Broadway stars sing for a cause

Shayna Simon, a JCC camper, with her mother Laura Simon of Cherry Hill. Shayna benefits from the annual concert and other fund-raisers.
Shayna Simon, a JCC camper, with her mother Laura Simon of Cherry Hill. Shayna benefits from the annual concert and other fund-raisers.
Posted: April 12, 2012

On the first day of her first year at summer camp back in 2005, Shayna Simon, then 5 years old, bravely said goodbye to her mom and began her adventure at the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center Camps at Medford .

She’s been back every summer since.

The camp experience was a monumental turning point for Shayna, now 11, who was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder on the autism spectrum and has had challenges bonding with other kids.

“Camp was the magic for Shayna – she’s made remarkable progress,” says her mother, Laura Simon of Cherry Hill. “Her social and communication skills have soared. For those wonderful eight weeks in summer, I know that my daughter is happy.”

Simon, a widow, says she would not be able to afford summer camp for Shayna but for assistance from theJCC’s “Open Hearts/Open Doors” program, whichprovides supervision for children with special needs at no extra cost. These children also have the opportunity to interact with the general camp community, which welcomes more than 1,600 children each summer, with 425 counselors, making it the largest day camp in North America.

It’s a far cry from the origins of the JCC Camps, which began as a simple summer recreation spot on the grounds of Camden’s Woodrow Wilson High School back in the 1950’s. The move to the Medford came in the 1960’s, and growth has been continuous. The camp now has four pools, a theater, water sledding, and a splash park.

Grants from public and private donors and fundraisers provided $348,592 in assistance last summer to 300 needy campers and 105 special needs youngsters, according to Brian Adler, development director for the Katz Jewish Community Center.

One fundraiser in particular has become a favorite. On Monday,Broadway stars will take the stage at the Katz Jewish Community Center for the annual “Broadway Sings for Camp” spring benefit, which has brought in $16,000 over the last two years.

The prime mover behind “Broadway Sings” is Ben Lipitz, a Cherry Hill native and an alumnus of the JCC Camps who is now a regular on Broadway.

Decades ago, when he was a slightly apprehensive 5-year-old, Lipitz went off to camp. He continued going to camp for most of his childhood. Even as his career as an actor bloomed, he returned to the summer day camp again and again, initially as a camper then as a staff member, until Broadway commitments beckoned.

“How I loved those summers!” says Lipitz, who found camp a special haven especially after his parents divorced. “Way back, it used to be a rustic place where we could just explore nature, sports, a lake and in some important ways, ourselves.”

Several years ago, Lipitz and his old camp pal Aaron Greenberg, now executive director of the JCC Camps at Medford, had a conversation about the impact of camp in their lives – and talked about how to spread it to others.

The two men began envisioning an event that would feature Broadway stars singing stage hits – and donating their time for the benefit of needy kids. Lipitz, who had organized similar programs for Broadway AIDS benefits, plunged right in, and the first Broadway Sings for Camp took place in 2009. That was when Lipitz was conveniently on a planned break from his ongoing role on Broadway as Pumbaa, the flatulent warthog in The Lion King, and was performing at the Walnut Street Theatre.

Lipitz also has starred in The Producers, Art,and is currently on stage in God of Carnage, at the Walnut. “It’s always a privilege to come home to perform,” he explains. “But coming home, bringing my Broadway buddies down and helping the camp I love makes it all extra-special.”

This year, “Broadway Sings” features Erica Ash (Baby It’s You), Kevin Boseman (War Horse), Adam Jacobs (The Lion King) and wife Kelli Jacobs (Mary Poppins). Also performing will be Felicia Finley (The Wedding Singerand “Aida), and Kristin Carbone (Mary Poppins) and her husband, Michael St. John (Les Miserables).

For Carbone and St. John, this is a third return visit.

“It’s such a wonderful cause, and it feels so good to be part of it,” says Carbone. “As performers, it’s so terrific to get to sing songs we want to sing, especially for such a receptive audience.”

Brad Molotsky, who is chairing the “Broadway Sings for Camp” event, also has deep ties to the camp program. His own father was a camp counselor at the Woodrow Wilson High School site 55 years ago, and Molotsky, his brother and a community of cousins all grew up spending summers at the Medford camp.

Today, Molotsky is particularly indebted to the camp and its Open Doors/Open Hearts program. His 18-year-old son Matthew, who has struggled with Pervasive Developmental Delaysand other conditions, has grown up at the camp.

“When he was younger he had an advocate to help him with activities and mobility around the camp,” says Molotsky. “He felt a real part of the camp.”

Today, an advocate helps Matthew help others around the camp as he works with various jobs, from collection of attendance records to jobs in the cafeteria. He is, in a sense, giving back even as he receives.

Perhaps Shayna Simon sums up best the love for summers in Medford and the powerful reach of Broadway Sings for Camp.

“I love my friends at camp – I hug them, and they hug me back,” says Shayna. “Nobody is mean. Everybody is nice. And I hope I go there forever.”

“Broadway Sings for Camp” will be presented at the Katz Jewish Community Center on Monday, April 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $10 for youth under 13. Patron tickets are $60 and include a desert reception with the performers.

For information, visit www.katzjcc.org or phone (856) 424-4444.

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