Splashes of powder blue and lilac purple encircle a sea of names carefully written in Sharpie on watercolor rag paper.
It’s just one of the more than 500 ketubot handpainted by Hadass Gerson. But this marriage contract, presented to Camp Harlam on Aug. 13, will always hold a special place in the Pikeville native’s heart.
“I’ve come full circle,” she said.
Gerson, who attended the Pennsylvania-based camp for roughly five years, was asked to create the ketubah for its 60th anniversary and unveil it during a celebration for couples who met at Harlam. Inspired by her time as a Harlamite, the 32-year-old took to her art studio and began to paint in early June.
“Sometimes I know the couple I’m making the ketubah for, but mostly it’s a relationship that’s been developed through emails and order forms,” Gerson said. “But the Camp Harlam ketubah was such a personal experience because I wasn’t making it for a couple, I was making it for a camp — my camp.”
Roughly 30 couples trickled into Camp Harlam and made their way to a memorable spot: the Chapel on the Hill. Nestled in the foothills of the Poconos Mountains, the pavilion has hosted Shabbat services, ruach-filled song sessions and, as of last week, a recommitment ceremony officiated by Rabbi Benjamin David, 40, of New Jersey.
The former camper, counselor and supervisor said it was humbling to stand alongside those who also have an unwavering connection to Camp Harlam.
“It allowed us to acknowledge that camp has played a really significant role in our lives,” said David, who met his wife, now the director of the Reform- affiliated camp, when he was an 11-year-old camper. “For each of us, camp is very much a part of our story.”
Before signing Gerson’s ketubah, spouses of all ages huddled under a chuppah. Among the pairs were Alison Slipakoff and her husband Dan, both 32, who met at Camp Harlam at the age of 12.
“There were so many of us that we couldn’t even fit under the chuppah,” said Slipakoff, who was raised in Mount Washington. “And knowing that there are more Harlam couples out there speaks to how special this camp is.”
The mother of one is no stranger to Gerson’s work. While on the hunt for their ketubah, she and Dan stumbled upon their old camp buddy’s website. Impressed with Gerson’s artistic flair, the couple asked her to design their marriage contract with camp-inspired imagery.
But with the Harlam ketubah, the Slipakoffs, specifically Dan, had a front and center role. The aspiring rabbi helped author its written portion alongside David and another camp alumnus.
The trio wrote an original text, touching on the foundation of friendship and the hope that life partners will continue to nurture one another while bringing light to the rest of the world.
“Camp is an incubator,” Dan said. “It gives campers the space and the time to make lasting connections — whether that means they meet their lifelong best friend or the person they want to marry. We really tried to tap into that in what we wrote.”
The 22-by-30-inch ketubah, complete with white-petaled flowers, a backdrop of pine trees and Harlam’s iconic chapel, is permanently housed at the camp.
Gerson, who holds master’s degrees in painting and contemporary art history from the San Francisco Art Institute, wasn’t always set on pursuing a career in the arts but, regardless, knew her experience at Camp Harlam had strengthened her love for creativity.
While at the ceremony, the Georgia resident reminisced about her days at the Art Shack, a camp favorite for the young artist. Harlam’s supportive community allowed her to explore her Jewish identity as well as her artistic side, Gerson said.
“When you’re in an environment where people are encouraging you to take risks, it sticks with you when you start something new down the road,” she said.
And within the span of four years, the ketubah maker has turned her side gig into her full-time profession.
“To be able to take that age-old tradition and update it with modern imagery is a great line to the past,” Gerson said. “There’s something really meaningful about engaging with a custom that came before us.”
For more information on Gerson’s hand-painted ketubahs, visit thepaintedketubah.com.