Surprise Lake Camp has a rich history. It was founded in 1902 by the Educational Alliance to provide a summer vacation for Jewish boys from the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side. In its first season, it had six tents for 25 campers and five counselors. One of the first campers was Eddie Cantor, who, upon achieving success as an entertainer, became one of the camp's most ardent supporters. Since then Surprise Lake Camp has served thousands of young people, many of whom have achieved prominence, among them, entertainer Neil Diamond, talk show host Larry King, actor Jerry Stiller, and former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams.
In 1911, the 92nd Street Y became partners in running the camp, and the camp office was located at the Y for many years. In 1917, when the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies was created, Surprise Lake Camp was one of the initial member agencies. The camp then became incorporated as a New York not-for-profit in 1920, eventually leading to complete independence from its founding agencies.
Over the years, Surprise Lake Camp has been substantially rebuilt three times. In addition, its clientele and program have evolved as the Jewish community has changed. Originally established to provide summer vacations in the country for poor boys from the lower East Side, the camp has also gone through periods when it was dedicated to feeding undernourished boys, operated as a year-round camp which included formal education during the winter, committed to the personal development of children using a social group work model, and run as a general co-ed summer camp with special emphasis on scholarships.
Published in 1972, the History of Surprise Lake Camp documents the first 70 years of SLC. Written by Jack Holman.
Historic Images and Documents
Surprise Lake Camp is proud to be featured on the Milstein Online Archives of the New York Jewish Community. The site, sponsored by the Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, reflects the work accomplished during YIVO’s three-year, $225,000 pilot project to preserve and document the historic legacy of Jewish New York with emphasis on the histories and archival treasures of five agencies. These are the 92nd Street Y, the Educational Alliance, F-E-G-S Health and Human Services System, NYANA, and Surprise Lake Camp. Researchers can search through the new site for images of documents and photographs and can also view a 17-minute documentary film about the Milstein Project that features interviews with Howard Milstein, John Ruskay (UJA Federation of New York), Sol Adler (92nd Street Y), Robin Bernstein (Educational Alliance), Gail Magaliff and Al Miller (F-E-G-S), Mark Handelman (NYANA), Jordan Dale (Surprise Lake Camp), and Jonathan Brent (YIVO).