Camps and Summer Fun | Local

Generations of locals thrive at ‘Camp J’

For two local families, the Bluths and the Smiths, the summer camps at Tucson’s Jewish Community Center, fondly known as Camp J, mean much more than just fun for the kids. Their stories reveal the profound impact camp can make. For Jeff Bluth, it is exciting to see the camp legacy continue, as one of his three kids gets close to entering the camp counselor program, as he once did. For Joyce Smith, watching her two sons thrive as counselors inspired her to get involved and she still serves as a volunteer.

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Sara, Katie and Dylan Bluth (Courtesy Jeff Bluth)
Sara, Katie and Dylan Bluth (Courtesy Jeff Bluth)

The JCC is a prominent part of the Bluth family’s summer traditions. In 2004, Bluth and his wife, Tami, relocated to Tucson, where Jeff grew up, to raise their three children, Dylan, 13, Sara, 11, and Katie, 8. Bluth served as a teenage camp counselor, and throughout his childhood his mother, Arlene, ran the infant and toddler section at the JCC. All three of his children attend summer camp at the JCC. Dylan may age into the counselor-in-training program this summer, or decide to enjoy one last summer as a carefree camper.

The couple owns Shagg Hair Salon, located at Tanque Verde and Kolb. The husband-wife hairdressing team has Las Vegas roots: Bluth was operations manager for The Mirage Salon and Spa and Tami was a stylist at the opening of the Salon at Bellagio. Tami still maintains a short list of Las Vegas clients and travels every five weeks to Nevada.

Bluth recalls back when the JCC was located in the residence sandwiched between Tucson Hebrew Academy and the current expanded JCC campus, which currently houses the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. “We had a pool, outdoor play area, two bungalows and a space for horseback riding,” he says. “Camp was all outdoors in the summers back then, and it was amazing.”

Bluth fondly remembers his time as a counselor to the first graders. He and his family are longtime members of Congregation Anshei Israel, where their son, Dylan, recently became a bar mitzvah. Watching the camp evolve over time, Bluth has only praise: “It’s been consistently good, and Scott [Zorn, the JCC’s director of children, youth and family engagement] does a really good job. They’re very caring for the kids.

“Camp times really suit our family’s lifestyle better than public school hours!” adds Bluth, laughing. “We run our own business and school only runs 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; camp runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., so there’s another reason to love it.”

Bluth explains his deep commitment to camp. “[Camp] keeps them busy, and I like the amount of Jewish faith and learning they experience. They do Shabbat, they learn songs and they’re busy all day. They play! It’s so underrated nowadays. “In a world where kids barely see the light of day, the JCC gives them an opportunity to be kids.”

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(L-R) Mary Haywood, Matthew Smith, Joyce Smith, Faith Smith, Eric Smith and Michael Smith
(L-R) Mary Haywood, Matthew Smith, Joyce Smith, Faith Smith, Eric Smith and Michael Smith

Joyce Smith gushes as she recalls the days when her sons, Eric and Matthew, now grown, attended camp. The Smith family journey with the JCC began when she and her best friend, with children the same ages, were investigating preschool options. “We put the kids at the JCC and never left!” she exclaims. “They enjoyed preschool and I became head parent volunteer.”

Her boys attended the JCC Early Childhood Center’s preschool and camps throughout their childhood and then became counselors. “The JCC fulfills a need in me to be among Jewish people,” Smith says. “For us, it was worth the drive [from Tucson’s eastside] every time.” While her boys were young, her husband, Michael, worked as a civil engineer and she as a full-time mom.

Eric and Matthew were campers, counselors and unit heads at camp. Their favorite part of camp, says Smith, was the time each spent serving as unit head of the teenage camp section. During Eric’s time as unit head he planned trips to the Malibu Shalom Institute and a Judaic camp in Wisconsin, which his younger brother, Matthew, later carried out when he served as a unit head.

Eric received a degree in business administration from the University of Arizona. He currently works for Aztera, a company that incubates small business startups in hopes of keeping them in Arizona. Eric and his wife, Faith, were married at the JCC by Rabbi Stephanie Aaron. Matthew also attended the University of Arizona and received a degree in marketing. He currently works for Hughes Federal Credit Union in the marketing department.

Smith admires the organization and quality of the camp. “The campers aren’t inundated with Judaics but it is definitely a Jewish environment,” she says. “Scott Zorn is the most phenomenal camp director.”

Inspired by her boys’ positive camp experience, Smith got involved herself. This year will mark her fifth year as a volunteer for J-Care and as a teacher for the cooking class. At her recent class preview day, she recalls, she was inundated with young families hankering after her broccoli salad.

“Sending [the boys] to camp really reinforced their Judaism,” she reflects. “We absolutely loved it.”

This summer, the Tucson JCC summer camps will run from May 26 to July 31. The theme for 2015 is “Around the World.” Camp details are available at www.tucson For more information, contact Zorn at 299-3000, ext. 192.

Sarah Chen is a freelance writer living in northwest Tucson with her husband, son and daughter.