The fog/smog lies heavy over the San Bernardino mountain range, but with a little imagination, it's still possible to make out Los Angeles -- and Catalina -- in the distance. Likewise, at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet in Running Springs, it's possible to envision the great promise of Camp Gan Israel, Chabad's new sleep-away camp and retreat center, even though the site is still undergoing heavy remodeling.
The synagogue, a former classroom, has been gutted, stained and stripped; nails line the floors ready to fasten down carpeting; a basic square wooden stage faces east toward Jerusalem, ready to hold an arc, its Torah scrolls and serve as the bimah for services three times a day. The gargantuan soccer field lies barren in the wind, bereft of green in the middle of this mild mountain winter. A pool sits covered, laden with puddles.
But come summer -- and even to some extent the upcoming weekend -- the site will be ready for visitors.
West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch purchased the 70-acre site, located less than two hours from Los Angeles, for $4.3 million last summer from CEDU Mountain Schools, a boarding school for at-risk youth that had owned the property since 1967. The woodsy grounds -- replete with apple trees, ponderosas, oaks, maples, cedars and sequoias -- includes hiking trails, a campfire/amphitheater, a greenhouse, a ropes challenge obstacle course, sports facilities and 18 buildings, including the synagogue, dormitories, an arts and crafts shed and a rustic ski lodge-style social hall that was featured in Architectural Digest in 1996.
For the past few months, Chabad, known for its can-doism ("If you build it, they will come"), has been transforming the school into a multipurpose center that will serve as an overnight summer camp, a weekend retreat center and also provide luxury suites for religious families and individuals who might want to enjoy the local skiing (Big Bear is 14 miles away and Lake Arrowhead is half that). Or those who want to just be out in nature.
"Camp Gan Israel was named after the Besht -- Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov -- who was a nature yid," camp director Gershon Sandler said, using the Yiddish word for Jew. "He spent a lot of time out in the wilderness; he would leave civilization and return to inspire others."
For Sandler, a 31-year-old who is a ba'al teshuvah with years of camping experience at both secular camps with names like Indian Head, and Jewish camps like Ramah and Nesher, that is what both camping and Judaism are all about: To learn an appreciation for nature, for God's world, and to go back to civilization and spread that love.
"To be a light onto the nations," Sandler said, "We have to be a light onto ourselves."
The ear-popping road up to Running Springs is windingly nauseating, but relatively easy to navigate this year due to the mild California winter; last snowy season it would have taken chains to reach this small town whose population is just 300, or nearby Green Valley Lake, or, at the end of the road peppered with secluded homes with stables, Camp Gan Israel Running Springs.
"Welcome to Camp Gan Israel," reads the engraved wooden sign that swings from wood beams in front of the reception hut. It's a welcome that's been a long time coming. For two years Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch, searched for a site for the campgrounds, and for decades before that Los Angeles' Orthodox community has been trying to create its own sleepaway camp on the West Coast. The effort has never met with success, primarily because there was never a permanent site, so Orthodox families either shipped their kids off to Camp Moshava in Wisconsin, to East Coast camps or kept them at home.
Not that Gan Israel will be a mainstream "Orthodox" camp like the East Coast coed camps Morasha and Nesher, which cater to Young Israel and Yeshiva University families; after all, Gan Israel is going to be run by Chabad, a Chasidic movement that many consider a separate stream. Yet Gan Israel is not planned to be a purely Chabad camp either; it won't be a camp just for Chabad kids, the children of shluchim (emissaries who are sent around the world) and other children raised in the movement. There are already two camps like that: The original Camp Gan Israel in upstate New York, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, and another Gan Israel in Montreal.
The plan is for Camp Gan Israel Running Springs to serve some of the approximately 10,000 kids who have nowhere to go once they've outgrown the 30 Gan Israel day camps in California and Nevada. These kids, ages about 4 through 11, often come from secular or non-Orthodox homes, many of them immigrant families from Russia or Israel who attend Chabad day schools.
Chabad plans to recruit children from these schools and day camps, as well as from the larger community.
"Gan Israel is for parents who want to provide kids with a Jewish experience, Jewish identity and pride, with dance, sports, ruach [spirit] and nature," Sandler said.
This first summer, the camp will be for third to eighth-graders. There will be one month for girls (June 26-July 23) and one for boys (July 27-Aug 23), with a two-week or four-week option priced at about $100 a day. They hope to have about 100 kids per session -- the camp's capacity will be about 200 -- with some 20 counselors on staff (a 1 to 5 ratio), as well as specialist instructors for arts and crafts, music and drama and a Chinuch rabbinical staff led by Rabbi Naftali Richler, who teaches at Shalhevet High School. Richler is developing the educational program, which will work with children of all religious levels.
In many ways the camp will be just like any other sleepaway camp -- sans panty raids and first kisses -- with overnight hikes, day trips and a color war, but "everything will have a Jewish theme," said Sandler, who has studied camping through fellowships from the National Jewish Camping Association.
A landscape architect by training, Sandler has lofty goals for these city kids.
"First we have to make them not afraid of nature, to instill in them that sense of awe," he said. "Then the next step is to teach them about interconnectedness -- how, on a basic level, a tree grows, and eventually the branches fall and they make a new tree; and the water cycle of evaporation and filtration -- just the basics. The whole idea is that they should develop a greater appreciation, which leads to a greater responsibility."
Fifty years ago, Camp Gan Israel in New York started out as a camp run by Chabad for non-Chabad children, but within years it became a camp for Chabad children. Sandler says he wants this camp to have the widest possible appeal -- and that means appealing to Modern Orthodox kids -- so the emphasis will be on a "Jewish experience," not necessarily a "Chabad" experience. Indeed, only a few mantelpieces around the campus are adorned with giant framed pictures of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement's charismatic leader, who died 10 years ago without leaving a successor, spawning a Messianic movement that holds little appeal to the non-Chabad Orthodox.
Sandler insists that all staff will be trained to work with the general, non-Chabad population.
"Our goal is not to make the children religious; that's not Chabad's mission," he said. "The goal is that the child returns to the community with more Judaism."
The air is chilly inside the dormitories, but already, as quickly as bunk beds are being built, sheets, pillows and blankets are being laid out for a Toras Emes Shabbaton retreat the next weekend. Soon the totem poles will be repainted or replaced (they might be considered idolatry), the tennis court will be converted to a hockey court (better to promote teamwork) and the wood logs once cut by high-adrenaline at-risk youth converted to benches.
It's easy to picture log benches encircling the char pit, dozens of girls or boys telling (Jewish) ghost stories, eating (kosher) marshmallows and singing (Hebrew) songs.
"Our focus is to provide the kids with a fun, positive Jewish experience," Sandler said gesturing at the campgrounds. "That's why this is so important. As far as educational opportunities, there's nothing quite as effective as summer camp."
For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.