Bessie’s Garden – A Living Memorial of Beauty and Love

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Click here to watch Somewhere Over the Rainbow – A Tribute to Bess Soffer

By Matt Stamm

Bessie’s Garden is arguably the most picturesque, serene new space in camp, and surely its namesake, Bess Feinstein Soffer, would be so moved and honored that it celebrates her life and memory. In addition to being a program area where campers and staff can learn, pray, meditate, and sing in a beautiful setting, Bessie’s Garden also provides fresh flowers for Shabbat— and another way for our camp community to connect with nature and think about those who came before us and have made Camp Harlam such a magical place. It will be a place where campers can plant and harvest vegetables and herbs.

This summer (Rabbi) Matt Soffer, Lauren “Biebs” Hallenbeck, and I had the opportunity to sit in Bessie’s Garden, enjoy the comfort and peace it provides, and sing a song that evokes her memory and beautiful soul.

Bess, or “Bessie” as she was known at Harlam, first came to camp in 1961 at 9 years old. She came back each summer as a camper and then staff. She met her husband-to-be, Jim Soffer, during her CIT summer, and they eventually became a quintessential “camp couple.” They were Arie’s people. They continued to stay connected to camp, helped to support and grow Harlam as alumni, and went on to raise a camp family. Their sons went to Camp Harlam. And now their love for our home away from home has been passed on to their grandchildren, “third-generation” Harlamites. Bessie’s legacy will be alive and well for generations to come.

Bess loved her beloved Jim and her boys Geoff and Matt. She loved their partners, and she especially loved her grandkids. Her love extended to their friends, one of whom I am lucky to be. Every time I saw her, she would ask about my wife and kids, by name. She would remember what city I was living in, where we were working, and what our plans were for the future. She was thoughtful. Kind. Interested. Caring. And she passed those traits on to her kids.

I met and got to know Geoff and Matt as a CIT and counselor in the 90’s. I was immediately drawn to their love for music and the arts, as well as their senses of humor. Through the years, Geoff was a regular advisor and supporter of my career. We’ve had so many fun and memorable times together at friend events, both large and small. Matt and I have spent a lot of time together with our respective families, celebrating milestones, holidays, and just-because visits. We have led countless services together. Our bond runs deep. Both Matt and Geoff have stood by my side during some very challenging times in my life, and I hold them both in such high regard for their kindness, generosity, and ability to show love. I know without a doubt that those incredible traits come directly from their upbringing. Anyone who knew Bess knows why the Soffers are how they are today.

When Bess passed away, the Camp Harlam family mourned the loss of a wonderful woman gone too soon. Jim, Matt, Geoff, Michele, Trish, Nicole, Joaquin, Caleb, Carmel, and Ronan will always find blessing in the memory of a beautiful wife, mother, sister, and grandmother. The rest of us are fortunate to have “Bessie’s Garden” as a reminder of a Harlam friend who spread joy to every corner of camp. We are grateful for this sacred space of learning, gathering, and reflection, for our camp family today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

Special thank you to Jacob Sklar for filming and editing our tribute video!