Camp Gan Shalom is “a fun place for Jewish kids from all over the greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys to come together in play, laughter and learning,” according to its publicity. Its “program combines the fun of traditional camp activities with immersion in Jewish themes and culture to help campers forge lasting friendships and memories.”
The lasting relationships are what make the camp special, according to Jason Moss, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. Moss, who directed the camp from 2005 – 2012, added that he gets gratification from “being able to provide the community youth an outlet to engage, connect and become friends with other Jewish youth and to have Jewish experiences for the summer.”
“Kids can see that being Jewish is fun and a big part of life,” Moss said. “For many of our campers, this is the first immersive Jewish experience they have had. The experience provides a way for camp families to deepen their connection to the Jewish community.”
Moss loves to watch the relationships camp staff members form with each other. He believes that the shared experience provides an opportunity to grow as leaders and to develop long-lasting friendships. Many of the staffers are former campers who want to provide the same experience they had to the current campers. Then the staffers have families of their own and send their kids to the camp – or they move elsewhere, stay connected to one another and help to enrich other Jewish communities.
Aimee Miculka, who worked at Camp Gan Shalom for eight years as a counselor, assistant director and director, has moved to Colorado, but is still a camper in spirit.
“I enjoyed the environment we got to create for the campers and enjoyed working with the staff to create a community and culture that we could be proud of,” she said. “The most important thing is the relationships the kids build and the freedom they have to explore who they are in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable. Camp provides lifelong bonds.”
Miculka, who worked at the Boulder, Colorado Jewish Community Center Early Childhood Education Center before having children, has developed lifelong bonds of her own from camp. She met her husband after two of her former Camp Gan Shalom staff came to Boulder and helped her to create an online dating profile. And, every Thursday night, Miculka talks on the phone with her best friend, Aaren Heller who she met while working at camp, as the two bake challah together.
Heller, also a past counselor, program director and camp director at Camp Gan Shalom, said, “There is so much pressure on students and staff members all year long, making them stressed. At camp, they just get to be kids and/or revisit their childhood. People try so hard to be who they think they need to be, but at camp they can just be themselves.”
Now with three children of her own, Heller is grateful for the “special and magical relationships” she developed at Camp Gan Shalom. “You feel like you’re immersed in a community where you’re free to make choices, explore who you are and make the best of friends.”
Zoe Levy, who started going to Camp Gan Shalom in the 4th grade and came back as a counselor and later a program director, is now a program coordinator at a synagogue in Philadelphia and a student at Bryn Mawr College. She enjoyed participating in activities as a counselor that she had done during her own camp experience and reconnected with people she had known as a camper.
“Camp grows with you, and you grow with the community,” she said. “The experience travels with you, and you carry it to another community. A lot of the ways that I practice my faith are the result of what I did at camp.”
Camp Gan Shalom runs weekly sessions each summer for entering kindergartners through entering 8th graders, as well as a Counselor in Training program for entering 9th and 10th graders. For more information, visit https://jewishsgpv.org/our-work/youth-and-teens/camp-gan-shalom or call 626.445.0810.
Ilene Schneider is a contributing writer to JTA and Jlife Magazine.