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Local Hero Ed Samiljan Creates Jewish Continuity through Summer Camp

The 2014 Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero Ed Samiljan and wife, Rae.
Monica Medina
The 2014 Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero Ed Samiljan and wife, Rae.

Jewish American Heritage Month 2014 Honoree

Amidst the towering, aromatic pines of the San Bernardino National Forest is Camp Mountain Chai. Like most summer camps, it offers typical activities such as swimming, crafts and sing-alongs. It’s an experience that each summer draws hundreds of San Diego children, and in the process, they’re getting something else: a cultural identity.

Now in its ninth year, Camp Mountain Chai exists because of the likes of Ed Samiljan—and the thousands of bagels his wife, Rae, provided Samiljan and his team while they raised funds and developed plans for the camp. It is because of his perseverance and passion that he is honored as a 2014 Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero.

Samiljan, who spent over 30 years working in the photographic industry and is now retired, is motivated by a love of faith and tradition and a desire to ensure their continuity. Indeed, Jewish continuity is something he feels is sorely lacking today, as a result of societal changes.

"Rae and I have been always interested in finding mechanisms to keep kids engaged in basic Jewish values,” he explains. “In the United States, kids grow up in a very accepting society, which challenges our continuity, and regardless of your heritage you have some desire to see it, and what you think are the basic core values you’ve been exposed to, continue.”

Campers enjoy canoeing  at Camp Mountain Chai.
Courtesy of Ed Samiljan
Campers enjoy canoeing at Camp Mountain Chai.

The need to establish Jewish continuity is a post-World War II phenomenon, initially stemming from families migrating in droves to the suburbs.

Seton Hall University Professor of History, Edward S. Shapiro, asserts that “the diffusion of Jewish population into the suburbs…diluted Jewish identity.”

Another factor is the growing number of intermarriages—58 percent today as compared to 1970, when the rate was 17 percent. Neither of these were issues of concern in Samiljan’s youth.

“I was raised in a ghetto of Boston by a single parent and my grandparents,” he recalls. “It was a community of tenement houses with an overwhelmingly Jewish population. No one had high income, and frankly it would've been considered frivolous to go to camp in that environment, but I didn't need Jewish continuity, because my grandparents made Jewish continuity. It was a very solid Jewish environment.”

The idea for the Camp Mountain Chai grew from a conversation with a Jewish mom during a meeting at the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County. At the time, Samiljan was running a program, Pathways to Judaism, which was designed to provide support and educational opportunities to interfaith couples, but, as Samiljan points out, the program was expensive to sustain and was only reaching 15-20 families at a time.

“One morning, a young woman was complaining that she wanted to send her kids to a Jewish camp, but she couldn't because they were all filled up,” he recalls. “We never had a Jewish camp in San Diego, so I kind of had an epiphany—that camping might be a great way of mass marketing Jewish continuity. We would have a way of handling hundreds of kids at a time, putting them through the program.”

It took a few years of dedicated team work, extensive research and plenty of bagels, to turn the idea into reality, but the results—125 children attending the first year—have been gratifying. As it approaches its tenth year, Camp Mountain Chai has a staff of 75, and handles about 500 children each summer, and its success lies in its ability to foster a Jewish life for its campers.

Samiljan enjoys travels with his wife, as pictured here in Antarctica.
Courtesy of Ed Samiljan
Samiljan enjoys travels with his wife, as pictured here in Antarctica.

“We take youngsters from homes in which there's very little Jewish experience and in two weeks they pick up the prayers and the songs and they're singing, they’re Israeli dancing, and they're participating in our Friday night Shabbat services,” Samiljan says with pride. “They're enjoying the experience. They think this is a fun time. We've made Jewish values highly palatable and absorbable through their pores. We're building continuity but we're also building San Diego community.”

When children register for Camp Mountain Chai, they’re often getting something more, something that most youth don’t experience until college.

“Kids who live in Del Mar or Carlsbad don’t know very much about kids who live in Chula Vista or San Diego proper, and this is a great opportunity to bring them together for a common experience,” observes Samiljan. “Camp gives them an opportunity to mingle, and experience kids from different places, including Israel, where many of our kids and counselors come from.”

Running a camp like Mountain Chai is expensive, and the tuition can be, too. Samiljan works hard to raise funds for scholarships, in order to ensure no child is turned away.

“Many families have limited income and they don't have room in their budgets for the summer camp experience. But camp is for all kids, and I think it’s fair to say, in the nine years we've been operating, we’ve never turned down a child because of financial need.”

Samiljan and Rae, who both hail from Massachusetts, recently celebrated 61 years of marriage. They’ve lived in San Diego since the late 1970s and have three daughters and six grandchildren. Samiljan refers to their youngest grandchild as Camp Mountain Chai’s “poster child” because she has attended the camp both as a camper and a counselor.

Children at Camp Mountain Chai.
Courtesy of Ed Samiljan
Children at Camp Mountain Chai.

“She’s a youngster from a mixed marriage,” adds Samiljan. “Her father is Japanese American and we were very eager to expose her to our culture.”

Samiljan considers himself lucky to have been able to develop Camp Mountain Chai and see it through to fruition.

As Rae points out, “There were so many times he wanted to throw in the towel, but some of his major sponsors said, ‘No, keep going,’ and he was very persistent.”

In looking forward to celebrating the camp’s first major milestone, its tenth anniversary, Samiljan’s hopes for its future remain focused.

“I want our alumni to have great memories of what camping was like,” he says. “I want to see Camp Mountain Chai accomplish its goal of reinforcing Jewish continuity and helping to build a strong viable Jewish community in San Diego. That would be a great accomplishment.”

Ed Samilijan Local Heroes 2014