.  We wrote to each other for months after that session but lost touch.

I had my first crush at Camp Sussex, and my first "boyfriend".

Years later, my cousin married someone who had gone to Camp Sussex.  And at work, for several years, I sat feet from a former Camp Sussex counselor.  Problem was, she was born the last year I went.  So we didn't speak about it much.  I wish we had.

Anyway, I had known that the camp had never quite changed its mission, but had closed around 2005.  There were hopes to turn it into a sports camp, an "education through sports" camp.  Derek Jeter's father was somehow supposed to be involved.

Well, on Facebook, I found out, as Paul Harvey used to say, "The rest of the story".

The closed camp has been severely vandalized.   Over the years, the rural area had become urbanized and the local youth had their way with my summer camp.  The camp hadn't been secured, anyone could just walk in, and the police didn't seem to care too much. (in all fairness, I only know one side of the story.)  Bottom line, it would take over a million dollars just to get the camp fixed up enough to even begin about reopening.

There were pictures on Facebook showing the damage. (there's even a 3 minute short on You Tube documenting some of the damage.)  My heart broke, seeing those beautiful hills for the first time in over 40 years. And, on two Facebook sites, I saw discussions among some of over 400 people who belonged to a fraternity of former campers, counselors and even administrators.  They loved Camp Sussex.  I loved it in some ways, too, because it showed me there was a lot more to life than the streets of the Bronx.

Know what?  I wish I could find out how all of us "disadvantaged youth"of Camp Sussex turned out.  How many of us are professionals?   People who have made life better for others?And, for how many of us, did Camp Sussex make a difference?

I wish I didn't know about the vandalism, though.

So now, in 2019, an update.  I found this on Facebook, posted publicly:  renovations on at least one bunkhouse have started.  So it isn't being torn down, which makes me very happy, but from interior pictures someone took, this camp looks like it will be high end, not the basic army style cots (with surplus blankets) we campers slept under.

Right now the plan is to reopen the camp in 2020, and, supposedly, there will be a small museum (or, at least a plaque) commemorating the original Camp Sussex.

Maybe, at last, I can (one day) revisit an important part of my late childhood.


  1. It's nice to hear they're doing something with it, but sad that it won't be the camp you remember.

  2. I went to summer camp in New Hampshire. The camp I went to was family owned and is long gone now too. I hope, whatever they make of the camp of your youth, that you get a chance to see it again.

  3. Well that brings back memories I went there between the years of 62 to 66 I lived in a project in Brooklyn when I went for the summer what memories had my first kiss at seven years old there

  4. I was a camper from 1962 to 1964. It was a great experience especially for a poor Jewish boy from the Bronx. As for how I turned out, I retired as a Federal DHS Agent after 34 years. Thanks Camp Sussex for the memories!

  5. I went there for 3 summers. I learned how to swim there and got my Red Cross card. We always had our own version of the Olympics. I can still remember the smell of fresh bread there, the baseball scores given at the flagpole, And the mandatory pre printed postcards we had to send home upon arrival. I’m so grateful for my time there.

  6. Camp Sussex was a special and cherished experience for counselors as well. FIrst boyfriend great friends terrific kids. I became a social worker not surprisingly I loved Sussex!!

  7. I attended camp for about 4 year I learned my first prays there and was able to share them with my father who was jewish. the camp holds many wonderful memories for me and I'm happy to hear it may open again


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