NEW YORK, Aug. 22 (JTA) — On the last day of the session at Camp Gan Israel in Greenwich, Conn., 10-year-old girls wearing blue-and-green, tie- dyed T-shirts tell a visitor this is the “best camp in the world” and they wish it was an overnight rather than a day camp.
Parents of toddler campers at the camp, known affectionately as “Gan Izzie,” 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 — despite studies showing Jewish camp plays a key role in forming positive Jewish identity — day camps sponsored by this Chasidic 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 Lubavitch have had little difficulty recruiting enthusiastic Jewish counselors.
Most of them are Lubavitch teen-agers 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 Mimi Deren, 17, one of the Greenwich counselors.
Although the counselors are fervently Orthodox, 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 Israel. “They do not at all pressure you.”
Dina Jones, whose twin sons were first-year campers this summer, said the religious differences between her — an Israeli who is “not a religion person” — and the camp was “kind of a concern” at first.
But after speaking with Maryashie Deren, the spirited young camp director, Jones said, “she never let me feel it was an issue.”
“I feel comfortable coming here,” added Jones. “I don’t need to change to be here.”
The religious atmosphere at camp is fairly low-key. Campers give to tzedakah, or charity, each day and have a Bible lesson, but also participate in a wide range of secular activities, like 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 as often in English and to the tune of the “Flintstones” theme song or other well-known melodies as they are in Hebrew.
Counselors dress modestly but 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 enthused about the Jewish aspects of the camp.
“It’s a lot of fun to be with all Jewish people,” said 10-year-old Sarah Black. 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.”
Drew Fisher, a 14-year-old junior counselor who had his Bar Mitzvah at a Reform temple, said he started working at the camp because he wanted a job, not because of the Jewish aspect. He helps the counselors take care of the toddlers.
However, the fact “that it’s Jewish made it better,” he said, adding that he has now started “taking up new Jewish customs like blessing your food.”
Greenwich, a wealthy community within commuting distance from New York, has an exclusive beach and meticulously maintained wooden frame homes. Until recently, it had few Jews — and even fewer observant ones.
Greenwich parents say they like the Jewish aspect of the camp, but the first thing they note is how much their children love the counselors, who frequently hug the children and are credited with staying positive even when dealing with discipline problems.
As her grandchildren prepared for the closing program, Marlie Zucker observed, “I’ve been here an hour and none of the kids here are crying.”
One of her grandsons, said Zucker, was in special education classes at school, but is doing so well at Gan Israel that his father is talking to the school about switching him to regular classes.
Chabad’s success at recruiting counselors parallels its general success at cultivating a committed group of leaders able to appeal to less observant Jews.
There are approximately 3,700 Lubavitch emissary couples, like Deren and her husband, Rabbi Yossi Deren, in communities throughout the world, many of which have few other Jewish, particularly Orthodox, institutions.
In addition to the camps, the emissaries offer Bible study classes, religious services and are enrolling a growing number of children — 250,000 at last count, according to Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn — in 350 Hebrew schools around the country.
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, despite their “air of exotica that stands out,” 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-$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 serious theological and political differences with the Lubavitch. But still he is an “unqualified admirer and great supporter.”
“They 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 not professionals. These are dedicated Jews.”