School buses are already rumbling up and down the streets, taking children back to school after the summer break. As everyone seems to be packing in their last bits of seasonal fun, two girls—and their mothers—described an eight-day overnight program in Wisconsin that the girls attended a few weeks ago, organized by Camp Gan Israel of Chicago.

Founded almost 40 years ago by Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, of blessed memory, Gan Israel of Chicago has served generations of Jewish campers with parallel programs for boys and girls. In fact, 13-year-old Meira Groth, of Buffalo Grove, Ill., is a second-generation camper; her mother, Alina, attended in the early 1980s. Another mother-daughter duo is Anna and 10-year-old Emily Slezberg of Vernon Hills, Ill.

The eight-day overnight has been following the day-camp season for more than 20 years, and often serves to solidify the bonds forged and lessons taught in the day-camp programs earlier in the summer. The girls’ division is hosted by the B’nai B’rith Beber Camp in Mukwonago, Wis., as part of a unique partnership between the two camps.

Director Rabbi Schneur Scheiman explains that the program, which packs the punch of a full-length summer camp into one week, is perfect for beginners who want to ease into the sleep-away experience or children wishing to end their summers with a bang.

Q: Was it difficult sending your girls away to camp for the first time?

Anna: Before she went away for the first time, I was so afraid that Emily, who was only 8, wouldn’t be comfortable with the bigger girls since she was among the youngest campers. When I came to meet her at the bus after camp, I saw her face and she was so happy. I knew I made the right decision.

She went without knowing anyone at camp, but she made friends one-two-three, and now they keep up throughout the year with emails and phone calls.

Meira Groth is a second-generation camper; her mother attended back in the 1980s.
Meira Groth is a second-generation camper; her mother attended back in the 1980s.

Alina: I myself went to the eight-day overnight one year as a child and remember how much fun it was, so I knew I could send Meira and she would have a good time.

When I was a little girl, Gan Israel was a big part of my life. My family emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979, with just $90 per person. We were a family of four, so you can do the math. My parents worked very hard, and within two years they were able to purchase a home in Des Plaines, Ill. My dad loves to tell how he sat down with Rabbi Naftoly Hershkovich of Chabad and F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees from Eastern Europe). The rabbi asked him how much he thought he could pay for day camp. My dad told him a number, and that was it, we were in. That is emblematic of the Gan Israel approach; they are there to serve the children, no matter whom and no matter how.

I was 7 the first year and went back to day camp every year until I was too old for it.

Through Gan Israel, I met many people who introduced me to Judaism and helped me reclaim the heritage that my family had lost through the years of Communist repression, and truly created the Judaic foundation in my life. Without Gan Israel, it would not be as strong. It also gave me enough background that when I want to high school, I was able to go to a Jewish school. I would not be able to do it any other way. Everything I knew I got from camp, and I was able to use that to merge into a pretty standard curriculum.

As you can see, I felt very confident sending Meira away. It was like sending her to my own home.

Q: What was your favorite part of camp?

Emily: My favorite activities are archery, the water trampoline, praying and listening to stories.

Emily Slezberg, right, lists her favorite camp activities as archery, the water trampoline, praying and listening to stories. The stories are a hit across the board.
Emily Slezberg, right, lists her favorite camp activities as archery, the water trampoline, praying and listening to stories. The stories are a hit across the board.

Shabbat is really fun because we dress up and celebrate. At home, I light candles but here we do so much more, and we have a big meal on Friday night and another one on Shabbat day, which we don’t do at home. Also, you get to be with your friends and sing songs. I love the songs we learned in camp.

Meira: In day camp, you go on field trips and you do crafts. But when you go on the overnight, you really create connections—to G‑d, to the counselors and to the other campers. A major part of the camp was the stories. I go to a nondenominational day school, but I never get to experience stories like these about a long time ago and Jewish history.

Alina: That pretty much sums up how they teach. At Gan Israel, they teach through not teaching. They tell a story, which the girls enjoy, and they learn in the process.

Anna: The stories are a major thing for us as well. First thing I do when Emily comes back from camp is ask her to tell me all the stories she heard.

Meira: I also enjoyed the water. I love going out on the boat. On the boat, you let loose and you see the fun sides in everyone. You can feel the wind and look at nature. At the Beber campsite are several lily pads, which are an endangered plant. You need to tell people only to look and not to pick them. You also see animals. The lake is one of the best parts of camp.

Q: Will you be back in Camp Gan Israel next year?

Anna (speaking for everyone): That’s not even a question—of course!

The overnight experience is hosted by the B’nai B’rith Beber Camp in Mukwonago, Wis.—seen here in an aerial view—as part of a unique partnership.
The overnight experience is hosted by the B’nai B’rith Beber Camp in Mukwonago, Wis.—seen here in an aerial view—as part of a unique partnership.

Joel Bennett, director of operations at Beber Camp, discusses having Gan Israel campers and staff temporarily at the site.

Q: What’s it like for your camp to host another camp?

Joel: For us to have another Jewish group come and enjoy our facilities is just fantastic. It’s a great bonus for our staff, and we feel very good about the pluralistic nature of the Jewish community and our camp site.

Q: What is the division of labor between the two groups of staff?

Joel: We work together with them. Our kitchen staff works under their supervision, and all the meals are kosher to the highest standards. We primarily take care of the water programs, the climbing wall, crafts, outdoor adventure and other aspects. The Gan Israel counselors control the programming and care for the children all day.

Q: Seeing the children come year in and year out, what makes a lasting impression on you? What do you remember or take most from the different campers and their experiences?

Joel: I find it special to see kids expand their horizons and do things they would never do at home—for children to venture out at night, to master water-skiing or build another skill. That’s a “wow” moment for me.

For our staff, many of whom come from a more liberal background, it’s a pleasure for them to work with a population they may otherwise not be exposed to and see Judaism in a totally different way.