By Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn, Ottawa, Canada
I want to get the word out. I feel an obligation to the world of Lubavitch. I saw it with my own eyes so I have to make sure that parents and children know about this hidden gem.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend a Shabbos in Chabad’s newest overnight camp, Camp Gan Israel of Toronto.
I was excited to be able to spend a Shabbos with my eleven year old son who was experiencing sleep away camp for the very first time. But little did I know how inspired and impressed I would be from the camp.
The camp is located in picturesque Halliburton, Ontario, a city surrounded by dozens of lakes and forests. The campgrounds, sitting on it’s own beautiful lake, is truly magnificent. Outside, there is always that fresh and peaceful feeling. Besides for the children shouting the Pesukim during line up, or their lively bentching after the meals it is serenely quiet.
The facilities are all recently built and look brand new. The spacious bunkhouses are equipped with comfortable beds and modern bathrooms and showers. The various sports fields are well maintained and provide for endless athletic activities for the campers. The Shul and dining room (attached to a truly state of the art kitchen) are perfect for camp, large, bright and always clean. The pristine lake is not only used for swimming but for all sorts of boating activities.
My son tells me that the children are taken on exciting trips every week, in addition to those lucky bunks who win Shabbos competition or bunk competition who go on their own fun excursions. Like all great camps, there was an outdoor overnight, color war and much more.
There was terrific enthusiasm over Shabbos. I couldn’t help but get swept up with the lively dancing and singing during Kabalas Shabbos. The warm singing during the Shabbos meals was contagious. The slow songs had the children putting their arms across each others shoulders in brotherhood while the fast songs had them jump onto their chairs with passionate innocent excitement.
Now as you read this article, I know what you are thinking. So what? This is exactly what goes on in any other Lubavitch camp all over the world. Why would this inspire me to write this article?
Here is what really impressed me and took my breath away. It was the care, the sensitivity, the concern that permeated the camp.
There was tangible ahavas yisrael that existed between the campers. They didn’t view one another as anything but fellow chassidim. You could see how they gently encouraged one another to sing a little louder during davening.
You could see it in the way they played as a team never demeaning a bunk mate who may not have the same athletic skill set. you could see it in the way they helped each other during clean up. You could see it in the way they shared their nosh, their books and Jewish magazines.
The children have this unique ahavas yisroel because they are inspired by their counselors, their learning teachers and head staff. The staff have a chush in sensitivity. They make sure that no camper is lost. They treat each camper as an individual. They are able to capture each campers individual skills and talents and they help them thrive. They ensure that each camper is happy, making them feel better about themselves.
My son’s counselors, Mendel Wuensch and Mendy Marinovsky, despite their relatively young age impressed me with their mature approach to chinuch. In my conversation with them they were able to perfectly describe my son’s character. They were able to enlighten me on creative methods they use to involve him and include him and make him feel special.
As an example, I was shocked when my son told me that one of his favorite parts of camp was playing sports. Now, I know that my son is no athlete. In fact, before he left to camp I was very concerned about how he would manage during sports activities considering how little he likes to play and is not very good at most of the games. Despite all this, somehow, his counselors manage to get him involved and indeed have him enjoy playing sports.
As I was leaving camp and saying good bye to Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, Head Shliach of Ontario and founder of the camp, I commented on how impressed I was with the success of the camp and particularly by the sensitivity and care that permeated the camp’s atmosphere. With his characteristic humility he credited the dedicated staff for all of the success.
Rabbi Grossbaum is right. As I mentioned earlier, the staff were truly incredible. Their chassidishkeit, their dedication, their maturity, their concern for every camper is legendary. But, I am convinced that the inspiration for the staff to behave in such a way comes from the example set by the directors and married staff in camp. Namely, Rabbi and Mrs. Zalman Grossbaum, Rabbi and Mrs. Itchy Grossbaum, Camp Directors, Rabbi and Mrs. Yisrael Goldstein, Camp Rabbi and Medic and Rabbi and Mrs. Manis Okunov, Camp Chefs.
They were shining examples of dedicated sensitivity. Among some of the examples, I saw Rabbi Z. Grossbaum farbrenging with the older campers gently and kindly inspiring them to lead more chassidishe lives. I saw Mrs. E. Grossbaum running around on Sunday morning personally making sure each kid had whipped cream on their cocoa. (There are waiters, but she cares).
I saw Rabbi I. Grossbaum and his wife Mrs. G. Grossbaum interacting with the campers as if they were their own children, comforting a camper who missed home and making sure every camper had enough to eat. (That is besides for the enormous responsibility they have with directing every aspect of camp). I saw Rabbi Y. Goldstein gently and responsibly administering medication to the children, comforting a child who wasn’t feeling well and wisely advising the counselors on all sorts of personal issues.
This creates the perfect chain. The Directors serve as breathing examples to the staff of how a chassidishe person ought to treat someone else. The staff absorb this message and treat the campers with love and concern. As such, the staff serve as a constant reminder to the children of how to positively incorporate ahavas yisrael in their day to day lives and treat their fellow campers with respect and consideration.
Oh, but I do have one complaint. I came to camp thinking I would lose some weight over the weekend. I was shocked by the quantity and quality of food. It didn’t feel like camp food. It felt like I was at a country club. Who ever heard of seven dips and salads to go along with the gefilte fish? Or ice cream for dessert? Or bottles of soda at each table for the shabbos meal? The food was also delicious. I was surprised when my daughter who never eats chicken said it was the best chicken she ever ate. Maybe, that explains why my son still has so much money left over in the canteen. The camp food is just too good.
Well, I guess the weight loss will have to wait. You know what they say, nothing can be perfect.