Postcards From Camp Gan Israel

by Rivka Chaya Berman - SILICON VALLEY, CA

July 7, 2005

The Gan Israel Day Camp network began its 40th summer with hundreds of camps around the globe. One of the largest and most dynamic networks of summer camps, a Google search on the words “Camp Gan Israel” yields 21 pages of Gan Israel camp websites from Contra Costa, CA, to Berlin and beyond.

But the venerable camp network is not without its competitors. Specialty camps – mountain climbing camp, overnight tennis camp, band leader camp, bike-n-hike touring camps – all compete for camper enrollment. Gan Israel camps around the world have innovated to keep Jewish children interested in their programs, which offer many children their only daylong immersion in a Jewish atmosphere. Spectacular overnights, celebrity sports figures, cute giveaways along with good old fashioned quality have made thousands of Jewish children choose a Gan Izzy summer this year.

Colorado Scores a Soccer Star

At Gan Israel of Westminster, CO, a member of the Colorado Rapids pro-soccer team, Guy Melamed, is teaching soccer skills and strategies. Melamed, who was born in Nofit, Israel, is known for his skills as a rock-solid defender who rarely gets beaten one-on-one.

Chabad of Westminster’s website,, brought Melamed to the Friday night services at the synagogue of Chabad representative Rabbi Benjy Brackman. “When Guy came here to be on the team, he was shocked to find anything Jewish going on for him in this part of Colorado,” said Rabbi Brackman. Now Melamed meets with Brackman for a weekly Torah class. “He is a really nice guy and works really well with the kids. It will be really exciting for them to play with a star.”

Silicon Valley Blasts Off

Down in Silicon Valley, CA, Camp Gan Israel of Sunnyvale does not offer a computer class: too redundant for children of California’s predominantly tech-geek workforce. Instead the campers at Gan Israel of Silicon Valley are setting off for an “Outer Space Mitzvah Race.” The 180 campers have been assigned bunk names reflect the stratospheric fun: Mitzvah Moons, Mezuzah Mars, Achdus (unity) Astronauts and Kosher Comets. “Some kids go to mountain camp, but they come back to us for different sessions,” said assistant director Rochi Silver. “The camp has a good reputation because it’s fun and well organized.”

Berlin’s Campers Stay the Course

Morel Moses stands out among the 90 campers in Gan Israel of Berlin, Germany. The daughter of an executive board member of Berlin’s Jewish community, Morel is too old to be a camper, too young to be a counselor. The solution: Morel’s a junior counselor. Counselors-in-training are a fixture of many camps, but Morel’s devotion to Gan Izzy is a milestone in the camp’s history. “Becoming a junior counselor gives young teenagers the opportunity to have responsibility and keeps them involved in the system. It slowly provides potential future leadership that’s so important for the future of Berlin’s Jewish community,” said Chabad’s representative in Berlin Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal.

The Berlin campers will be visiting a film-themed amusement park, but for Rabbi Teichtal the thrill won’t be found on the rides. Given Berlin’s history, “It’s nice to see all the kids--going around the park in their Gan Israel t-shirts--proud to be Jewish, singing Am Yisrael Chai at the top of their lungs on the roller coasters,” Rabbi Teichtal said.

Staten Island’s Trendy Giveaways

The cool factor at Gan Israel of Staten Island, NY, got a nod when counselors presented their campers with rubbery wristbands patterned after the top selling Lance Armstrong “Live Strong” bands. Emblazoned with the words “Camp Gan Israel,” the bands with their eye-catching tie-dye pattern are just one way the Staten Island staff looks out to reach Jewish children. “Our campers come from all sorts of backgrounds,” said head counselor Chani Weiss. “The bracelet shows them that we know what’s cool, what’s happening right now. It’s the same thing that we try to do in camp – to teach kids that being proud of being Jewish is always in style.”

Halifax’s Campers in Training

Mondays and Fridays find the youngest bunk at Camp Gan Israel of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, burbling with baby babble. On those days moms, dads and caretakers bring their two-year olds to camp for a day of fun with the older campers.

Bassie Feldman, Chabad’s representative in Halifax, came up with the tiny tot program in June as her regular “Mommy and Me” program ended. Parents pined for their weekly dose of Jewish oriented socialization so Feldman opened her program to diaper-clad campers and their parents. “One mom was overwhelmed when she walked in and saw the other twenty campers all singing Jewish songs,” said Feldman.

In Halifax, where the Jewish population hovers around 2,000, Camp Gan Israel is very popular. Feldman estimates that her camp, which is open to children ages three to ten, attracts 80% of the area’s Jews in that age range. There are no Jewish day schools in Halifax, said Feldman. “Camp is the only time during the year that the kids have an all-day Jewish program.”

This summer, Camp Gan Israel of Halifax has also attracted a cosmopolitan counselor. Shternie Schildkraut, 18, flew in to Halifax from Haifa, Israel, to assist Feldman, her cousin, this summer. Though Schildkraut, an ex-New Yorker, is young, she’s had years of experience working with children and is bringing a bit of Israel to the distant corner of Canada. She’s added new Hebrew songs to the camp’s morning repertoire. After "graduating" Camp Gan Israel, many campers will be moving on to the local Zionist oriented sleep-away camp. Schildkraut’s Hebrew language skills – along with her accent-free fluent English – are much appreciated.

Every Gan Israel camp has a distinctive approach to attracting – and keeping – campers. Gan Israel of Omaha, NE, offers Tae Kwon Do. Simi Valley, CA, presents a professional science program. Across the globe, the creative programs offered to keep Gan Israel camps vibrant are as varied as their locations.

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