A Tale of Two Camps


by Fay Greene Kranz - LUBAVITCH HEADQUARTERS, NY

August 22, 2004

There are hundreds of them around the world, with tens of thousands of campers. When the sun is at its zenith in every major city and on every continent, the summer camps of Chabad shine their light on yet another generation of Jewish children.

The Gan Israel camps span a diversity of cultures, languages and regions, extending from Alaska to Florida and from Australia to Zaire. But no matter how disparate, they are--like some spiritual Starbucks--all alike in their trademark spirit, joy and Jewish pride that permeate the Gan Israel camp experience.

Camp Gan Israel in Mission Viejo, California, is in a relatively new planned community that was built around a man-made lake, located between San Diego and Long Beach. A symbol of the carefree and exuberant la dolce vita in the United States, Mission Viejo is a far remove from Berlin, Germany, which evokes images of unspeakable horror and a painful Jewish past.

Yet for the children who attended Camp Gan Israel in these respective cities, these differences were negligible. Berlin or Mission Viejo, Camp Gan Israel gave them a joyful, enriching and memorable summer experience.

Ilona Sugarman of Mission Viejo enrolled her daughter Samantha, 9, for a two week session. “On the last day of camp, she sat in the car and started crying, she didn’t want to leave,” said Sugarman. “We had to promise to enroll her again after a week and she’s back there now and loving it. The camp counselors are the most magnificent human beings I’ve ever met in my life. We’re not orthodox, we’re conservative and reform, but it’s been such a wonderful experience, we’ll be back next year for sure.”

Rabbi Yehuda Tiechtal, director of Chabad in Berlin says that his counselors come from the U.S. and Switzerland and develop such close relationships with their campers that they maintain contact with them all through the year. “One of our counselors from Geneva, sent her campers invitations to her recent wedding,” said Tiechtal. “That’s the level of connectedness. To our counselors, camp is not a job, it’s a labor of love.”

Rabbi Zalman and Bassie Marcus, directors of the Chabad Jewish Center in Mission Viejo have been in California for nine years and started their Camp Gan Israel three years ago. “We’ve had phenomenal success,” says Bassie Marcus. “We have close to 200 children enrolled this summer.”

Marcus attributes their success to the fact that "we work hard to make the camp attractive to every Jew, even those who have no Jewish affiliation at all. “Before we began our program, another Jewish camp tried to start at the same location, but they only enrolled 18 children and couldn’t open. So they asked us to try and we managed to recruit 130 children that first year.”

“We have a program that’s cutting edge and even if people do not subscribe to the whole Chabad philosophy, they still send us their kids because they know they’re getting the best camp experience.”

Rabbi Tiechtal and his wife Leah started Camp Gan Israel in Berlin seven years ago with an enrollment of eight children. “It was the first major program that we did in Berlin,” said Leah, “and people tried to discourage us. They said, ‘this is Germany’ and it’s not the style of people to express their Jewish identity in such an open way. There were no Jewish summer camps at all.”

The Tiechtals were more than up for the challenge, and this summer there are 90 children enrolled.

“People began to realize that camp is much more than entertainment,” says Rabbi Tiechtal. “It was the beginning of young people expressing their open pride in being Jewish. Many families actually became transformed through their involvement in our camp. In fact, just recently, one of our youngest campers taught her parents how to celebrate Shabbat and now the entire family is Shabbat observant.”

Being Jewish in Berlin is to always live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Rabbi Tiechtal is always cognizant of the city’s history and tries to make a statement with some of the camp excursions. A recent trip to the Reichstag, the German Parliament and the infamous headquarters of the Nazi party was an emotional journey for the campers and staff. “There is a famous picture of Hitler standing on the steps of this building, so we lined up our children on the same steps and we recited Torah verses and sang Jewish songs. It was an antidote and a statement. Where there used to be evil and darkness, there is now light.”

During this past summer, Tiechtal took the camp to the modern Sony Center located in the "new" Berlin, where the Berlin Wall used to stand. “It used to be a no-man’s land,” said Tiechtal, “but now it’s beautiful and welcoming to all. An old man came over to me and said, ‘I’m from New York and have not been back to Germany for 50 years. I can’t believe my eyes when I see so many Yiddishe kinderlach walking on the street wearing yarmulkes with pride. This is the greatest revenge we can take on Hitler. This is the greatest sign of Am Yisroel Chai.’”

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