By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(EJNews) – Many parents in the Edmonton Jewish community face a similar quandary at the moment: where should I send my children to camp this summer? We all want our youngsters to have quality fun – but we also want their minds to be stimulated during these often intellectually sedentary months between school years. Well, let me make a friendly suggestion – one parent to another. In the spring of 2016, my husband and I were daunted by the day-camp options available in the city. Because having time to ‘just be a kid’ is always in such short supply during the regular year, we were adamant that we needed to find a program that was not just a glorified daycare. And, with our little guy in public school for the first time, we were also very concerned that his mind and spirit were not being sufficiently enriched by Jewish teachings.
That spring we made a decision that, two years later, continues to impact our son in positive ways – we entrusted Benji to Rabbi Dovid, Rebbetzin Devorah, and their exceptional team at Camp Gan Izzy. Initially, we were a bit nervous – we have always been a moderately observant family at best, and we were concerned that Benji might find it challenging to fit in. We could not have been more wrong. With mommy holding one of his little hands, and daddy the other, Benji was dropped off for his first day of camp. He was welcomed by smiling young ladies bubbling with excitement and energy – the warmth of such caring and devoted counsellors seemed to instantly melt away Benji’s anxiety over being left in a new place with new people. When we went to pick him up later that day, eager to see how he had faired, we could hardly believe our eyes. Our shy little fella was bouncing around with the other boys in his group, laughing and panting with jubilant exertion – he pleaded with us to let him keep playing with his new friends. That summer, it seemed like he was never ready to go home.
Every morning that followed, Benji checked the camp calendar hung prominently on the fridge, anticipating the next activity, the next trip, the next celebration. Hardly able to contain his enthusiasm, Benji would report back daily about all the fun he and his friends were having, and the many new discoveries they were making together.
My husband and I were amazed by the insightful questions that Benji would come home with after being immersed in the richness of Jewish teachings – not only was he having the time of his life, but he had begun to observe the world around him with greater reflection and spiritual curiosity. Every day had a new theme, and each evening brought more stories and conversation. With a field trip scheduled every other day, Benji, gripped by excitement, would set out his camp shirt and hat the night before in preparation. When camp was over; many tears were shed.
Fast forward to 2017, there was absolutely no question in Benji’s mind where he wanted to spend his summer – Camp Gan Izzy! With my own summer schedule free of obligations, I decided I would volunteer to help make the warm, nutritious, yummy-in-the-tummy lunches served daily to the children. The Lipes Family was already sold on summers at Chabad, but my own personal experiences there strengthened this resolve even further. I saw firsthand the immense team effort that went into every activity, I saw the dedication of the Camp Gan Izzy staff, I saw each day how Benji greeted his camp counsellors with big hugs, and I saw how the friendships he had made the year before continued to blossom. What really impressed me though, was that there were so many other parent volunteers in addition to myself. With no shortage of adults committed to supporting Camp Gan Izzy’s success, the children benefitted from a sense of true Jewish community spirit, and unity.
I was blown away when Gan Izzy branches from across North America used the wonders of modern teleconferencing technology to digitally connect hundreds of camp locations for a very special morning davening. This showed the children that they are part of a strong and vast global community. Benji learned blessings and the value of recognizing, respecting, and giving thanks for all the good around him. And although the kippa seldom came home with him at the end of the day, he began to take greater pride in his Jewish heritage.
What is really amazing about the Gan Izzy yearly line-up is that there is something new every single day: water sports day, soccer tournament day, ice cream sundae day. Last summer, in the span of just over one month, the Gan Izzy kids were visited by a petting zoo, a host of assorted jumpy castles, an illusionist and a bubble performer! The field trips promised even more excitement: Galaxyland, the Edmonton Zoo, laser tag, the corn maze, Telus World of Science – and oh, did I mention, daily trips to the swimming pool! What more could a kid ask for!
Some of Benji’s closest and most meaningful friendships are still with those same children he met on his very first day of camp two years ago. Benji still talks about things he did at camp regularly and was so happy when his counsellor from last summer sent him a Rosh Hashana card all the way from New York. Rabbi Dovid and Rebbetzin Devorah are absolutely devoted to making camp a special experience for each and every youngster, and their investments of time and energy make the Gan Izzy experience nothing short of astounding. After lending a hand setting up tents for the yearly overnight camp out, my husband commented to me: “You can’t even begin to imagine the attention to detail and how dedicated everyone is.”
So then, for all you Jewish parents out there still scratching your noggins and hemming and hawing about where to send your kids this summer, my advice is simple – look no further. Send your little ones and bigger ones to a place where they will be cared for like family, and where they will experience more in one month than they would have in an entire summer spent with another program. But also, give them the gift of community. Rest assured, Rabbi Dovid and Rebbetzin Devorah are experts at making every moment of summer memorable!