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Camp Gan Israel: Why They Keep Coming Back

Forging friendships and singing songs at the largest Jewish camping network

It’s a new season at the largest Jewish camp network in the world. Former campers are coming back with their own children, hoping to impart the Jewish joy and pride they received at Camp Gan Israel to the next generation.

The voice on the other end of the line was not familiar. Rabbi Yitzchok Weinberg of Vancouver listened as Sarah J., introduced herself. She was getting married. Would the rabbi officiate at her wedding?

Wineberg was curious. Who was she and why was she calling him?

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Sarah reminded him that she’d been a camper at Gan Israel of Vancouver. Her family hadn’t been able to afford tuition so the rabbi admitted her on a full scholarship. She went back year after year, six or seven summers.

One year, she recalled, she and her campmates were sitting around a bonfire roasting marshmallows with their counselors. The eleven-year-olds got to talking about their Jewish identities.

The conversation soon turned to dating and marriage.

The counselors evinced a passion about the subject that Sarah had never encountered before. Yet for all of their enthusiasm—for all of their love of the Jewish way of life—they were remarkably grounded. They saw themselves as stewards of the faith, privileged with membership, but also responsible for passing it on to the next generation. They were links, they said, in the long chain of Jewish continuity.

Sarah and her friends were inspired. Sitting around the bonfire, they pledged that when the time came for them to settle down, they would only marry within the faith.

The “Bat Mitzvah Camp” in the Poconos is an overnight experience for girls from 4th to 8th grade

The largest network of Jewish camps in the world, Gan Israel (known informally as CGI or Gan Izzy) is the only Jewish experience of the year for a majority of its campers. After sixty-two years, CGI has expanded to 297 locations in the U.S. and more than 500 internationally. Its long-term success is built on individual relationships, forged and maintained by directors and counselors who go the extra mile to give campers a memorable experience. Famous for their warmth, love, and spirited enthusiasm, they leave lasting impressions on their young charges (see Sidebar p.7).

Yuval Golan knew he’d be back. A camper at Gan Israel of the Valley, in Encino, California, he returned twenty-five years later with his daughter Kayla. Now greeting him with a familiar hug was counselor-turned-director Rabbi Meir Greene. The old photo albums came out off the shelves as Meir showed Kayla pictures of her dad as a camper back in the early 1980s.

“Your father was a ten-star general back in the day,” Meir told Kayla, explaining the traditional camp award system where campers earned badges for learning Jewish trivia.

“Actually, I was a fifteen-star general,” Yuval corrected proudly. “I was honored with raising the camp flag and leading the songs at morning line-up.” His wife, Ronit, also attended Camp Gan Israel as a child, the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills branch. When it came time for the couple to enroll their children in a day camp, Yuval says it was a no-brainer—“It was only Gan Israel.”

At least ten percent of CGI attendees are second and third generation “legacy” campers. “On any given summer, we have between thirty to forty campers whose parents attended our camp,” Meir says. On the first day, parents come with such enthusiasm that “I sometimes cannot tell who is more excited—the parents or the children.” One camper showed up with her mother’s old camp booklet. “Her mom had saved it all those years for her daughter.”

Eleven-year-old Mira Weglein of Boston, Massachusetts, is one of a few Jewish students in her public school. She attended Camp Gan Israel for two years and says her fondest memory is of a grand trip to a large amusement park—not of the park itself, but of the two-hour bus ride. “It was super fun to just sit and sing with my friends and the counselors.” She keeps up with one of those counselors, a high school student from Chicago, texting her throughout the winter months.“She is my favorite counselor, and I am super excited to know that she’s coming back because she’s one of my best friends.”

At Boston Gan Israel, sports is a daily part of the schedule

Rabbi Ilan Meyers has been directing the Boston Gan Israel day camp since 2010. He says that his passion for Jewish camping stems from his own personal experience. Growing up in California, he regularly attended a CGI in S. Monica. Those summers shaped his Jewish identity and steered him into Jewish leadership.

“I remember how the staff found a way to make the regular into the irregular,” he says. “A ride on the bus was not just a means to get to the park but an entire experience of its own. Every moment was imbued with genuine vitality and creativity.” The young, idealistic counselors brought each moment to life and inspired him to follow their example. “These were people that were happy with their lives, ideals, and identified passionately with Judaism.’’

A Camp for Everyone

In 1956, the first Camp Gan Israel opened with a small group of children in New York’s Catskill Mountains. The brainchild of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who saw summer vacations as an educational opportunity for Jewish children, especially those from unaffiliated homes, Chabad-led camps of every size and style sprang up around the country and quickly gained popularity. The camps were named Gan Israel (“the Garden of Israel”) in honor of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement.

Some CGIs, like the original camp in Parksville, New York, offer immersive, month-long overnight experiences, but the majority are day camps. Located in forty countries around the globe, they serve more than 150,000 Jewish children across the religious spectrum. Aware that this will be the only Jewish experience that many children have, camp directors work hard to provide profound, lively, and stimulating Jewish programming.

Last year, more than 380 campers from Bukharian, Israeli, and American families enrolled in CGI of Eastern Queens, New York. Chabad emissary Chanie Zalmanov founded the camp fifteen years ago to fill a need in New York City’s Jewish camp scene. “There were ultra-religious camps for observant families and, on the other extreme, ‘Jewish’ camps that would take campers to a waterpark on Tisha B’Av” (a Jewish day of mourning). Camp Gan Israel, in its trademark Chabad style, welcomes families of all levels of Jewish knowledge and observance, introducing them to a positive, authentic Jewish experience with no strings attached.

When Shimi Marom researched summer camps in Chicago for eight-year-old Yotam, he set his sights on CGI of Greater Chicago. The Israeli expat was impressed that the camp offered classic summer sports and activities along with songs, games, and cultural programs. He felt the programing transmitted Jewish concepts in precisely the way that he wanted his son to absorb them.

“Every detail of the camp is based around Jewish culture and educational values,” Shimi says. The camp focuses on sharing, tolerance, and sportsmanship. And, while it makes no demands on attending families, Shimi, who is not religiously observant at home, appreciates that his son gets to interact with Jews across the spectrum of observance. “The camp acts like a community and is completely family-based. Everyone is there with the same goal: to celebrate our Jewish culture.”

Campers on a day trip with their counselor at CGI Satellite Beach, FL (Photo: Chavi Konikov)

Gan Israel welcomes children with disabilities and supports their participation in the camp experience. In Cleveland, where there is no Jewish school for children with disabilities, camp may be one of the only Jewish educational experiences available to those children. Rivky Friedman, director of CGI of Beachwood, Ohio, hired a behavioral therapist to serve these campers.

Something as simple as an accessible camp building can make all the difference. Liora and Michal Haimoff are nine-year-old twins who love attending CGI in Queens, New York, together. Michal has cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair. Still, she finds the camp building easily accessible. Ramps and elevators allow Michal to participate in many of the camp activities.

“Michal feels so welcome at camp. It is an accepting and loving place for her,” says Mrs. Haimoff. “Typically, campers aren’t allowed to use the elevator, but in her bunk, one camper was assigned the special job of helping Michal in the elevator. All the campers wanted to do it. She was one of the most popular girls in camp!”

Gan Israel gives Liora the chance to spend the summer with her sister, who generally attends special programs designed around her needs. At CGI, they get to do everything together—even sports, their mother says. “The sports instructor would challenge Michal on her own level, but she always participated in the games. It was phenomenal.”

The Magic of a Jewish Summer

Research from the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that children with pivotal Jewish camp experiences are more likely to value their Jewish heritage, support Jewish causes, and take on leadership roles in their communities when they become adults.

In New York City, which teems with every camp option imaginable, Chanie Zalmanov explains that Gan Israel “is the place where your child is going to love being Jewish.” With growing anti-Semitism in colleges and complex high school social scenes, the significance of these formative, positive Jewish memories cannot be overstated.

Through games, songs, and Jewish friendships, campers develop confidence in their Jewish identities, which carries over into every area of their lives. At a time when children prefer smartphones to singing, Chanie says, “Parents sometimes ask me ‘What are you guys doing? My kid is jumping on her bed at night singing, ‘I’m a Jew and I’m proud!'”

A day trip to “Bearizona” for the CGI in Flagstaff, AZ

Rabbi Zalmy Kudan runs a smaller camp in S. Barbara, California, where he gets “thirty-ish kids on a good day.” A recent recipient of the Golden Acorn Award by the American Camping Association for best practices in the camping industry (see sidebar), Zalmy believes in the power of camp to shape a child’s Jewish future. “We have learned to really appreciate the value of one child and the impact we can have on each individual.” He keeps his camp going even though it leaves him in the red season after season. Lack of funds, he says, should never deprive a child of the experience. The result is that “every scholarship comes out of the bottom line.”

CEO and President of the American Camp Association Tom Rosenberg says it is important for philanthropists to support Gan Israel day camps to help make them more affordable. “Gan Israel camps are incredibly engaging for kids. We have to make them very accessible so that we can bring in Jewish children from all backgrounds and enrich their lives.”

Yuval Golan’s daughter Kayla, now 16, returned to camp for two years as a junior counselor, and her brother Ari, 13, completed a summer in the bar mitzvah division. In early February, the youngest Golan sibling, eight-year-old Shylee, reminded her father that it was time to register her for camp.  

As a young Israeli immigrant, Yuval attended public school. Camp Gan Israel gave him memorable Jewish immersion opportunities. Those early positive experiences factored into his decision to enroll his children in full-time Jewish schools. But that’s not enough: “It is still so important to me that they go to camp and reinforce everything they learn in school in a fun way.”

More than anything else, he says, the Gan Israel experience instills in his children “a sense of pride in being a Jew.”  

As for Sarah J., well, most pre-pubescent pledges don’t withstand the test of time. And for many years, Sarah dated whomever she pleased, Jewish or not. But when her ring finger began to itch, so did the memory of that night she spent at a Gan Israel bonfire. 

Her wedding? It was beautiful, says Rabbi Wineberg, who was only too happy to officiate. And the couple now, years later? “They’ve got two children. They are raising a Jewish family.” Sarah, says the rabbi, thanks her summers at Camp Gan Israel for that.

Links to CGIs in: Beachwood, OH 

/ Boston, MA / Chicago, IL / Encino, CA / Queens, NY / S. Barbara, CA / Vancouver, BC / Bat Mitzvah Overnight Camp


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