Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent formative summers at camp in Minerva
By Leigh Hornbeck
In 2017, Amy Kramer had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kramer, who lives near Washington D.C., went to see the justice speak at a law school. As the guest of Ginsburg’s cousin, Kramer was invited afterward to join Ginsburg for the short car ride back to the Supreme Court.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Kramer said.
By 2017, Ginsburg had reached cultural icon status and was as famous as any celebrity. But the women didn’t talk about the law, or about the protesters they saw along the way, or the news of the day. They talked about camp.
Both Kramer and Ginsburg were alumnae of Camp Che-Na-Wah, a girl’s camp on the shore of Balfour Lake in Minerva. Ginsburg, who died last month, was called Kiki Bader as a child. She was raised in Brooklyn and went to camp every summer from 1937 to 1951—from the time she was 4 until she was 18. Her uncle, Chuck Amster, was the camp founder. Kramer, whose grandparents, Alice and Lester Sternin, followed the Amsters, went to camp from 1974 to 1989.
No matter the age gap, many things were still the same for both women. They sang the same songs, they both gathered around campfires, slept in bunks, played sports, paddled canoes and led shabbat services as camp rabbis.
Kramer said she and Ginsburg talked about Alice, who had been Ginsburg’s camp counselor. Alice Sternin died in 2008.
“I loved my grandmother fiercely,” Kramer said. “I could talk about her all day. I remember thinking how remarkable it was that this woman who was smart about so many things, also knew my grandmother and could talk so easily about her.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s place in history is assured, as not only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, but the first Jewish woman, and a lawyer whose work before and after her appointment to the court raised the level of gender equity in the United States. But Ginsburg has a little extra place in the hearts of the group of people bound by their love for Camp Che-Na-Wah.
The camp was founded by Amster and his wife, Cornelia “Mother Cornell” Schwartz, in 1923. In 1951, they founded a boys camp, Baco, nearby. The campers and staff are mostly Jewish, but everyone is welcome. Today, both camps are owned and operated by the Wortman family.
Barbara Wortman said Ginsburg’s name comes up a lot at camp.
“We feel the girls should hear about her, learn about her and emulate her as a role model and know they’re at the same place she was,” Wortman said.
Most of the campers spend seven weeks in the Adirondacks. The time away from home and away from cell phones and computer screens, helps them gain independence and responsibility.
Ginsburg visited camp only once after she was appointed to the Supreme Court, but she did film a video for the campers in 2015. A four-day competition closes out camp every summer. It always kicks off with a special moment known at camp as “breaking blue and gold.” One night in the summer of 2015, Wortman invited a group of alumnae to share their memories of camp. Afterward, Wortman told the group they were going to hear from one more Che-Nah-Wah girl, and pressed play on a recording of Ginsburg addressing the campers. She talked about her own memories, sang a camp song and, at the end, she raised two scarves, one blue and one gold, to signify she was breaking blue and gold.
“The girls were screaming and crying, it was unbelievable,” Wortman said.
Ronnie Silver—Kramer’s mother and Alice Sternin’s oldest daughter—was at camp that night, gathered with her bunk mates to celebrate her 70th birthday. She, too, has a story of a face-to-face meeting with the justice.
In 2009, both Silver and Ginsburg were guests at the celebration of a b’nai mitzvah for twin girls. Silver knew Ginsburg would be there and wanted to meet her. After the service, Silver went into the ladies’ room at the synagogue, and there was Ginsburg, preparing to brush her hair.
“I said, ‘Excuse me Justice Ginsburg, we’ve never met, but you knew my mother, Alice Lavitt,’” Silver said. “And she put down the scrunchie, and her hairbrush and took my hands. She said, ‘Your mother was a wonderful person,’ and she told me all the things she remembered about my mother.”
In the documentary about Ginsburg, “RBG,” the justice talks about her mother, who raised her to have her own mind and to be independent.
Silver, Wortman and Kramer believe Ginsburg’s time at Che-Nah-Wah also helped shape her into a pioneering woman.
“It’s a remarkable, magical place to discover yourself, the world and your relationship with it,” said Kramer. “At camp girls could do anything, be everything, and living in that type of environment and taking it to heart, I don’t know how it couldn’t be an influence.”