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.”