Jan 10, 2017
Dating Comment Becomes a Reality
When Gershon and Devorah Sandler were dating, he mentioned a dream he envisioned; that's only one part of their story.
By Nechamie Margolis
Jeff's mother was worried about his waning Jewish identity. He hadn't done anything "Jewish" since going to Hebrew school as a child in their Conservative Temple. "Go to Israel," she urged.
With an itinerary in hand to tour South America, Jeff shrugged off her urgings. But he felt his mother's words following him as he trekked through Machu Piccu in Peru, the swamps of Bolivia, and the Galapagos of Ecuador.
Everywhere he went, he met Israelis backpacking, the lively sound of Hebrew filling the air. He took it as a sign, and when he finished the next ski season, he gathered his backpack and flew to Israel.
Jeff thought he'd find the spirituality there that he'd been seeking all through college, through the swamps and mountains of his traveling.
But the kibbutz he landed in sorely disappointed. Instead of Friday night services there was a wild disco party for the young people of neighboring kibbutzim. Fun? Yes. But not what he was looking for.
"Let's go to Tzfas," his friend Sam said one night, sitting in the kibbutz cafeteria. "They have cool Rabbis, good food and interesting classes. And the best part is, if we sign up for the classes, we can stay at the youth hostel for free!"
That was the clincher. Jeff didn't have much in the way of spare cash. They made their way to Tzfas in time for Simchas Torah. At the entrance of Ascent Youth Hostel, he was almost knocked over by towel-bearing young men.
"Hey!" one called to Jeff. "You want to come to the mikvah?"
"Sure," Jeff said. He didn't know what a mikvah was, but the towels gave him a clue. "Do I need a bathing suit?"
No, said the young man.
Jeff raced after the young men navigating the hilly streets, psyching himself up for an interesting experience. Until they came to a cemetery... What had he gotten himself into?
It was too late to turn back, and Jeff immersed in the frigid waters of the Arizal's mikvah. It came with a guarantee–you would do teshuvah in your lifetime...
Jeff danced, ate, and drank a few l'chaims when Simchas Torah began. He didn't know much about Torah, but tossing down a few drinks? He thought he'd perfected that in college.
As he danced, his mind went back to his Conservative Temple, where the rabbi danced with the Torah, and everyone watched, the children halfheartedly waved their flags, little apples attached to the top.
Nothing half-hearted here.
Then Rabbi Mordechai Siev (a.k.a. Big Moe) approached Jeff. He was a baal teshuvah who used to play college football. He'd lost a few inches over the years but was still built like a player.
He lifted Jeff in the air. "You're a good Jew," he boomed.
Jeff always looked back at that moment as transformational. "He didn't just shake my body, he shook my soul," he said later. That hug, that pure moment of joy, that total acceptance, inspired him to learn more, to transform his life, one step at a time.
Jeff finished his year in Israel, learning Torah in Jerusalem and returning to Tzfas as often as possible. Then he joined his good friend Sam who first encouraged him to come to Tzfas, in Yeshiva Tiferes Bachurim in Morristown, NJ.
When Sam got engaged, Jeff's parents came to Morristown for the l'chaim. They'd met Sam's parents in Israel and it was a good opportunity to see Jeff's yeshiva first-hand. Although Jeff's mother had initially pushed him to develop his Jewish identity, now she worried he had taken it too far.
Her fears were confirmed when she saw the mechitzah dividing the women from the men. "Why don't you boys go have fun," she said, voice laced with sarcasm.
"Hey, mom," Jeff said. "Why don't you use the time to find me a wife?" He was only half-joking.
A couple of hours later, Jeff's father was ready to go. Surprisingly, his mother was not.
"A few more minutes," she signaled from her side of the divider. A few minutes turned into half an hour. Finally, she reluctantly joined her husband to leave. Jeff walked his parents outside. There they met Rabbi Dovid Dick, Jeff's Rabbi. "So when are you going to marry off my son?" his father asked.
"We're working on it," the rabbi said.
"I already found someone for Jeff," his mother interrupted. They all stopped short.
"Yes, really. She's a dressmaker from South America."
The next morning Rabbi Dick called Rabbi Shloma Majeski from Machon Chana. A little confusion ensued–nobody knew of a dressmaker. But eventually they realized it was Deby Moszel, a fashion design graduate, newly arrived from Argentina. It took another six months till Deby felt ready to date, but then it didn't take long before they announced their engagement.
"Now you won't have any typical mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issues with my wife," Jeff teased his mother. "After all, you picked her!"
And when it came time for Jeff, now Gershon, and Deby, now Devorah, to figure out their mission in life, there were no doubts.
Gershon had taught survival skills in Camp Gan Israel of Parksville, NY, for four summers, 2001-2005. He had years of experience working in both secular and Lubavitch camps and wanted to combine the best of both as director of an overnight camp.
Devorah can pinpoint the spot where Gershon spoke to her on a date about his dreams of directing a camp. She didn't understand the concept at first; like most of her peers in Argentina, her family vacationed at the beach for the summer. But before long she got sold on the idea, and they learned many of the Rebbe's talks about camp.
They loved the story of a delegation of Hillel students who asked the Rebbe in yechidus if he found American Jews to be a disappointment. "Absolutely not," the Rebbe said. "If you look at the current [inadequate] state of Jewish education in America, it is amazing Jews do anything. In Europe they were able to tell a Yid what to do. In America you can't tell a Yid what to do, but you can show them how to do everything Jewish."
The Sandlers headed west and started their first overnight camp in Running Springs, CA, on behalf of Chabad of California. A few years later they returned to the east coast and started a new camp, renting grounds in Philadelphia, living in a tiny trailer with their family for the summer. Before long they outgrew the space. They needed beautiful grounds with woods, streams, and a lake to attract campers from all over the world.
Almost miraculously they found the perfect campsite in Pennsylvania, now home of Camp Gan Israel in the Poconos, a one-month overnight camp for not-yet-Torah-observant Jewish girls, ages 8-16. Their first big donation was sent on Yud Shvat to 770. It arrived at their house on Chof Bais Shvat. A couple years later they closed on the property on Zayin Adar. The property is exactly 77.0 miles from 770.
"The only time the Rebbe left New York was to visit camps," Gershon said. "We find that very significant."
Positive feedback came back after the first summer, with campers coming to CGI of the Poconos from Budapest, Paris, Panama City and all over the United States.
Devorah always remembers the time she visited Israel before she was frum. It was a steaming hot summer day and she wore shorts. And yet there was no pressure put on her to dress differently. She would learn at her own pace.
Eventually, while in college, her Shluchim, Rabbi Mendel and Rivkah Cunin, invited her into their home and into their lives, and again without any pressure whatsoever, in the most gradual and natural way, she became Torah-observant.
It's one reason they don't enforce a dress code in their camp. For that matter, they don't enforce much of anything; counselors with a balance of fun and strong values serve as role models that the campers quickly want to emulate.
"I was drawn to Yiddishkeit because of a moment of pure joy," Gershon said. "There was never any pressure involved. It was feeling the beauty of Yiddishkeit, and being embraced physically and spiritually.
"We seek to give that perfect moment of joy to the campers in our care, that moment that will awaken the Jewish spark and encourage the children to go home and learn more," Gershon said. "It's like that hug, but it lasts a full month."
Camp Gan Israel in the Poconos offers a top-of-the-line summer experience for not-yet-frum girls 9-14 years old and frum girls 15 & 16 years old. For more info visit www.CGIPoconos.org.