Gesher Summer Camp in Livingston is closing down.
The Jewish day camp has operated on the grounds of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston since it was founded by director Scott Lantzman in 2000.
Earlier this month, Kushner sold the land on which Gesher operates to a home developer, precipitating the closing, according to an Oct. 15 announcement. The sale was in the works for the last five years and approved in early October.
“The sale creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen the schools’ future and fortify our foundations. We are excited to continue enhancing our educational programs and invest in our facilities,” said Kushner head of school Rabbi Eliezer Rubin. “We appreciate Scott’s dedicated 15 years of Gesher leadership and are grateful to Scott for running a camp program that provided many summers of recreation and Jewish content for the children of our community. We value our camper families who made Gesher their summer home.”
Gesher’s offices will close at the end of October. In a letter sent via e-mail to families on Oct. 15, Lantzman wrote in part, “Although we are excited for the new growth opportunities JKHA/RKYHS will be afforded by the sale of the camp grounds, unfortunately the time line of the sale precludes Gesher from operating in the summer of 2016.
“On behalf of all of the staff at Gesher, I want to thank all of you for being such a big part of our lives for so many years. I will never forget the experiences, the smiles, the laughter, the hugs, the ruach, and the essence of what Gesher has always been. Over the past 15 years, thousands of campers and staff have come through my life, and I can only hope that your lives have been as enriched as mine has been.”
The parcel of land sold — 11 of the site’s 29 acres — was purchased by Pulte Homes of NJ. Pulte plans to build 170 townhouses and 51 affordable apartments at 110 South Orange Ave., according to an application approved by the Livingston Planning Board, the West Essex Tribune reported. The camp’s pool, fields, and bunks will all be removed.
After the sale is completed, probably by mid-spring 2016, Kushner plans to develop another parcel of land adjacent to the school that it still owns. Rubin expects the new area to be ready by the start of school in 2016.
Plans for that area are not finalized, Rubin said. “We are exploring options to open a camp program on the newly developed property.” He added that all of the moveable recreational and play equipment will be stored until then.
While the sale did not come as a surprise to administrators at the school or camp, the timing was up in the air, according to all parties.
Tributes are finding their way on to the Gesher Facebook page from former campers and staff members.
They reflect mostly sadness and some disbelief at the turn of events. Michael Straus, a former staff member, wrote, “I felt like I got punched in the gut.”
Ben Gersten, a staff member for three years, underscored the unusual multidenominational niche Gesher filled.
“Gesher succeeded where so few others could. It brought together children from across denominational boundaries, children [of] Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Just Jewish, children who go to day school and public school, and children ages 3-16, under one umbrella to teach them a love of their tradition and that it can be experienced without a haze of criticism or concern,” Gersten wrote.
And he added, with hashtags referencing staff mottos, “Gesher taught its staff to be #ProfessionalRoleModels, it showed me how just being happy can make a difference because #AwesomeStartsToday, and it taught me that I could inspire others to #FollowTheLeader.”
Becca Atlas, another camper turned counselor, wrote, “Gesher summer camp gave me some of my best friends and favorite memories! Gesher will be missed!”
Lantzman told NJJN that he does not yet know what the future holds for him. “My dream has always been to own my own camp. Now, I’m looking to buy.” He’s had some calls from colleagues in the field, and he said, “I know I’ll land on my feet.” But for now, he added, “I’m keeping my options open.”