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Day camp’s closing a ‘shock’
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Day camp’s closing a ‘shock’

Chabad’s Gan Israel says low enrollment hurt summer plans

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Basketball was among the activities at Camp Gan Israel.
Basketball was among the activities at Camp Gan Israel.

The sudden closing of Gan Israel Day Camp int Morristown has left parents scrambling to make new plans for the summer.

The popular camp, affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America, announced June 10 that the challenge of opening the camp this summer proved “insurmountable.” 

In a note addressed to parents, administrators cited a lack of funding due to decreasing enrollment and a “substantial increase in requests for scholarship.” Camp was scheduled to begin June 23.

“I was shocked,” said Michelle Gross of West Orange, whose daughters were set to go to the camp, Samantha, 11, as a camper, and Emily, 15, as a counselor. (Her two older children, at 17 and 23, had aged out of camp.)

“I could not believe it when I got the notice, and so close to when camp is supposed to start,” Gross told NJJN. She said Samantha will attend sleep-away camp for part of the summer, but an alternative for Emily, too old to be a camper and too young to work at most places, has been trickier to arrange.

Her children have been attending “Gan Izzy” for so long, Gross said, she can’t even remember how she landed there. “But once we were there, there was nowhere else the kids were going to go. They loved it because it was fun and not such a rigid, regimented place where you had to do 12 activities every day. It was more laid back,” said Gross. “And the ruach there — you can’t put a price tag on that. It was such a nice feeling.”

This summer would have marked the first time in 21 years the program would have been run without Rabbi Mendel Solomon, director of Chabad at Short Hills, and his wife, Chana Devorah, at the helm. 

The wives of local Chabad directors generally work with their husbands on activities and programs, said Gross, and “the Solomons and the camp really can’t be separated. They’re like one entity. They put their heart and soul into the camp. They ate, slept, and breathed Gan Izzy.” 

Solomon told NJJN in a phone conversation that he and his wife decided before last summer that it would be their last. “It was my wife’s dream since she was a girl to build a summer camp, and we did it,” he said. “It was a very good run and we enjoyed every minute of it. Leaving is bittersweet because we loved what we did, but after 21 years, it’s time to focus our energy on other important things in the community that need our attention.”

The camp, located on the RCA’s Morristown campus, is part of a network of day camps and sleep-away camps in 40 countries run by emissaries of the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic outreach movement. The Gan Israel camps are generally lower priced than comparable Jewish day camps and staffed by teenagers affiliated with the movement. The Morristown camp has served kids ages three-15. 

According to RCA executive director Michael Grad, the camp was on track to lose at least $100,000 this summer. It would have been the first summer the camp ran a deficit. He blamed declining enrollment, down by more than half from last year’s 300 campers. 

“That’s a major loss that we just cannot absorb,” he told NJJN. He also attributed the loss in enrollment to the growth of informal “backyard camps” run cooperatively by parents and neighbors, as well as an expanded Y program in the Passaic-Clifton area, and a single new camp in Monsey, NY, that attracted 70 former Gan Izzy campers. 

To accommodate those Lubavitch-affiliated families in Morristown who have no other options, Grad said RCA is planning a low-key, small-scale summer day camp to be run through the school’s Cheder Lubavitch, its pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade program.

Grad said that “nobody” blamed the decision not to enroll on the departure of the popular Solomon; but, he added, “it’s hard to know.”

Although at about $2,580 for eight weeks, Gan Israel is priced considerably below private Jewish day camps in the area that cater to Orthodox children, Grad pointed out that most of the families already request scholarships, so that raising tuition would not bring in more revenue.

In the meantime, he added, administrators kept watching the numbers, waiting for a spike in enrollment that Solomon assured them happens every year as the camp season approaches. “But this year, it didn’t spike,” said Grad. “Administrators decided they had to pull the plug.”

In its notice to parents, administrators wrote: “While we understand that this is very late notice, rest assured that we have spent the elapsed time attempting to overcome these problems and find solutions. Unfortunately, the challenge proved insurmountable.”

Grad said he hopes that Camp Gan Israel will be able to reopen next year. In the meantime, he pointed to an RCA summer program for eighth-graders that sold out in one day. “It’s hard to understand why one is doing so well and the other is not,” he said.

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