Local Obituaries

Underground Israel defense officer, food scientist Isaac Camber dies at 91

Isaac Camber in his Israel Defense Forces uniform in 1948.
Isaac Camber in his Israel Defense Forces uniform in 1948. Courtesy Rachel Camber

For the Cambers of Miami Beach, a twist on the “Betsy Ross Story” has become family lore.

After patriarch Cecil Isaac Camber’s death July 23 at 91 at his Miami Beach home, his wife and children reflect on a tale that had its seeds in a high school in Haifa.

Camber, born an only child in London on Sept. 3, 1924, was raised in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania. He moved with his parents to Palestine at 13 and was educated at the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa.

While at the high school, Camber was recruited and commissioned into the underground Jewish defense force, Haganah. But the organization and its structure proved so secretive that Camber could not let anyone know he was training. “He had to slip out at night. Even his parents did not know,” his daughter Rachel Camber said.

Camber served with Haganah while attending Technion University in Haifa. During World War II, he served in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, and after the war, he helped resettle Holocaust survivors despite the British prohibition on Jewish immigration to Palestine. In 1946, Camber traveled to the World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, with Moshe Dayan to witness the vote that created the State of Israel.

Camber later continued his studies at McGill University in Montreal, but left to serve with the Israel Defense Forces during the War for Independence in 1948.

En route, on a ship carrying both Jews and Arabs and sailing from New York, the custom was that an arriving ship must fly the flag of the country to which they were docking. The ship’s brass refused to fly the flag with Israel’s colors. Not yet a nation and, with so many Arabs on board, no one had such a flag.

“So the women Israeli soldiers collected up blue and white shirts from the guys and made a hand-sewn Israeli flag and flew it on the ship — a Betsy Ross kind of deal,” Rachel Camber said.

“Growing up, he did not share stories about it at all, he was just our dad,” his daughter said. “He was a very modest person. He was not one to embellish or boast about things he had done. It wasn’t until the last maybe 15 years or so that my brothers and I started asking questions.”

He was someone who believed in justice and equality for everyone and he was someone who believed in giving back. He was a renaissance man.

Rachel Camber on her father C. Isaac Camber.

About a decade later, married to Diane Woolfe Camber — who today is the retired director of the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach — he took his wife on her first visit to Israel.

“I saw ‘Exodus’ as a young college student and with Paul Newman it was very glamorized,” she said. “When I would talk about him [Isaac] would say, ‘Yeah. Eh. You want to meet the people who were really involved?’ And I met them all, colleagues and classmates and Haganah members.”

After the War for Independence, Camber completed his bachelor’s at McGill and moved to Miami in 1951 to do postgraduate work at the University of Miami Marine School (now the Rosenstiel School). He earned his doctorate in food science and technology at the University of Massachusetts. “He actually invented, but did not hold a patent for, instant pudding in graduate school. He always loved instant pudding and he was getting his PhD in food technology,” Rachel Camber said.

In the 1960s and ’70s Camber worked for the William Underwood Company in Boston, which made the popular Underwood Deviled Ham meat spread. “My father wasn’t kosher but he did not eat pork. He did quality control with his nose. That sort of was the joke. He never tasted the stuff.”

Camber then established Evangeline Pepper Co. in Louisiana. In the 1980s, he started Southern International Inc. and built a modern factory in Venezuela that processed food products for export to U.S. food manufacturers.

By the 1990s, he started Cambridge Scientific, a medical and scientific equipment distributorship in Miami that provided lab equipment to universities and research labs.

Diane Camber, who retired from the Bass Museum after 27 years, saw her husband’s language skills and love for art and music and gardening as a gift.

“We both loved to travel and meet new people,” she said. “Of course, because of his vocabulary in many languages we met people that perhaps I would not have had the opportunity to talk to. For example, some of my work at the Bass involved traveling to Russia.” After the fall of the Soviet Union he joined her on the trips. “It opened doors. We could talk to anybody. Same in Latin America when we went there extensively in the ’60s when he was with Underwood. I had these experiences with him around the world I might not have had otherwise.”

His daughter considers her father a trailblazer for the support he showed his wife of nearly 60 years.

“In those early years, most men, husbands, weren’t necessarily super supportive of women’s careers the way my father was always supportive of my mother’s career,” Rachel Camber said.

Said Diane Camber: “He just loved that I was doing that and was very encouraging. He was a real help mate. He bought more art than I ever did. He would go on business trips to London and come back with things and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ And I’d say that’s by Stanley [William Hayter], who taught Picasso about printmaking. I’m sure he went by his eye, but he loved what I was doing.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Camber is survived by his sons Oren and Michael and five grandchildren. Services were held.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen