Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp were the vision of Rabbi Alfred Wolf (1916-2004). In the 1930s, Hebrew Union College dedicated resources to rescue Jewish rabbinical students from Germany and bring them to the United States, and Rabbi Wolf, a Jewish youth leader in Germany, was one of these scholars. He came to the U.S. in 1935 and joined the Wilshire Boulevard Temple staff in 1949. He was given the task of revitalizing the temple’s youth programs and, inspired by his time leading Jewish youth on nature hikes where they could practice their religion freely in “God’s Sanctuary,” as he called it, he suggested camping.
The experiment began in 1950 with 40 campers, when the Temple rented space at a Presbyterian campground in the Pacific Palisades. In 1952, Rabbi Wolf, Rabbi Edgar Magnin, and Temple President George Piness found a 110-acre campsite in Malibu, which congregant and cosmetics distributor Harry S. Mier purchased and donated in honor of his lifelong friend, business partner, and Temple member, Haskel “Hess” Kramer, who was a West Coast Reform movement leader. Camp Hess Kramer, the first Jewish summer camp west of the Mississippi, opened in June 1952.
In 1968, in response to the demand to enroll more campers, the Temple purchased 80 acres up the road from Hess Kramer and created Gindling Hilltop Camp, named for builder Albert Gindling, who provided several of the facilities built at Hess Kramer during the ’50s and ’60s. Gindling Hilltop Camp opened that summer.
Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp are also proud to be part of the history of the greater Los Angeles community. In 1963, Rabbi Wolf was chair of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and helped organize the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference (CYLC) with educator and activist Sal Castro. The CYLC trained many of the students who led the 1968 East LA Walkouts, and the conference met almost every summer at Hess Kramer until 2014.
Since the camps’ founding, generations of campers and staff have passed through our programs. Most of our staff members were campers themselves, and many go on to send their children to camp as well.
Our camps operated out of our Malibu home until 2018, when the Woolsey Fire destroyed nearly all of the structures at both of our camps. Our community was devastated, but we held fast to our belief that camp is the people, not the place, and in 2019 we operated on the campus of CSU Channel Islands. The COVID-19 pandemic brought yet another challenge, but the community rallied together and we were able to run 2 Virtual Camp sessions filled with laughter and the camp spirit. We plan on being together in-person in 2021.