With summer in full swing, thousands of Jewish children across the northern hemisphere are exploring their heritage – and working up a sweat – at scores of camps affiliated with Camp Gan Israel, the Chabad-Lubavitch network of day-long programs and sleep-away camps serving communities large and small.

Since the first Camp Gan Israel was founded under the direction of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 1956 in upstate New York, Gan Izzy – as it is affectionately known – has grown into a global network with chapters in more than 40 countries. In the last couple of years, especially, camps with a specialized focus have popped up from Michigan to Staten Island.

Shternie Zwiebel, who directs Camp Gan Israel of Ann Arbor, Mich., says that just like similar programs around the world, her camp's new sports and innovative arts offerings benefit from a staff of educators who live for the children in their care.

"What has stood out to me over the years is the importance of staff-child interaction," says Zwiebel, who has built her camp based on her own experiences as a Gan Izzy camper, counselor and head counselor. "Without a genuinely warm, caring staff, kids won't connect with what they are doing. We look for a certain personality type, and we also insist on a staff well-trained in teaching and presentation."

Back in January, Zwiebel sat down with teachers and community members to develop new curricula for the summer. Drawing on their own experiences, and the experiences of thousands of other instructors and counselors who communicate with one another through an extensive network and occasional workshops, the Ann Arbor committee settled on a sports camp and arts camp to supplement the core summer program.

Three times a week, campers in the specialty programs participate in activities that include yoga, dance, visual arts, music, martial arts and a variety of sports.

Branches of Camp Gan Israel around the world are offering specialty programs from cooking to swimming.
Branches of Camp Gan Israel around the world are offering specialty programs from cooking to swimming.

The Michigan initiative mirrors similar focuses at other Gan Izzy camps. In Staten Island, N.Y., for instance, campers are taking part in an aquatic program led by four-time Olympic gold medalist and former U.S. swim team captain Lenny Krayzelburg.

Parents say they appreciate the wealth of options, which all incorporate Jewish themes and discussions.

"It is great to give kids that exposure," said Jackie S., whose two children returned to Camp Gan Israel in Ann Arbor this summer. "They have such a strong, positive sense of identity from this camp."