Camp Gan Israelwas founded sixty years ago by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. The Rebbe envisioned a warm, welcoming summer camp that integrated learning with fun – a place where children could enjoy sports and artistic activities while experiencing the richness and excitement of their Jewish heritage.
Just a few years after Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson ascended and assumed the leadership of the Chabad Lubavitch movement he recognized the need to provide overnight summer camping for children. In 1956, at a Farbrengen (public address) the Rebbe noted that the urban landscape of North America is drastically different from the close-knit setting of the European Shtetle. “In the alte heim, the relaxed atmosphere and home centered lifestyle allowed for proper supervision and numerous venues to utilize the summer days in a meaningful fashion. Today, conditions at home and on the street are such that overnight camping is not a luxury but a necessity,” he intoned. Soon after, two parcels of land were purchased in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where boys and girls have been camping ever since.
The Rebbe suggested the name Gan Yisroel (the Garden of Israel) in recognition of Reb Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, who from a very tender age would spend much time in the forest and wilderness where he would pray and study in the tranquil setting of nature.The Rebbe when extolling the virtues of overnight camping recognized the value of imbuing youth with a “high octane” 24/7 energy boost that will remain for a lifetime.
In 2008,Chabad Lubavitch of Southern Ontario purchased a 207 acre site in the picturesque Haliburton region, with 6000 feet of frontage on the shores of Basshaunt Lake. The secluded oasis, replete with capacious foliage and rolling hills, offers a perfect setting for hosting an overnight camp and weekend retreats. This giant leap forward has been made possible through the generosity of two leading philanthropic families. In recognition of their vision, commitment, and largesse the children’s camp is called, The Sidney & Naomi Spiegel Camp Gan Israel, and the spacious dining hall and industrial kitchen bears the name of Joey & Toby Tanenbaum.
While the importance of this experience is quite obvious, perhaps due to the high cost and limited options, overnight camping did not enjoy the prominence it deserved. Consequently, many youngsters were not afforded this indelible and meaningful experience. Only recently there has emerged a groundswell consensus that overnight camping is of paramount importance and can make a lasting contribution to the overall well being of youngsters. Whether it’s the Shabbat atmosphere, a late night campfire, or the prevailing camaraderie, the endless excitement and positive reinforcement cements lifelong friendships, and bolsters Jewish pride.