Happiest Camper on Earth
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
November 30, 2017
by Vivian Henoch
Where is the magic of Tamarack Camps? Perhaps it lives in the legacy of a Fresh Air Society – one of the oldest Jewish camps in the nation, celebrating 115 years of service to families and still growing from strength to strength – d’or v’dor – with each generation. Some would say that their sweetest childhood memories and lifelong ties to Jewish Detroit are rooted in those first sleep-away summers spent in Brighton or Ortonville. And for others, who return season after season – campers, counselors, staff, young leaders, alumni and ardent supporters – Tamarack is a place in the heart they have come to call home.
If this is magic, it’s working by design according to Lee Trepeck, Director of Camp Maas, the summer home where it all begins for 1,000 Jewish campers from grades 2 through 9. Ask Lee for five words that describe Tamarack Camps and, he’ll tell you without hesitation: The. Greatest. Place. On Earth! “I use those five words all the time to describe where and who we are. Like a mantra, our camp greeting is ‘Welcome Home! You have arrived at The Greatest Place On Earth!’
Spend five minutes with Lee and you’ll find he speaks in exclamation points. His intensity, passion and enthusiasm are not for show. Lee can be a magician with his words, but in action, he’s the real deal.
Parents, colleagues and friends all describe Lee as Tamarack’s driving force: “A super star, a one-of-a-kind professional, the Wow factor in the Tamarack brand.” Through all the praise heaped on him, Lee remains humble, ever grateful for his good fortune to pursue what Tamarack Camps Executive Director Steve Engel calls his ‘first best destiny.’
“I maintain that Lee Trepeck was born to be Camp Maas Director,” says Steve. “Lee dedicates his heart, soul and energy into every aspect of his work while balancing his role as a wonderful husband to Robin and proud father to Jamie, 16, and Andy, 13.”
Beyond his irrepressible positive energy, Lee brings to Tamarack an unconventional set of “camping skills,” honed by his years of experience as a camper and staff member at a camp in Northern Michigan, his professional training as an attorney and his work ethic in his family restaurant business and real estate. Raised in Bloomfield Hills and a current resident of Huntington Woods, Lee has played an active part in Jewish Detroit, assuming leadership roles on the New Leaders Project, Federation’s YAD Executive Board (now NEXTGen), Israel Missions and the Temple Israel Board of Directors. Most recently, Lee has participated in Lekhu Lekhem – a national program through which he had developed a strong cohort of camp colleagues who often seek his counsel.
In living his childhood dream and shifting professional gears over the past 10 years, Lee clearly has answered his calling, found his “true North” and made his way home to a perfect balance between his family and professional life. Well done!
In conversation with Lee Trepeck: On his camp experience and Jewish journey
myJewishDetroit: What was your camp experience as a child and teen?
I grew up at Camp Sea-Gull in Charlevoix, Michigan. I started in the second grade, spent 10 summers there and loved every minute as a camper, a waiter and then a counselor. Those years really showed me the values of independence, growth, maturity and friendship that ignited my fire to be involved with a camp someday. It’s funny, but even as a kid I had that aspiration.
I was a kid from Jewish Detroit so, of course, I was familiar with Tamarack where so many of my friends spent their summers. Camp Sea-Gull was based differently than Tamarack, which prides itself on informal, experientially Jewish camping. Camp Sea-Gull was a wonderful nurturing camp that was less Jewishly driven, but primarily attracted Jewish kids.
At 18, I went off to college and forgot about camping as a career – earning degrees from the University of Michigan and Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland; I worked only briefly in a law firm before I joined the business my father had started as a Burger King franchisee. We’re a close-knit family, and I always felt that my dad, my brother and I would work together at some point. We thrived as a family business, because we shared a love and respect for one another and a desire to succeed — all of which was born out of a deep admiration and respect for our dad.
I often say how lucky I’ve been: I loved working in a law firm and loved the restaurant and hospitality business. Then, when we sold our Burger King business, I got involved in real estate. I was 29 years old, professionally in a good place and yet, passively, I was still an opportunity to pursue a career in summer camping. So, I met with Neil Schechter (z”l), a former camp director and owner of Camp Walden, and I asked him what it was like to run a camp. I’ll never forget his response. Seated at his desk, he leaned back in his chair, took out a Kleenex and started to cry. And he said, “You’ll have to forgive me, I’m very emotional when I speak about my camp.” I told him that I was at a turning point in my career, not ready to write the next chapter. But I shared my hope that at the end of my story there would be a moment like this – when someone would come to me for advice and ask me how I made my career decisions, and I would be moved to tears that express that I have chosen well.
And now, as I enter my 10th summer, this job regularly moves me to tears – always in a happy way – because I am so driven to achieve and actually see the heights to which our campers and staff can soar.
On bold career moves and coming home to Tamarack
myJDet: What turned the corner for you? How did you become Director of Camp Maas?
I started a bowling league with my good friend Brian Siegel. Talk about Jewish Detroit connections! I first met Brian (now the Executive Director of the JCC) at Camp Sea-Gull; he was my counselor. We needed one more bowler in the league, and Brian suggested we fill the spot with this “great camp guy” named Jonah Geller (Tamarack’s Executive Director from 2000-2008).
In 2008, Jonah approached me with the prospect of directing Camp Maas. I was 40 years old, happy in the real estate business, married with two children. I thought Jonah was kidding because Tamarack was running a national search and they were close to finalizing their choice.
Long story short, I got the offer. It was a bold move for Tamarack, because the typical route to the position is through camping program work, assistant directing, building a resumé for the position of Director. My professional experience with camp was zero, but Tamarack took the leap with me. To this day, I am grateful when I think about the level of trust it took for the Board to make such an unconventional choice in a camp director.
Now at the 10-year mark, I believe that all of my previous roles benefit the work I’m doing today. The discipline of law taught me how to analyze, how to be an active listener, how to react intelligently, not just emotionally, and to understand the individual concerns of our kids and parents. In my family business, my responsibility was working through operations – the hard work of hiring, firing, motivating staff, filling in wherever needed – doing whatever it takes to keep guests happy. And finally, my experience in real estate has helped me understand our campus, which includes 1,500 acres of property and 280 buildings to maintain and enhance.
It’s gratifying to see how all my paths now intersect with running our camp business. At Tamarack, we are an extended family. I always say to our employees, “Welcome to our family business.” We gather at a family table, where each one has a voice. And we stand by one another at our community flagpole. It sounds funny, but I truly believe the sun rises and sets somewhere in Ortonville every day.
On family, marriage and life’s work
myJDet: As you wish, please share a little about your family background.
I grew up in a loving home with both parents. My mom worked for 20 years at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a docent; she was an expert in history and kept our family involved in arts and culture. My dad was a business entrepreneur, and together my parents taught us the values of hard work, discipline and commitment. My sister is in Chicago; my brother lives here and our families are still very closely connected.
I’m also especially lucky that my wife’s family follows the same pattern. Robin (Kaufman) grew up with two loving parents who I am very close to. As many people in the community know, Scott Kaufman, Federation’s CEO, is my brother-in-law. The Kaufman-Trepeck family relationships go back to our parents and our grandparents – three generations! Our grandparents also shared the same circle of friends throughout their adult lives.
myJDet: How did you and Robin meet?
We met at camp Sea-Gull. She was 15 and a counselor assistant. I was 17 and her waiter. We were friends first: I came to her sweet sixteen party; she was there for my high school graduation party. We remained close friends during and after our college years. In 1998, Robin and I were participants on an Israel mission and, after that trip, we said, “What are we doing? We should be dating!”
Six months later, we drove up to Charlevoix for a Valentine weekend and a visit to Camp Sea-Gull. It was snowing by the time we reached the camp. Robin had no idea that I was going to propose when we stood on the porch of her favorite cabin. The campgrounds were deserted, but we ran around like kids again, ringing the camp bell like wild, screaming at the top of our voices, “Lee Trepeck and Robin Kaufman are engaged!”
Today, one of the benches we used to sit on at Sea-Gull now sits in our house at Tamarack. Another bench from the camp rec hall is now at our home in Huntington Woods. We’ve kept these things as part of our story, signifying how deeply our family and camp roots are intertwined.
Robin and I realize we have something special. If there’s a reason that what I do works so well, it’s that I have Robin as a partner. She is my mentor, my conscience, my soul mate and, as Jonah Geller liked to say, Robin is the Director’s Director. Robin understands what it means to run a camp; she understands the joy of it, the hard work of it – the parental worries and responsibilities. We couldn’t have our perpetual late-night and early-morning meetings, our constant drive all summer without Robin and our children being totally on board. As parents, Robin and I have the great privilege of watching our children’s growth and progress through each year of the program.
On camp life
The summer at Tamarack is its own marathon. You never sleep; you pass out with a walkie-talkie in your hand, a cell phone at your bedside, a land line, the door open, the lights on. You doze through the night in the state of ready alert. That’s because you have 1,000 kids at camp under your supervision and about 350 staff members.
We operate a business that feels like a family. We live together, we celebrate together and we work together. Being a father raising my own son and daughter at camp both inspires me and grounds me to the depth of conversations I often have with parents.
myJDet: What are some of the challenges you have?
It’s a tougher world today than when I started just 10 years ago. There’s the ubiquitous cell phone and there’s social media that makes unplugging a challenge. We do not allow cell phone for our campers; but staff members can use them after hours.
We work hard to enforce the no-phone rule. At first the kids resist it. But we say it’s a gift. We tell kids they may not appreciate it at first, but they are going to love this gift every minute they are in camp, because, like explorers, they are signing off for the summer, about to discover “the Greatest Place on Earth.”
And for parents, the challenges of raising children are different today. Children come to camp with medications to manage, food allergies to accommodate, individual and special needs of all kinds. It’s all just a part of the make-up of our summer and we are able to successfully navigate the complexities. We have a talented medical staff: two doctors, four nurses, four clinic assistants, two charge nurses and a director of health and safety – all part of our medical team working with us every week.
And yes, there are all the food preferences that require us to offer options for gluten-free, non-dairy, vegetarian, kosher, special diets – all beyond our daily salad bar, soup bar, pasta bar and typical kid-friendly meals.
As a staff, we know we need to analyze complex issues and hire talent accordingly. So, we are staffed intentionally focused on preparing young people to lead in a changing world. And we do that by ongoing training, throughout the summer and off season – never losing sight of having fun together. We work and play in the smartest way possible, because that’s what our kids demand of us.
myJDet: Mentors? Who has inspired you?
My family! Robin, always. My parents and Robin’s parents. My siblings, Jeff and Stacey, and brother-in-law Scott. Outside of family, there’s a close-knit circle of friends with whom I’ve grown up. And of course, Steve Engel, a national leader in the camping business, with 40 years of Jewish camping experience. I learn from him every day. He has been a wonderful mentor in this journey. Rabbi Harold Loss also has been a source of wisdom and inspiration for me personally and for our community.
I consider my Camp Maas team among my mentors as well. The energy we bring to camp starts with their motivation, their conscience and relentless pursuit of excellence. We feel it in the fiber of our being that what we’re doing is important, raising our families, and influencing thousands of kids in our community in the most positive and natural way we know.
On the power of a Jewish camping experience
myJDet: What is the magic of Tamarack?
I believe there’s a magic in our energy. That ruach – spirit – that keeps us connected. I think there’s magic in our buzzword “home,” when we say to campers, ‘Welcome Home.’
There’s magic in our voices as we raise them in song, in prayer and in cheers for one another.
There’s magic in the remarkable story of Tamarack’s growth in recent years – a Master Plan at work that has transformed our campus. Since Steve Engel arrived, we’ve begun significant enhancements throughout our campus. In buildings and activity areas, we enjoy a new amphitheater, staff lodge, staff housing, nature center, arts and crafts area, medical and clinic updates – just to name a few. And, in our villages, we have rebuilt Applebaum, DeRoy, Charach Sheruth, Berman, Kaufman Specialty, and Hermelin (to be completed this summer). These investments represent $12 million, in a conscientious, intentionally planned progression of community space, infrastructure needs, and program modifications.
There’s magic in the support of our community, the leaders, funders, families and volunteers who have built this agency. I think about all those I have worked with and our common passion and relentless desire to provide a Jewish camping experience in a safe and happy place for our children and to accommodate a diversity of needs. We recognize the challenges some of our families face in their home life, and that camp is expensive, and not always easy for people provide for their children. But we have experts in place and partners in the community to help people navigate through our financial resources and emotional support system.
There’s the magic of our programming itself. Our artist in residence program, for example, brings in specialists in different disciplines to accommodate a wide range of individual interests as well as group dynamics. Our rabbi in residence – Rabbi Ben Shalva—has added a wonderful dimension to our Jewish program through music, stories and spiritual education. And, finally, there’s magic in our Israeli Camper Program, a longtime partnership with the Jewish Federation that continues to this day to build our extended family. Overall, we work hard to expand our programming, year-after-year, so that our children grow step-by-step in a natural progression from 10-day to 24-day sessions, then to extended wilderness trips up North and out West to Alaska and, finally, a trip to Israel for our counselors-in-training in partnership with the community teen mission.
myJDet: What are some of your sweetest memories as Maas Director?
I think the sweetest memories are appropriately pushing kids beyond their comfort. That’s our job. A child comes to us at times and says, “I want to go home.” And instead we work together and partner with parents to get the child past that. And out of that effort comes the sheer joy of seeing that same child cry on the last day because he or she doesn’t want to leave. That’s the sweetest moment; it’s like a ticket to the front row of the best show in town to see the highlights unfold in a child’s life.
And, as I so often say, the sweetest spot at Tamarack is the community flagpole where every season begins with high-five hellos and ends with tearful goodbyes – until we meet again. For us, it’s always “L’hitraot – see you again for the next chapter of our never-ending family story.”
Restaurants: Lafayette Coney Island downtown and Red Coat in Royal Oak
Building in the Detroit skyline:RenCen is the landmark; but my favorite buildings are our sports stadiums.
Place to take kids and visitors: DIA, Motown Museum, Fisher Theater, Ortonville and Tamarack!
Vacation places: Anywhere with my family – Charlevoix, Camp Michigania, DisneyWorld
Sports: Michigan football and all sports in the D
Camp Food: Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup served at our Wednesday Music Lunch. (The music is our secret sauce.)
Camp Song: Our Havdalah line-up and every year we have a new “Song of the Summer” theme.
Jewish Expression: A resounding Mishpacha! (Family). That’s one of our favorite camp cheers.
Guilty pleasures: I love potato chips and dip; I’m also obsessive about washing my car; love going to the car wash.
Never leave home without: A positive attitude
Reading now: Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen and the new John Grisham thriller, The Rooster Bar
Words to live by: Hustle and heart set you apart.