For Public School Kids, Jewish Overnight Camp Is ‘Nothing Less Than Amazing’

At CKids Gan Israel in Lakeworth, Fla., 60 Jewish boys from diverse backgrounds unite for 20 days of fun and authentic Jewish experiences.

CKids Gan Israel brings together 60 boys from diverse backgrounds

By: Rochel Horowitz

It’s evening at CKids Gan Israel in Lakeworth, Fla., and the sound of children singing songs of Jewish pride can be heard throughout its sprawling campgrounds. There, on a glistening lakefront set among the expanses of nature, 60 Jewish boys from diverse backgrounds have united for 20 days of uninterrupted fun and authentic Jewish experiences.

The Chabad-Lubavitch CKids Gan Israel launched in the summer of 2020 and offers public-school children the opportunity to explore their Jewish heritage in a warm environment. Enrollment has doubled since last summer’s pilot program with most campers drawing from the Southeast for a session that ran from June 10-29.

Saying the Shema during morning services

From nearly the beginning of his leadership in 1950, the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—highlighted the tremendous impact that Jewish summer camp can have on a child’s personal growth and Jewish observance. In a July 1960 letter to a London educator, the Rebbe expressed his gratification to hear that the local Jewish summer camp had grown: “I have often emphasized that the summer in general, and camp activities in particular, offer extraordinary opportunities to benefit the children” at a time when they’re not as distracted by schoolwork and other mundane responsibilities.

Seeking to create an entertaining and immersive Jewish experience for children of all backgrounds, in 2020, Rabbi Levi and Chaya Plotkin established CKids Gan Israel in Parkland, Fla. The camp’s positive energy and dedicated staff have quickly become some of the trademarks of CKids Gan Israel.

Enrollment has doubled since last summer’s pilot program with most campers drawing from the Southeast for a session that ran from June 10-29.

Miriam Schapira of Orlando, Fla., tells that CKids Gan Israel was her son Michael’s first overnight camp experience and was “nothing short of amazing.” Michael, 11, enjoyed the many activities, including the on-site ziplining, but he especially loved “Cocoa Club,” the early-morning Torah-study session held before the start of the camp day.

“The counselors and staff showed such concern towards Michael,” says Schapira. “When he spoke with me on the phone from camp, he was ecstatic as he described the concert they’d just had.” Michael attended camp for the first 10-day session and now that he’s home, says his mother, “he’s enjoying keeping in touch with the friends he’s met from other parts of the country.”

The camp’s positive energy and dedicated staff have quickly become some of the trademarks of CKids Gan Israel.

Water sports, trips, in-house entertainment and special events are a sampling of the high-energy program. The camp is held on beautiful grounds with a host of recreational activities, and campers are encouraged to embrace their inner talents in fine and performing arts under the direction of experienced instructors and devoted staff members.

Biana Presman of Sunny Isles, Fla., acknowledges that she was initially somewhat apprehensive about sending her 11-year-old son, Dylan, on his first overnight-camp experience. But her fears soon dissipated. “When my son called me from camp, I could hear the excitement in his voice as he described to me all the fun they’d had that week. The care, the activities, the other kids; my son was in awe—and I was, too,” she says.

For many of the boys it’s the first time to experience Judaism is a fun, relaxed environment

“Dylan couldn’t stop talking about how much he enjoyed getting to know his new friends and interacting with his counselors,” she adds. “He was particularly excited about the archery and the Jewish music playing non-stop throughout the campgrounds.”

It was particularly remarkable to see the dedication with which the staff showered her son, she says. “Rabbi Plotkin was so in tune with Dylan and was always on-call to answer any of my questions or concerns. Dylan absolutely loves Rabbi Plotkin. Yesterday, Rabbi Plotkin called Dylan on the phone to check up on him and see how he was doing, and when he heard his name, his whole face lit up.”

Taking Day Camp to the Next Level

As sort of a continuation to the classic Chabad “Gan Izzy” day-camp experience, the two 10-day overnight sessions at CKids Gan Israel bring the experience to the next level. Molded after the typical Jewish overnight camp, the schedule is filled with theme days and riveting “night activities.” Light-up parties, a giant water slide and on-site activities make up these 20 days of alluring fun. A synagogue led by and for campers is held onsite, and boys above bar mitzvah age are called up to make a blessing on the Torah.

Older campers don tefillin during morning services.

“At CKids Gan Israel, my sons became part of a ‘brotherhood,’ ” says camper Asher Maron’s mother, Nina Maron, of Tampa, Fla. “Asher is having his bar mitzvah in July, and he decided to stay for the second session of camp. He loves it there, he’s decided to ‘move in and stay there forever,’ ” she jokes.

“My other son, Jacob, who can be intensely confrontational, came home from the first camp session with a beautiful energy about him, he was calm; he’d been tuned in to,” says Maron, who holds a master’s degree in education and works as a parenting coach. “He’d gotten the message that ‘I have a whole community that loves me; I must be special.’ ”

“I enjoyed camp a lot,” her son Jacob, 10, pipes in. “I didn’t expect to do so many fun activities.” He enjoyed playing sports with his friends and going on trips to trampoline parks and waterparks. When asked what he misses most about camp, he doesn’t miss a beat: “I miss my friends, and I miss the food. On Shabbat, there was really good food.”

Seeing her children find their place within the Jewish community is particularly meaningful to Maron since she felt deprived of authentic Jewish experiences as a child. “I was in the fourth grade when a teacher told me ‘you’re Jewish.’ Since we were brought up with virtually no connection to our Jewish roots, I had no idea what that meant, but what I heard her saying was: ‘You’re a Jew, you belong with us.’ That feeling of belonging is something that Gan Israel was able to give my children. The feeling that Judaism is fun and engaging is something that’s especially important for my children since we don’t have a large Jewish community here in Tampa,” she explains.

CKids Gan Israel is an independently-run organization under the umbrella of CKids International, directed by Rabbi Zalman Lowenthal at Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch’s Suite 302. Lowenthal says that this is only the beginning. “This is a model that can be replicated for boys and girls around the country,” he says. “CKids programs reach 70,000 Jewish children in North America, and we see the tremendous need for exciting, authentically Jewish summer overnight-camping experiences.”

David Chazon says that CKids Gan Israel was his son Hayden’s first time away from home. Seeing his son bound out of his bunkhouse, proudly wearing tzitzit and a kippah, filled David with pride.

Arts-and-crafts with a Jewish touch

“I have goosebumps talking about it,” he shares. “Seeing him wear them in public like that; he’s never worn those. My son never experienced a proper Shabbat before and here he was telling us about how Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. I couldn’t believe how camp had such a tremendous impact on Hayden in such a short period of time. I never expected to see so much out of Hayden in terms of his social, emotional and spiritual growth.”

Hayden attended camp for the first session, and when he came home, his father said he couldn’t stop talking about the activities, his counselors and the atmosphere he’d experienced.

It’s the combination of joy and Jewish learning, professionalism and warmth, says Chazon, that camp’s impact comes together: “This feeling of connection is not something that happens by mistake.”