On the second-to-the-last day of camp, Leah Blecher, director of Camp Gan Israel of The Woodlands in Texas, heard a ruckus outside her office. As the noise grew louder, she could no longer ignore it. Opening her door, 22 boys and girls ranging in age from 4 to 10 years old—and their dedicated counselors—greeted her with chants and handmade signs.

“Camp is life!”

“Don’t take away my life!”

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“Keep camp!”

For these children, three weeks of camp each year is simply not enough. While the future of this camp in the Houston area is not in jeopardy, the kids wanted to show their love for it in a vocal way.

Counselor Esther Procaccia, 17, of Brooklyn, N.Y., says the idea came right from them.

“These are bright children aware of the world around them. Still, I’ve been a camp counselor for three years,” she tells Chabad.org, “and I’ve never seen anything like this. To know how much the experience meant to them touched me deeply. I held back tears and couldn’t help but grin at the kids. We want our children to be voices for the positive. This experience highlighted what’s meaningful and important in their lives. What’s better than standing up for their love of Judaism?”

For some of the kids—and their parents—who participate in Camp Gan Israel, the experience is their only Jewish connection all year. When it’s over, they look forward to the upcoming summer, facing nearly 10 months of school until the joy of camp returns.

Rock-climbing off-site
Rock-climbing off-site

Natalie Bibi, 35, originally from Jerusalem, has three children who attend: Liad, 5; Shiraz, 7; and, Naor, 9. “Camp Gan Israel allows my children to feel a deep connection with other Jews. The experience is extremely important to us. They learn not only the prayers, but how to pray and why we pray. The fact that they’ve retained this information and want more is special for our family.”

“This connection is so important,” insists Blecher, co-director of Chabad of The Woodlands with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Blecher. “Many of these children are the only Jews in their grade. Camp helps them form tight bonds with other Jewish children. Two of our middle-school girls met four years ago at CGI, formed a close friendship and continued seeing each other throughout the year. Now, they’ll be attending the same middle school. Three weeks a year can be the foundation for life-long friends.”

For others, it becomes the impetus to participate in other Jewish experiences, including High Holiday services and Hebrew school. Explains Blecher: “The Woodlands is a beautiful place to live with a small, but growing Jewish community. When my husband and I moved here on shlichus five years ago, Camp Gan Israel was one of our first programs. Immediately, participants wanted more, so we created a Hebrew school. Because of camp, our school enrollment increases every year.”

Crafts projects for boys and girls
Crafts projects for boys and girls

‘Immersed in a Way of Life’

Among the camp’s many offerings are two that Blecher has shared with other directors around the country. The first one speaks to the hearts (and stomachs) of not only campers, but the counselors and community members who judge Camp Gan Israel “Chopped!”—a cooking competition based on a Food Network show of the same name.

On tap: cooking, food science and nutrition
On tap: cooking, food science and nutrition

This experience was the brainchild of “The Smoothie Lady,” also known as Mira Dessy, 55, a native of Sherman, Conn. She runs the cooking program, teaching children about food science, eating healthy and mixing ingredients to create delicious food.

As far as the competition goes, “campers received a basket with three ingredients: corn flakes, cinnamon and sunflower seeds. They also have the opportunity to raid the pantry to create their special dish. We didn’t make it easy. Hot sauce, mustard and other non-dessert ingredients were options, but the children learned to be mindful of taste and what flavors work well together. They then shared their inspiration. One group chose apples and honey to add to their three ingredients, drawing on the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah to create their dessert.”

The second distinctive feature focuses on community participation. Irv Lichtman, a psychology professor at Houston Community College and a resident of The Woodlands for more than 30 years, participated in the camp challah bake and Shabbat celebration. He says the experience took him back to his childhood.

“Being with the children was inspiring,” he says. “I loved the way the counselors engaged with the children. I loved the songs we sang, the games we played. And I love even more that these children are growing up and getting a fantastic Jewish education. They’re immersed in a Jewish way of life that’s beautiful.”

Swimming, also off-site
Swimming, also off-site

Parent Yaffa Doushy, 35, and originally from Mexico City, expresses similar sentiment. For her 5-year-old son Nadav, camp represents a huge part of their Jewish life.

When she learned about the kids rallying on behalf of its importance, she wished she could have joined them.

“Other camp experiences Nadav has had pale in comparison to Camp Gan Israel,” says Doushy. “Leah is amazing. The counselors are amazing. I’ve learned from them—not only about Jewish life, but about parenting.”

She notes that the only downside is that it’s just three weeks long. “Every day,” she says, “when I said good-bye to Nadav, I knew it would be another fun-filled, action-packed, exhausting, happy day immersed in Judaism.”

A little science goes a long way
A little science goes a long way
Community participation is key; here, people of all ages join the kids in making challah.
Community participation is key; here, people of all ages join the kids in making challah.
A visit to an air trampoline park
A visit to an air trampoline park
Rabbi Mendel and Leah Blecher, co-directors of Chabad of The Woodlands, and family
Rabbi Mendel and Leah Blecher, co-directors of Chabad of The Woodlands, and family