Hiskashrus War 5771!!

Wow! What an amazing Hiskashrus War that was! Directly after Tisha B’Av was over, the Head Lifeguard broke out the news and the camp split into two teams; Maaseh and Talmud. Maaseh focused on the actions that a Yid and a Chossid have to do, while Talmud focused on the great mitzva of learning Torah, and how it leads to performing mitzvos in the best way. Both teams worked really hard to win, by putting on skits and plays, running relay races, doing Mishnayos and Tanya baal peh, and having amazing chayus during davening and bentching.

After two smashing days of excitement, it came time for the finale: the Grand Sing. Each team picked a theme that would represent their team’s idea. The entire Shul was transformed as bleachers were installed, a double decker bus and a time machine sprung up, and a huge gate and a pyramid appeared. All the kids dressed up in the costumes that were hand made by the staff. Maaseh dressed up as British soldiers, to represent their theme of “doing”. Talmud’s campers dressed up as Levi’im from the times of Mitzrayim, to represent their theme of “learning”. There were funny introductory skits, beautiful original songs, grammen, and speeches. There was even a special achdus comedy song that both teams worked together on; it spoke about the need for achdus amid all the competitiveness of Hiskashrus War.


All in all, it was an amazingly fun experience and everyone had a blast!

Largest Jewish Camp Network in World Turns 55

Campers at the original Camp Gan Israel in upstate New York pose for a group picture in 1958
Campers at the original Camp Gan Israel in upstate New York pose for a group picture in 1958

In the spring of 1956, faculty of the central Chabad-Lubavitch grade-school yeshiva in New York, including its dean, Rabbi Chaim Meir Bukiet, sought a solution to the distinctly modern problem of summer vacation: They had no place to send their students to continue their studies during the summer months.

A Lubavitch overnight boys’ camp had been established in the 1940s in Montreal, and since 1953, Camp Emunah in upstate New York provided a Lubavitch summer camp option for Jewish girls.

Bukiet’s New York students had nowhere to go and he picked Rabbi Moshe Lazar, one of his most energetic students, to lead such an initiative. Lazar, who was 22 years old at the time, approached the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, for guidance. To the yeshiva’s faculty, the issue was simple: The modern educational calendar had created a block of time in which kids were frequently without structure.

But as so often happened when the Rebbe addressed a “problem,” he advised that this particular challenge actually offered a unique opportunity.

Yes, there should be boys’ camp, the Rebbe responded. But it would be different: It would leverage the beauty of rural surroundings to provide a Jewish atmosphere, coupled with the warmth of Chasidic life, in a manner not possible in a year-round school environment. It would serve youngsters from both Jewish day schools and public schools and would allow each of them to partake of their favorite summer activities on the one hand, while simultaneously nurturing their spiritual identities on the other.

Unlike other camps of the era, which served to protect religious students from wandering aimlessly through the summer, this camp would offer an open door to attract new students to the beauty of Jewish life.

“There were a few Jewish camps in existence, but they were not doing much in the way of reaching out to children that were not already exposed to their Jewish backgrounds,” explains Lazar, now 76 years old and a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Milan. “The Rebbe was very enthusiastic and with his blessing and constant involvement, we were able to successfully turn our camp idea into a reality.”

In April that year, with nary a few months to get things in order, Lazar rented a property in Ellenville, N.Y. The Rebbe named the camp Gan Israel, literally “Garden of Israel” in honor of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the 17th-century founder of Chasidism known as the Baal Shem Tov.

“The Rebbe said that all children should be shown the greatest love and from this love, they become closer to G‑d,” says Lazar. “The idea behind Camp Gan Israel was to create a combination of the spiritual and the material and show that there is no conflict between the two. In this way children can lead full and enriched lives.”

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who first signed on as the camp’s learning director and today serves as its executive director, recalls the Rebbe’s directives as revolutionary. Far from merely comprising the two identifies of a camp and a yeshiva, the uniqueness of Camp Gan Israel lies in its ability to make each opposing strain inform and strengthen the other. In short, Camp Gan Israel is “a camp on the outside and a yeshiva within,” the Rebbe would later emphasize.

“Nobody had thought that this was possible to do,” explains Shemtov, who also serves as chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the worldwide umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch. “Summer camp was always either a place devoid of the protections offered by a yeshiva environment, or was solely concerned on essentially relocating the yeshiva to the countryside.”

The Rebbe offered a third way, continues Shemtov. “Camp could be a new opportunity to do what the yeshiva couldn’t do. It could be an island; it could provide an overall 24-hour experience.”

(Educators today, backed by several recent studies, similarly point to the immersive nature of camp as providing a unique opportunity to instill and nurture Jewish values.)

Of the three times the Rebbe travelled outside of New York City after ascending to the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch, all three were to the original Camp Gan Israel and Camp Emunah.

Offshoots of that first Gan Israel reflect the central importance the Rebbe placed on the summer camp experience, says Shemtov. “Each place may look different, but when you begin to pull at the strings, you’ll find they each have the same foundation.”

Engaging Children, Inspiring Parents

The first summer brought together 92 boys. Today, 55 years later, Camp Gan Israel, headquartered in Parksville, N.Y., represents the largest network of Jewish camps in the world. Run by Chabad Houses and affiliated institutions in more than 40 countries, including Canada, Australia and Chile, its day and overnight programs serve both boys and girls and cater to Jewish children of all backgrounds.

“I had the time of my life,” Jeffrey Klein fondly recalls of the 10 years he spent as a child at Camp Gan Israel in Fenton, Mich., eight as a camper, one as a waiter, and one as a certified lifeguard.

“The way they took religion and intertwined it with fun activities such as sports, baseball, soccer and swimming was a very positive experience for me,” he adds, “and, as a result, my religious observance grew.”

Klein was so inspired by his camping experience – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at camp in 1974, the summer he turned 13 – he convinced his parents to keep a kosher home and enroll him in a local Detroit-area yeshiva. Today, the prominent podiatrist has three grown children, two of whom also attended Camp Gan Israel.

“The friends that I made at camp – the children of friends that I met at camp – are worldwide,” says Klein, who, decades later, still sings songs that he learned at camp as a seven-year-old, including the Camp Gan Israel anthem. “A lot of people who went to this camp are amazing” Jewish leaders.

Camp Gan Israel’s alumni include Rabbis Shmuel Lew, director of the Lubavitch House School in London, and Rabbi Moshe Feller, director of the Upper Midwest regional headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch.

“The camp experience is attractive to all kinds of parents,” explains Shemtov. “The Rebbe turned camp into a tremendous instrument in attracting youth with little in the way of Jewish involvement, who then were able to strengthen Judaism in their own families.”

Daniella Uminer, program director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Martin and S. Lucie County, Fla., says that she and her husband founded the local Camp Gan Israel before they established a Hebrew school.

Their area has a small, assimilated Jewish population, she says. “We started out with 15 kids and now we have at least 60. We’ve grown over the years, and it’s been a great journey.”

What distinguishes Camp Gan Israel from a typical summer camp is the one-on-one attention devoted to each child, proffers Chanie Pinson, director of Camp Gan Israel in Pasadena, Calif.

“We recognize that each child is unique in his or her abilities and interests, and therefore offer a variety of choices for the child during his or her camp experience,” says Pinson. “This flexibility ensures that each child thrives in the camp environment and leaves at the end of the day with the greatest of smiles, looking forward to the next day’s surprises and fun activities.”

Staff Play!!

[simage=2177,160,c,left,]On Thursday night, the entire camp, plus some visitors from the area, assembled in the camp soccer field for the Grand Staff Play!
Most plays in Gan Israel are held in the Shul, but due to the epic proportions of this one, it had to be held outdoors. The theme of the play was the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, and the destruction of Yerushalayim. Despite the theme being rather a sad one, the amazing writers of the play were able to turn the story around and end off inspiring us to bring Moshiach with our mitzvos. Our hardworking staff spent many a sleepless night painting backdrops, building props, and stapling costumes (seriously!).
 [simage=2147,160,c,right,]Among the amazing things that were made, there were two catapults, a battering ram(!), two 25 x 20 foot backdrops of Yerushalayim, a 74 x 15 foot wall of Yerushalayim, two warehouses, tents for the Roman Soldiers, a raised balcony for the host in the Bar Kamtza scene, a huge throne for Caesar, a sukkah for Simchas Beis Hashoeivah, hundreds of costumes, a huge Mizbeach, and one really long run-on sentence.

[simage=2141,160,c,left,]The props weren’t the only amazing thing in the play, the scenes and stunts were also stupendous. From Bar Kamtza being thrown off of an 8 foot balcony into a cake (no dummies or stunt doubles!), to the burning of Yerushalayim’s warehouses of food by the Biryonim, to the sheep that Caeser sent to the Beis Hamikdash, to one of the defenders of Yerushalayim trying to climb back up the wall and the rope being cut, everything was done to make the experience feel like history was replaying itself.
[simage=2146,160,c,right]As the campers watched, spellbound,the staff acted out the story of the Churban, from Simchas Beis Hashoeiva to Bar Kamtza being accidentally invited to a party, to the silence of the Chachamim and Bar Kamtza’s tattling to Caesar. From the Roman seige to the destruction, and ending off with the story of Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and Rabbi Yehoshua seeing a fox come out of the Kodesh Hakedoshim, the staff brought out the responsibility of our generation to bring Moshiach, and that we have a koach, like Rabbi Akiva, because out of darkness, comes a greater light.

Photos Have Campers Excited

Head Counselors at Gan Israel in Parksville, NY, are walking around camp grounds with photos that have campers at their best.

The head staff at Camp Gan Israel in Parksville, NY, came up with an incentive that has campers davening beautifully and strengthening their chassidishkeit.

A uniquely designed calendar for the coming Hebrew year of 5772 has the campers eagerly collecting photos of the Rebbe to fill it.

On each page of the calendar, there are spaces for pictures of the Rebbe which correspond to that day.

Each month has photos of the Rebbe corresponding to the special dates that appear in them – Jewish Yomim Tovim and special chassidic dates.

Davening, learning, and playing in a good manner earn the campers the chance to be awarded the photos with stickers which they apply to the calendar.

At the end of the summer, campers will be taking their calendar home for year-round inspiration.


Week in Review

The first week has gone, and all are scratching their heads, perplexed as to where it could have gone
so fast. But considering all the fun we had, who’s surprised it flew by. There were the usual, grand
speeches, and the unpacking and resettling of the bunkhouses. Then after
just a couple of days, the first trip of the month happened. This trip, later to be known as bowling,
involved the entire camp splitting into three groups, driving to a very colorful building, and last but most
importantly, rolling big heavy balls down a narrow, slippery floor, in an attempt to knock over some
very peaceful, upright, wooden obstacles. While this description may eliminate any semblance of
excitement otherwise felt when discussing or playing the above mentioned “bowling”, it was in fact a
great success and lots of fun, thanks to our dear E.C.A.D.s. I am looking forward to many more exciting trips and activities, as the second month, has only just begun.