Surprise Lake Camp

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Surprise Lake Camp
Surprise Lake Camp logo.png
A narrow lake with buildings on the far side in woods just starting to green with the spring, seen down the slope of a mountain
Surprise Lake Camp from Breakneck Ridge to the northwest
382 Lake Surprise Road
Cold Spring, NY 10516
TypeJewish summer camp
Religious affiliation(s)Judaism
Established1902; 118 years ago (1902)
FounderEducational Alliance
PresidentPeter Hirsch
DirectorBradley Solmsen

Surprise Lake Camp is a non-profit sleepaway camp located on over 400 acres (1.6 km2) in Cold Spring, New York (approximately 60 miles (97 km) north of New York City). It is one of the oldest Jewish summer camps in the United States.[1]


Founded in 1901 by the Educational Alliance as a camp for Jewish boys from the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side around the lake that Breakneck Brook rises from, it incorporated as Surprise Lake Camp in 1902. In 1911 the 92nd Street Y joined in the operation of the camp, and in 1917 the camp became an independent agency within the newly formed Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The camp continues to operate as a summer camp for children from the New York metropolitan area.[2][3][4][5] In 2005, the camp sold 200 acres and granted a conservation easement over an additional 465 acres of camp property to the Open Space Institute, thus ensuring the preservation of these undeveloped lands adjacent to Hudson Highlands State Park.[6] The camp was the setting of a popular 2013 viral video on the topic of feminine hygiene entitled Camp Gyno.[7][8]

In its early years of operation, the camp was subjected to antisemitic demonstrations of cross burning by local members of the Ku Klux Klan, but the camp developed a better relationship with the surrounding residents over time.[9] For its campers who came from immigrant homes, many of them Yiddish-speaking, the camp emphasized acculturation to mainstream American styles of speech and appearance.[9] Surprise Lake Camp is part of a large-scale archival project directed by YIVO (the Institute for Jewish Research) with the goal of preserving the historical record of the Jews of New York City.[10]

Former campers and staff[edit]

Among Surprise Lake's first campers was Eddie Cantor, who credited his youthful performances at Surprise Lake Camp (also depicted in the 1953 biopic The Eddie Cantor Story[11]) with giving him the encouragement to pursue show business. Upon achieving success as an entertainer, he became one of the camp's most ardent supporters. He was a member of the Surprise Lake Camp Board of Directors, and a theater at the camp was named for him.[12][13]

Other notable Surprise Lake campers have included Neil Diamond (who has identified Pete Seeger's visits to the camp as his earliest exposure to a musical role model),[14][15] Jax,[16] Joseph Heller,[17] Jerry Stiller,[18] Gene Simmons,[19] Larry King, Neil Simon, Cody Brotter, and Walter Matthau.[10]


  1. ^ Leonard Saxe, "How Goodly are Thy Tents": Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (UPNE, 2004), ISBN 978-1584653479, p. 24. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  2. ^ Michael M. Lorge, Gary Phillip Zola, eds., A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping (University of Alabama Press, 2006), ISBN 978-0817352936, pp. 12ff. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  3. ^ "Our History", Educational Alliance (accessed 2014-05-06).
  4. ^ "Jewish Camping", Encyclopedia Judaica (2nd ed., 2007)  – via HighBeam Research (subscription required).
  5. ^ Matthew Purdy, "Our Towns; The Coolest Kid in the Camp Has Loved 50 Fun-Filled Summers", The New York Times, August 11, 2002.
  6. ^ Barbara Livingston Nackman, "Land deal welcome for Surprise Lake Camp", The Journal News, January 16, 2005.
  7. ^ "Camp Gyno’ creator on preparing girls for puberty", Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 27, 2013.
  8. ^ "Cold Spring Video Goes Viral", Hudson Valley Reporter, August 5, 2013.
  9. ^ a b Leslie Paris, Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp (NYU Press, 2008),ISBN 978-0814767504, pp. 127, 186ff., & passim. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  10. ^ a b Nina Bernstein, " A Bid to Save and Share Pieces of Jewish Heritage", The New York Times, November 7, 2006.
  11. ^ Alan Gevinson, ed., Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 (University of California Press, 1997), ISBN 978-0520209640, p. 307. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  12. ^ Eddie Cantor, "Show Business", The Palm Beach Post, January 16, 1955.
  13. ^ Marek Fuchs, "Religion Journal; Back to Nature, and Back to the No-Frills Bar Mitzvah", The New York Times, August 28, 2004.
  14. ^ Stephen Holden, "Coming Home to Perform, Neil Diamond Takes Stock of Life at the Top", The New York Times, July 20, 1986.
  15. ^ "Pete Seeger, Neil Diamond and me", The Washington Post, January 28, 2014.
  16. ^ "American Idol Finalist Jax Shares How Camp Shaped Her". UJA Federation of New York. 13 July 2015.
  17. ^ Tracy Daugherty, Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller (Macmillan Publishing, 2011), ISBN 978-1429987844, p. 38. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  18. ^ Jerry Stiller, Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara (Simon & Schuster, 2000), ISBN 978-0743211468, p. 45. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  19. ^ Gene Simmons, Kiss and Make-Up (Random House, 2002), ISBN 978-0609810026, p. 48. Excerpts available at Google Books.

External links[edit]