The first Camp Gan Israel in Nanaimo was last summer at the Shemtovs’ home, which doubles as the Chabad Nanaimo centre. (photos from Blumie Shemtov)
For the first time last summer, Blumie Shemtov offered a Jewish day camp for kids 5- to 10-years-old from her home in suburban Nanaimo, where she and her husband, Rabbi Bentzi Shemtov, operate Chabad Nanaimo and Central Vancouver Island. With no dedicated Jewish infrastructure in the city, families in the small and relatively disparate Jewish community are enthusiastic about the day camp.
A few years after Chabad Nanaimo started up, Blumie Shemtov met several families interested in having their young kids experience Jewish camp. She offered the five-day Camp Gan Israel in July 2019. Shemtov was struck by the sense of belonging that developed among the 10 children who attended, most of whom are the only Jews in their schools, she said.
“The idea was a week where children could be around other Jewish children and gain that sense of pride … and know that they are not the only ones” in the community who are Jewish, she told the Independent.
Jewish prayer, songs, culture and history were taught against a backdrop of recreational activities. Much of the day was spent in the Shemtovs’ backyard and large downstairs recreation room, but, to expand the activities, Shemtov and her counselors took campers on day trips to the beach, forested trails and even a trampoline gym.
She said, while some families attend holiday events throughout the year, the camp was the first immersive Jewish experience for many of the children.
“There’s something that’s holding everyone together,” she said. “The Jewish aspect that they don’t get regularly, I think, is an extra plus that makes people feel automatically closer together. Some people don’t feel the need [to be in Jewish community] until they have it.”
Research in recent years about the value of Jewish day camps has suggested they create long-term personal investment in Jewish community, much like overnight camp experiences, but have a lower barrier to entry financially and may have the ability to reach more children and families.
A 2018 report by Judith Samuels for the Foundation for Jewish Camp noted that day camps engage parents in the experience as well and allow “for a greater partnership between the camp and the camper’s parents surrounding the growth and skill-building that takes place at summer camp…. Unlike in overnight camp, day campers return home to their families each evening to share stories, songs and new learnings from their day.”
A companion report authored by Ramie Arian suggests why day camps might work so well in regions with no formal Jewish community space. It concludes, “Day camps can operate with much greater flexibility in the size and shape of their facility” than overnight camps.
Basha Bishop wanted her two daughters to attend the Nanaimo camp so that they would have more exposure to Jewish culture and history and “learn more about their heritage.” Both girls have grown up in Nanaimo and attend some events at Chabad throughout the year. While Bishop believes her daughters already had a strong sense of being Jewish, the camp was “important for them to have the exposure” to Judaism. At home, they talk about Jewish values and discuss Jewish-related topics, but, mainly, Bishop wants to teach her kids that “they have options available as their faith.”
“They’ve always adopted this idea of everything is kind of fluid – there’s no one way of doing anything,” she explained. “They can take what they need and feel like a part of community.” She said they will attend the camp again this summer.
Shemtov thinks the effort people made to have their kids attend is a testament to their dedication to community-building and Jewish learning.
“The beautiful thing I see here is, in other places, people send their kids to camp to get them out of the way, to give them something to do,” Shemtov said. “Over here, some parents are almost sacrificing their family time and vacations because they feel this camp is more important … and the experience [their kids] are going to gain is important.”
If more families come forward, Shemtov will consider extending the camp to two weeks this July. For more information, visit jewishnanaimo.com.
Shelley Stein-Wotten is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has won awards for her creative non-fiction and screenwriting and enjoys writing about the arts and environmental issues. She is based on Vancouver Island.