It was only seven months ago, on the morning of December 21, 2010, that Rabbi Zalman and Miriam Gerber discovered their happy, energetic two-year-old son, Sholom DovBer Gerber, lifeless in his bed. The toddler had gone to sleep the night before, and never woken up.

The youngest of nine children, Sholom DovBer’s passing was a devastating blow to his family and the suburban Philadelphia Jewish community where his parents direct Chabad-Lubavitch of Penn Wynne in Wynnewood.

“It was the most shocking thing ever, a two-year-old little boy who always had a beautiful smile on his face,” says community leader Gary Erlbaum. “Zalman and Miriam Gerber are revered by our community, and we all suffered with them.”

But Erlbaum, who has known the family for 20 years, wasn’t surprised when soon after Sholom DovBer’s passing, the family began thinking of ways to honor his memory by spreading light in the world.

The Gerbers, who direct Gan Israel of Greater Philadelphia, a summer day camp for boys and girls from kindergarten to Grade 8, decided to start with the camp experience, determined to bring their plans to fruition by summertime. At the Gan Israel Evening of Inspiration & Tribute to Sholom Ber Gerber on May 15, the couple officially dedicated the Sholom Community Projects, a cluster of three Gan Israel/Chabad initiatives established in memory of their son and his ability to make people smile.

The initiatives include the Sholom Playground, Project Sholom, and the Sholom Fund.

The Sholom Playground is a colorful new addition to the Gan Israel campus, specially designed to promote not only laughter and play, but lessons in kindness and compassion. Signs throughout the structure cheerfully remind children to include others in their play, take turns on the swings, and let someone go in front of them on the slide.

Just as the Gerbers hoped, the Sholom Playground was up and ready for the first day of camp on June 27, and children of all ages are now enjoying it immensely.

“The campers love the new playground,” says Sara Goldman, 19, a counselor to 1st and 2nd grade girls. “Whenever we have a free minute, they ask to go to the playground for a little bit.

“There used to be a wooden playground here,” adds Goldman, who is spending her second summer as a counselor at Gan Israel, “but this is so much more exciting for the campers.”

Within the next few weeks, the playground will receive some finishing touches, including a “Shabbat Playhouse” and a “Grocery Store” with kosher play food.

A sign reminds children to take turns.
A sign reminds children to take turns.

The second initiative, Project Sholom, is also permeating the daily camp experience by incorporating “Tools for Happiness” into each day of the week. On Monday, counselors present a kindness skill of the week, such as making a new camper feel welcome, and pass out cards to each camper describing the skill in detail. Campers attach the cards to their own special key chain, their personal collection of happiness tools.

Each day of the week, campers practice the week’s skill in a different way. On Monday they make it happen, Tuesday they try again, Wednesday they write or draw about it, Thursday they talk about it, Friday they fill out a form on the topic, and on the Sabbath, they’re supposed to share it with their own families.

Miriam Gerber explains that the projects encapsulate the spirit of her son.

“When you do something in someone’s memory, you try to think of something they stood for,” she says. “He was a very happy boy, always smiling and laughing, making people laugh. He would use the word ‘happy’ a lot. When he stopped crying, he’d say ‘Now I’m happy!’ His doll’s name was Happy Baby. And others always said that being around Sholom DovBer made them happy.”

So the Gerbers decided the best way to promote the happiness their son possessed was to teach children about the path to true happiness: treating others with kindness and respect.

“People are talking a lot of about anti-bullying, but you also need to teach children positive skills of how to be nice to somebody,” says Gerber. “How do you start a conversation with somebody you don’t know? What are active ways to include others in your group? If these ideas are not tangible, they’re not realistic. Kids need to learn them step-by-step.”

The initiative has so far garnered tremendous positive feedback from students, staff and parents.

“I’ve seen a major improvement in the girls,” says Goldman. “Our lessons on how to start a conversation with someone have really gotten the girls to open up to one another and meet new people.”

The Gerbers hope to ultimately extend the program to local Jewish day schools and maybe even beyond.

The third initiative, the Sholom Fund, will fund the development of year round Jewish heritage youth programs that promote Jewish pride and identity.

For the Gerbers, the Sholom Community Projects are their way of making the most out of Sholom DovBer’s short but beautiful life.

“As the saying goes, ‘When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,’ ” says Zalman Gerber. “You make something positive out of the pain and you do your best.”

The rabbi points to teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, as a constant motivation.

“Each difficulty in life,” explains Gerber, “challenges us to approach things in a whole new way.”