Laura Weber Uncovers Story Of Historic White Bear Lake Jewish & Kosher Camp

UPDATE: The event was originally scheduled for March 7 but has been rescheduled to April 11. The article has updated to reflect that.

On April 11, at the White Bear Lake Armory, community members will gather for a unique event: “Sophie Wirth, The Camp That’s Near The Lake” With Laura Weber.

A distinguished historian and former editor of Minnesota History, Weber will share her extensive research on Sophie Wirth Camp, the Upper Midwest’s first kosher camp located on the shores of White Bear Lake which operated from 1912 to 1944. This camp, once a vital retreat for poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants from St. Paul’s West Side flats, symbolizes a significant chapter in the Twin Cities Jewish community’s history.

This presentation, preceded by extensive research from a 2022 White Bear Lake Area Historical Society (WBLAHS) presentation, explores the camp’s inception and its vital role within the Jewish community.

Rheanna O’Brien, the education director with the White Bear Lake Historical Society, is credited with the discovery of the camp. Her initial foray into the camp’s past through newspaper archives revealed advertisements and articles that brought the forgotten stories of the camp and its community impact back to light.

“ ended up being one of those things where you just kind of dive down a rabbit hole… I all of a sudden started to find advertisements for the camp,” she said.

The collaboration between Weber and O’Brien presents a comprehensive narrative of Sophie Wirth Camp, revealing the layered history of Jewish immigration, community support, and cultural preservation in Minnesota.

Weber’s account of her research process provides insight into the meticulous efforts required to piece together the camp’s story: “I looked up every single mention of the camp in the American Jewish World on their digitized archives…There were [also] these two newspapers that were devoted to the Reform movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s – the American Israelite and the Reform Advocate – and they had information about Sophie Wirth Camp.”

The camp, initially founded as a rest home for “overtired mothers and their children,” became a sanctuary for families seeking a break from the heat and crowdedness of the city, offering them a chance for recreation and relaxation at White Bear Lake.

The camp served as a crucial support system for newly arrived Eastern European Jewish immigrants, facilitated by the more established German Jewish community.

“That’s the big meta-story of this camp…it was set up by the German Jewish community who were more established, who arrived in Minnesota earlier and were economically secure,” Weber said. “Then, when the Eastern European Immigrants arrived in poverty, they needed help.”

This act of philanthropy and community support highlighted the solidarity within the Jewish population during a time of significant social and economic upheaval. This narrative, reconstructed by Weber and O’Brien, underscores the importance of historical preservation and the value of unearthing and documenting local histories.

Their work serves as a reminder of the camp’s legacy, and of the power of cultural heritage. “There’s so much Jewish history that is not told…it’s really cool that the White Bear Lake people are the ones who want to tell the story about this camp that was in their area. It’s very important,” Weber said.