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Camp Harlam Love Stories: Jim & Bess Soffer

Pictured in the front row are Jim, Camp Harlam Director Arie Gluck, and Bess.

In 1960, I was 8 and finally old enough to join my sister, Michele, who was one of the original campers at Menchy’s “new” Camp Harlam. I continued every summer, making new friends and boyfriends.

By the summer of ’68, I was a Counselor-in-Training (CIT). Being a CIT, I was still considered a “camper” and couldn’t leave camp or (technically) date staff. This new kid, the assistant Tzedek unit head (a college guy named Jim) started paying extra attention to me…hanging out on the front porch of the CIT lodge, getting together after “milk squad,” and hanging out until curfew.

He “wooed” me that summer, one time at the lake. It was cold and I think he brought blankets. As a 16-year-old, it was quite romantic and a little bit “cheesy”with bubbles and Simon and Garfunkel…but that’s how things at camp worked! He got big points for trying. The romance flickered out after several weeks, but we remained camp friends.

The spring of 1969 was an extremely difficult time for me personally, as my dad suddenly passed away and I didn’t return to camp that summer. I kept in touch with my camp family and when I learned of a trip to Israel, led by Arie Gluck, it sounded perfect. I was dating an old camp friend Bob Sheppard during the fall, who brought me to the airport. I remember Bob telling Jim to take care of me during the trip…OY! Enough said! Jim and I started dating again on that trip. After Israel, I wasn’t ready to commit to a weekend away with Jim at Rutgers, and again, our relationship fizzled out, and we still remained camp friends.

The following summer, 1971, right before camp started, I decided to go back to camp, however there were no positions as counselor, so I begged and pleaded with Arie to find something for me. I started out as office staff but within a few weeks I moved to a bunk to replace another counselor. That was my last summer at camp.

When I graduated from Temple in 1974, it was tough to find a teaching job so I substituted when I could and worked part-time at Lord & Taylor in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. As fate would have it, who should walk up to the stationery counter but…Jimmy Soffer! We chatted for a while and he asked me to go to his dental fraternity Valentine’s party with him that weekend. We haven’t stopped dating since February 1974.

It was the summer of ’68 and Gene Bell and I decided to spend the summer at Camp Harlam, where we had attended PAFTY (Pennsylvania Area Federation Temple Youth). The word was, the summers in Kunkletown were hot, and the girls were hotter.

Camp started and I set my sights on Bessie, the cutest CIT at camp that summer. It wasn’t easy, it took a couple of weeks, which by camp time was like months. Being an assistant unit head and a big college rising sophomore, I swept Bessie off her feet. But the big question was how to romance a CIT who couldn’t leave camp.

A postcard Jim sent to Bess in 1974.

Our first “date” was a blanket on the slope of Lake Joshua with my battery operated record player (this was before cassettes, eight tracks or CD’s), blowing bubbles to Simon and Garfunkel.

After a few weeks, as is customary at Harlam, we had had enough of that camp romance and it was time to move on.

During the winter break of 1970-71, Arie took a Harlam group to Israel. Bessie had been dating “Shep,” who brought her to JFK airport and said to me, “Take good care of her.” I sure did and we began Bess and Jim chapter two. This lasted a few months but she didn’t want to visit me at Rutgers so distance proved too much and we, again, drifted apart.

A couple years later, fate and the “Lord” (not G-d but Lord & Taylor) brought us together again. We began dating and the timing was right this time. We continued dating and married 42 years ago, June 15, 1975. Soon after, we had our first son. His original name was supposed to be “Bunk,” but wiser forces prevailed and he became Geoffrey. Matthew followed three years later.

It is because of our love of Camp Harlam, Arie, the friends we made, and our love of Judaism that we both continued our involvements with camp, our community, Temple Emanuel and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Bess became temple president and I became JCC president and Camp Harlam chair. We both served on the camp committee, our local Jewish Federation board, and the URJ boards and committees for many years following.

Geoffrey and Matthew both grew up at Harlam. Matt met his wife, Nicole, at camp. He is now a rabbi in Boston with two children, Caleb, 4, and Carmel, 1, who was named for their first unit at camp.


On Sunday, August 13, we’ll recognize the many couples who met at Camp Harlam as part of Alumni Day and our year-long celebration for Harlam’s 60th anniversary. Details will be shared soon on the Harlam@60 website

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