Zeesy Gurevitch, a 16-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., cannot contain her excitement. For the first time ever, she will travel far from home without her parents to spend six weeks with eight friends in Marietta, Ga. But it won’t be a complete vacation. Like thousands of other teens who fan out to hundreds of cities across the globe to serve as counselors in Chabad-Lubavitch Gan Israel day camps, they will volunteer to help educate and nurture children they have never met.

Founded in the early 1950s by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and named for Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, hundreds of Gan Israel day camps and dozens of overnight camps now operate in places ranging from Thailand to Texas—and just about every sizable Jewish community in between.

The Rebbe taught that a camp experience has the potential to energize and inspire in a way that the structure and schedule of the winter months do not allow. “Come the summer recess, and your soul can now breathe more freely and more fully, for you are then released from those other studies and occupations . . . to give your soul a chance to fortify herself and ‘take a deep breath’ for the school period ahead,” the Rebbe wrote to children in 1974.

For Gurevitch, this summer will offer her the chance to interact with children who did not grow up in religious homes, and she insists that she is up to the challenge. “More than just giving them a good time, we will need to work hard to make Judaism fun and exciting.”

According to Rabbi Leibel Fine, who directs the Camp Gan Israel-Dollard Jewish Day Camp in Canada, it is the enthusiasm and professionalism of the counselors that set his establishment apart. “They are excited, they work hard, they love the kids, and the children really take well to them.”

In the words of 9-year-old Sophie Wugalter, who spent last summer at Fine’s camp, “I love them.” Her father, Ian, echoes the sentiment, explaining that he and his wife had signed up their two children in three camps, unsure where they would feel the most comfortable. “The kids chose Gan Israel, and we were thrilled. We were very happy with the staff. We knew that our kids were safe and having a good time. Everything was well-run. They were even careful about Sophie’s gluten allergy.”

Camper and counselor at Camp Gan Israel-Dollard Jewish Day Camp
Camper and counselor at Camp Gan Israel-Dollard Jewish Day Camp

For many of these teens, being a camp counselor is the first extended experience of what will become a lifelong occupation—serving other Jews as Chabad emissaries—and that kind of professionalism is no accident. Gurevitch says she and her friends have been planning for and thinking about the summer for months. Since so many of her classmates will be serving as day-camp counselors, her school, Beth Rivkah High School in Brooklyn, has prepared a special syllabus of Chassidic teachings pertinent to their upcoming positions as role models, caregivers, friends and teachers.

Centralized training program for counselors

On a larger scale, Camp Gan Israel Central—a project of Chabad’s central Shluchim office—hosts an annual Camp Training Conference, where a team of educators and professionals train future Gan Israel counselors, equipping them to deal with hot-button topics such as bullying, abuse, maintaining proper camper-counselor relations, and other issues of decorum. Shlomo Rabin, who founded CGI Central, says the purpose of the conference is to supplement whatever training each individual camp is offering. “With over 550 staff in attendance last year, and hundreds more online, we were able to bring in professionals that most camps would never be able to afford on their own.”

Rabbi Dovid Weinbaum, director of Camp Gan Israel of Town of Mount Royal and Ville Saint-Laurent in Canada, says his staff trains with CGI Central, and that he adds his own instruction in CPR, first aid and other pertinent topics on an ongoing basis.

Weinbaum says that in addition to training, it is crucial to keep his staff happy and well-cared for throughout the summer. “Many of them have never been to Canada before, so for two months my wife and I become mom and dad for 30 teens. We make sure that they eat well, sleep well and have a good time.”

At sessions like this one on bullying, counselors receive materials and training on how to pleasantly and effectively instill positive values in young campers.
At sessions like this one on bullying, counselors receive materials and training on how to pleasantly and effectively instill positive values in young campers.

Like Fine, he notes that the success of his program is directly linked to the success of his staff, citing the example of a child who came from an extremely volatile home environment and was afraid to go to camp. Over the summer, his counselor built a relationship with the boy, and they now speak weekly by phone.

Rabbi Avremi Schapiro, a longtime counselor and now the director of Camp Gan Israel of Milwaukee, Wis., says post-camp followup can sometimes be even more potent than what happens during the summer. In fact, he just returned from Mexico, where he attended the wedding of a onetime camper with whom he maintained a strong connection for more than a decade.

Such lasting ties remain for even the youngest set. Adina Kaplan, whose children attend Junior Gan Israel Day Camp in Skokie, Ill., says whenever she drives by the camp building, her son bounces up and down in his car seat and yells out, “There’s my camp! When does camp start?”