With the start of the Chabad-Lubavitch Camp Gan Israel’s 2002 summer season this week, thousands of children around the world will participate in a day camp program that has become a “rite of passage” of sorts.
A phenomenon that has succeeded to blend a true American style camping experience of outdoor sports and activities with an authentically Jewish, spiritual environment, Camp Gan Israel—the standard bearer of quality Jewish camping—has become the popular choice for Jewish children and parents of all stripes. In a non-judgmental, embracing environment, children learn “applied Judaism.” The sports, the competitive games, the songs, the meals, and the cultural activities are themed around Jewish concepts and conducted in a uniquely Jewish spirit.
Enrollment at Camp Gan Israel of Morristown, New Jersey, topped the 500 mark this year. Reflecting an unusual diversity of children from across the entire spectrum, the campers bond in the course of an 8-week program, in a model of Jewish unity that serves as a turning point for many.
An outstanding program that includes a kiddie camp for ages 4-5; a separate boys and girls division for campers ages 6-12; and a division for 13 year olds, the camp has seen phenomenal growth in the short span of one decade. What began with 40 local children under Rabbi Moshe Herson of the Rabbinical College of America, has grown by word of mouth drawing children from all parts of northwest New Jersey, some who travel more than a 25-mile radius from areas that have Jewish camps within a much more convenient proximity. According to Chana Devora Solomon, who is co-director with her husband Rabbi Mendel Solomon, the camp’s success is due largely to the investment in choosing and training an outstanding staff. “Our counselors are not 9-4 employees. When the campers go home at the end of the day, our counselors get to work, sometimes till late in the evening.” More importantly,” adds Rabbi Solomon, “our counselors develop ties with our campers and their families that continue throughout the year. They email each other, go to counselors’ weddings, participate at graduations, and bonds that last a lifetime often develop.”
Emily Schwartz, 12, of Fairfax, Virginia, is now in her seventh year at Camp Gan Israel of Fairfax. “She would come home asking a lot of questions,” says her mother, Susan, recalling Emily’s first year at camp. The Schwartzs, who keep a kosher home, say that Emily’s experience at Gan Israel made Jewish life become mainstream for her. “Camp Gan Israel has helped Emily—who attends a public school—take pride in the Jewish values and traditions that are not necessarily shared by her peers,” her mother explains. Established by Rabbi Sholom Deitsch and his wife Chanie some 10 years ago, and directed for the last three years by Rabbi Newman, Camp Gan Israel plays a very dominant role year-round, in the lives of its campers. “Emily sees her life largely in terms of where she’s at within the Chabad camp,” Susan says.
The first Gan Israel day camp opened back in 1965, in Los Angeles. Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the West Coast, started the camp with the help of Rabbi Avraham Levitansky and Mr. Zev Kurtzman, of blessed memory. “We began with 75 children, and for transportation, we purchased an Army Surplus bus for $100, which we painted a bright yellow,” recalls Rabbi Cunin.
Today, the state of California alone has some 40 Gan Israel day camps serving more than 10,000 Jewish children. “We have third-generation Gan Israel campers at our camps this summer,” says Rabbi Cunin. “They come because they love it. And this is where they learn-not behind a classroom desk, but through real day-to-day activities—how to live Jewishly, with all the warmth and enthusiasm that the Rebbe has instilled in Jewish education.”
The largest of Gan Israel camps on the West Coast, the Silver Camp Gan Israel Day Camp in Orange County, has more than 1,000 campers. “The vast majority of the campers come from non-affiliated homes,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Newman, the Chabad-Lubavitch representative to Orange County, Ca. “This becomes an invaluable opportunity to reach them in meaningful way that will have a lifelong impact on their Jewish identity.”
Sarah Benji, whose daughter, Ariella attends Camp Gan Israel in Brentwood, Ca, concurs. Of all the Jewish education her daughter has had, she says, her experience at Camp Gan Israel will stay with her forever. “I really believe that she is more Jewishly committed not only because of the knowledge she gained, but especially because of the passion and love for Judaism that she experienced during her memorable summers at Camp Gan Israel.”