Back in 1969, Jerry Kaye was working as a synagogue youth director when a casual conversation with Rabbi Robert Marx, then the regional director for the Reform movement, changed the trajectory of his life for the next half century.
"I asked Bob how his new camp director was doing and he said, 'What new camp director? By the way, are you interested?'" recalled Kaye with a chuckle.
So Kaye put on his one suit and went to the URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) office downtown to interview with the committee. He got the job.
"I came home and said to my wife, 'I think they want me to do this so we will do this for two or three years and see what happens.' That two or three years turned into 48," said Kaye.
And now the beloved Director of OSRUI, who has been a pillar of leadership and Jewish education for generations of campers at the Reform movement's Oconomowoc, Wisc., camp-famous for his good humor, warmth, storytelling, and dedication-as decided the time has come to pass on the mantle.
In December 2018, Kaye will officially retire and Solomon Kane will assume the role as new director. (See below.)
"Jerry came when the camp was only 18 years old. Its mission was set but what was unknown was how to grow that mission to reach more people," said Michael Lorge, former OSRUI camper, counselor, and board chair, who at age 17 as President of Chicago Federation of Temple Youth (CFTY) was on the committee that originally hired Kaye. "The fact is, he is so multi-faceted. He's a visionary. He's a builder of the facilities, builder of the programs, and a builder of relationships."
Kaye's first summer on board was in 1970 when he was 25 years old.
"I went up to the camp to discover there were virtually no trees. It was also a much smaller facility than it is today, so I started to bring people in on staff and then started to expand the camp generally," Kaye recalled.
While attendance then was around 500, today OSRUI has over a thousand campers. There are also 65,000 trees that have been planted over the years, according to Kaye.
While much has changed, Kaye's original goals have remained steady: to build and grow the camp program and to create and expand the year-round program, where synagogues hold weekend retreats and events for campers.
One thing that hasn't changed, however, are the campers.
"Lots of people say to me how different are kids today? But kids are not terribly different today from when I began. Yes, they have all kinds of electronic devices, but really, the biggest change is parents," he said.
Because when he started, virtually no parent had personally experienced summer camp.
"They sent their kids because somebody said it's a good idea or the rabbi said it's terrific or friends said we sent our child and it was a good experience," said Kaye. "Today, virtually every parent has been to camp somewhere, and they come with a different set of expectations of what they want for their child."
Kaye sees his role as not only directing OSRUI, but also serving as a conduit between the camp and "his families," to guide and make sure everyone's needs are met.
He grew up in Lawn Manor on Chicago's Southwest side as an only child reared in a traditional Jewish community. After graduating from Harper High School, he went on to DePaul University for his undergraduate degree followed by Roosevelt University for a master's and then to Chicago Medical School where he was trained as a medical psychotherapist.
He and his wife, Paula, a nurse, have two daughters, Michelle, an occupational therapist, and Leora, a rabbi and director of programming for Reform Judaism.org, and four grandchildren.
Over the years, Kaye has earned many awards and recognitions and he has represented OSRUI on a host of communal bodies such as being asked by the Jewish Agency for Israel to serve as one of only 30 people on an international task force on Jewish Peoplehood.
As a Jewish educator, Kaye has written extensively about everything from Jewish education to self-esteem and has been a longtime teacher in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School program.
But many are familiar with Kaye as an Emmy-nominated host of "Sanctuary," a joint production of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago Board of Rabbis, in cooperation with ABC7-Channel 7.
Throughout it all Kaye remains a staunch advocate of the power of the Jewish summer camp experience. "If you had a child who went to public school who came home and said, 'I love math,' the next day you would go to the principal to get your child in the gifted math class, but if a child goes to synagogue school and says, 'I love this stuff about Jewish life and learning' and you went to the Director of Education and said, 'I want to get my kid into a gifted track in Jewish education,' they would say to you: 'We are terribly sorry. There is no gifted track in Jewish education for non-day school students,' to which I say camp is the gifted camp for Jewish education! At camp, we spend a lot of time engaging kids in Jewish learning. They have close contact with cantors, rabbis and educators, and they spend a lot of time with other kids just learning that there are all different kinds of Jews out there and lots of ways to be Jewish," he said.
For Kaye, Jewish camp means "24 hours a day Jewish and 24 hours a day recreation."
"The most important place in camp is a tree with a youngster and a counselor or a rabbi sitting and talking to each other and nothing else going on," he said.
He will take those memories and that passion with him for the next part of his journey. "I hope to be doing storytelling on the circuit through the communities, to teach wherever I can and to resume my interest in photography," he said.
Solomon Kane appointed new director of OSRUI
Solomon (Solly) Kane, 28, has been appointed the 10th director of Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI). He will be first former OSRUI camper to serve in this position.
Kane, who grew up in Saint Louis Park, Minn., has worked extensively for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and most recently as a management consultant focused on digital transformation and customer experience for leading brands.
His URJ positions including serving as director of North American Events, assistant director of the Biennial, assistant director of OSRUI, and as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C.
"[Solly's] experience across all parts of the URJ, his dedication to Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel, and his strong business acumen makes him the perfect person to lead the next chapter of our oldest URJ camp," said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
Kane holds an MBA from the New York University Stern School of Business, a BA with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has spent time at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.