Cultural campers

Summer program teaches
traditions of Judaism

By Darcy Leigh Richardson

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Ask Mussie Greenberg what she likes the most about Camp Gan Israel, and the 4-year-old can sum it up in one word: “Everything.”

Mussie’s mother, Nechama, is the camp’s director. Nechama started the first Camp Gan Israel in North County this summer at Empresa Elementary School in Oceanside.

Camp Gan Israel, a worldwide network of summer day camps for children, teaches Jewish values, traditions and themes.

“The Jewish children around here are very isolated and are in the minority,” Greenberg said. “We want kids to have a chance to learn that it’s fun to be Jewish and to take pride in their heritage.”

Campers participate in a variety of activities each day, including singing songs, hearing stories and playing games with Judaic themes. The camp’s staff regularly takes the children on field trips to the beach in Oceanside, to Boomers! in Vista and to amusement parks.

On Tuesday morning, 15 campers wore neon green “Camp Gan Israel” T-shirts sang songs, played games and listened to one of the camp’s counselors explain the meaning behind a few of the Jewish holidays. Then the campers put their knowledge to the test when they participated in a Jewish holiday carnival that the camp’s staff had organized.

Activities included sounding the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn, in honor of Hashana, the Jewish new year.

Children wrapped themselves in white tissue paper to celebrate Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year when worshippers repent and are purified from sin.

Another game at the carnival was “Get the Gelt!” which is traditionally played by Jewish children during Hanukkah. Campers plunged their hands into a bowl of flour and tried to find coins, or gelt.

Izaak Hall, 8, had been to Camp Gan Israel in Los Angeles for the past two summers before he joined the Oceanside camp this year. Izaak, a Vista resident, said one of his favorite camp activities is swimming at the YMCA near Empresa Elementary.

At the carnival, Izaak liked throwing a wet sponge at camp counselor Rochel Harlig, who was pretending to be Haman, the prime minister of Persian King Ahashuerus. The game, meant to celebrate the Jewish holiday Purim, demonstrated that Haman was an “evil man” because he wanted to exterminate the Persian Jews, but his plan was foiled by Queen Esther.

Harlig, 18, said she has been a Camp Gan Israel counselor for three summers. Last summer, she was a counselor at the camp’s Rancho Cucamonga location.

Harlig said she has attended the camp all her life.

“A lot of the children are in public school and not around other Jewish children unless they go to Hebrew school,” Harlig said. “My favorite part of Camp Gan Israel when I was a camper was being with other Jewish kids my own age. As a counselor, I’ve form a really close relationship with the kids and get to play and have fun with them.”

Greenberg said she saw the need for a Camp Gan Israel for North County children because the Jewish community in the area is growing. A member of the Chabad Jewish Center Oceanside, she directs Hebrew school at the center and teaches lessons similar to what the campers learn.

“The best part of directing the camp is watching the children be happy,” Greenberg said. “They don’t want to leave when the day is over.”

Tomorrow is the last day of the two-week camp. Campers will prepare for the Jewish Sabbath, which begins tomorrow evening, by baking challah bread at camp and taking it home to eat.

The bread is prepared before the Sabbath starts because Jewish law dictates no baking be done on the Sabbath, Harlig said.

“The kids really learn Jewish traditions and have really grown by the time camp is over,” she said. “The camp is something I look forward to the entire year.”