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Friday, September 1, 2000 | return to: national


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Chabad camps electrify many Jews, not just Lubavitch

by JULIE WIENER, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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GREENWICH, Conn. -- On the last day of the session at Camp Gan Israel, 10-year-old girls wearing tie-dyed T-shirts tell a visitor this is the "best camp in the world" and they wish it was an overnight camp rather than a day camp.

Parents of toddler campers at the Greenwich, Conn., camp rave about the nice counselors and ask the director to consider opening a year-round nursery school.

At a time when American Jewish camps are struggling to find Jewish counselors and few new camps are being built, day camps sponsored by this Chassidic stream of Judaism are a notable exception to the rule.

With 1,200 sites serving 210,000 children -- most of whom are not Orthodox -- Lubavitch camps are proliferating around the world. Of these, 500 camps are in the United States.

And while most other Jewish camps in the United States have had to import Israeli counselors and supplement their staff with non-Jewish counselors, the Chabad camps have had little difficulty recruiting enthusiastic Jewish counselors.

Most of them are Lubavitch teenagers from across North America who have just graduated from high school and are preparing to become teachers.

"We come here because we love kids and want to give them everything," said 17-year-old Mimi Deren, one of the Greenwich counselors.

Although the counselors are fervently religious, few of their charges are. The differences do not seem to bother the campers' families.

"They've really reached out to people in a warm way," said Camille Knoll, whose daughter just finished her third summer at "Gan Izzie," as the camp is affectionately known. "They do not at all pressure you."

The religious atmosphere at camp is fairly low-key. Campers give to tzedakah each day and have a Bible lesson, but also participate in a wide range of secular activities, such as swimming, arts and crafts and nature walks.

Children learn about the Jewish holidays and light Shabbat candles each Friday afternoon. But the songs they sing -- whether about tzedakah or Shabbat or simply camp traditions -- are often in English and to the tune of the "Flintstones" theme song or other well-known melodies.

Counselors dress modestly, in long-sleeved camp T-shirts with ankle-length denim skirts. Children may wear whatever they like and most of the mothers wear tank tops and shorts to pick up their children.

The kids seem genuinely enthusiastic about the Jewish aspects of the camp.

"It's a lot of fun to be with all Jewish people," 10-year-old Sarah Black said. Asked why, her friends standing nearby loudly whispered "davening," and Black said, "It's lots of fun to daven with other people."

Giggling, the girls began singing "Baruch atah adonai," Hebrew for "Blessed are you God."

Greenwich, a wealthy community within commuting distance of New York City, has an exclusive beach and meticulously maintained wooden-frame homes. Until recently, it had few Jews -- and even fewer observant ones.

Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America and the head of the federation system's "Renaissance and Renewal" pillar, said that Lubavitch's strength is in its "really committed people."

Chabad camps and other outreach institutions work because they do a "good job of developing activities that are not ideological, that give people a taste of Judaism."

"They don't demand a long-term commitment from you. They simply say, 'Come,'" Woocher said, adding that less observant Jews often see Lubavitch as "authentic Judaism."

However, said Woocher, Lubavitch institutions are certainly not the only Jewish camps and schools where "kids and families are enthused."

Nonetheless, they do seem to be sheltered from the most vexing problem facing liberal Jewish institutions: staff shortages.

And it's not because of salaries or perks.

Lubavitch emissaries, who generally commit to spending their entire lives in their outposts, are responsible for raising all their own funds. According to Lubavitch World Headquarters, the counselors earn $20 to $50 each week plus room and board.

"The key to their success is that they are obviously dedicated people who are not working under contract for wages, hours and fringe benefits," said Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a Jewish historian and visiting professor of the humanities at New York University.

Hertzberg said he has theological and political differences with the Lubavitch. But still he is an "unqualified admirer and great supporter."

The Lubavitch staff workers and counselors "are not like the young rabbinical students I meet who can't wait to get out in the field and get a first job which will carry with it a package of over $100,000," he said. "These are dedicated Jews."

For more JTA stories, go to http://www.jta.org


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