With their English-speaking counterparts enjoying the great North American outdoors, some 85 girls from 14 cities throughout Germany converged on a small picturesque resort near the village of Hinterglimm in the Austrian Alps. The July 18 gathering was opening day for the second-annual Camp Gan Israel for German speakers.

Although Jewish day camps do exist in Berlin and other major German cities, and for years, Chabad-Lubavitch run overnight camps have offered youth elsewhere in the continent the opportunity to enjoy the experience, this particular program is the only one for students solely from Germany. Spanning 11 days, the camp features a mix of Jewish tradition, hands-on creativity, outdoor fun, sports and camaraderie.

Campers stress that the retreat offers one other unique opportunity: the chance to interact with girls just like themselves. Many of the girls are the only Jewish students in their respective schools.

Chanie Mendelsohn, one of the counselors, reported that several of the students had spoken to one another, and to her, about how difficult it was, for instance, to learn about the Holocaust during the school year in a classroom devoid of other Jews.

“One girl in particular was really affected by that course of study. Her teacher and classmates were very sympathetic; they knew it had to be painful for her,” stated Mendelsohn. “Still, it was something that really made her feel the lack of other Jews in her area.”

The girls represent a diverse group, from Russian immigrants to grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. While many are from smaller communities, some come from the country’s main cities. At the camp, as the students get to know more about Jewish history and traditions, they also have a chance to immerse in Jewish life, from singing Hebrew songs around the campfire to observing Shabbat.

Campers enjoy a variety of activities, from face painting to mountain sliding.
Campers enjoy a variety of activities, from face painting to mountain sliding.

“They’re up very late at night singing and talking. The conversations they have with each other are an important part of camp,” explained Mendelsohn. “Here, they get to know Jewish friends and they see the warmth and joy of Jewish life. They feel better about being Jews.”

Rabbi Yehuda Tiechtel, director of the camp and co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Berlin, concurred, adding that the Gan Israel now offers a winter camp and several weekend programs throughout the year. He noted that last year’s program included more than 50 girls between the ages of 8 and 15, and 40 from that group returned for this summer’s session.

“Every day, I would open my e-mail and find messages from girls wanting assurance that the camp would happen again,” said Tiechtel. “It is a short experience, but it has a tremendous impact.”

The remote location – the resort sits 2,000 meters high in a region known chiefly as a winter ski destination – has helped set the stage for another successful summer, asserted the rabbi. Hiking in the Alps, mountain sliding, or simply enjoying the view together, everyone “feels more open to learning, to spirituality. It is the affect of being in such a beautiful place.

“On Sunday, 85 lone children walked in,” he added. “Now, they are one family.”