By: Rabbi Danny Gottlieb
My love for URJ camping began when I was 17 years old. I was hired as a Junior Counsellor at the Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana (now known as “GUCI”—the Goldman Union Camp Institute). For the next 25 years, I spent my summers on the staff and faculty of the camp, and that experience changed my life. In my first year, I was one of only three Canadians in camp, and over the years I helped to increase the number of Canadian campers and staff to about 30 each summer. In Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, at the Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute, another 30 Canadian kids were having a URJ Camp experience, and a few more traveled even greater distances to URJ camps in other areas of the US. A number of our high school kids went to programs at Kutz Camp-Institute in Warwick, NY. Those campers were coming back to their congregations and providing leadership for youth groups, religious schools. Some were even going on to Rabbinic and Cantorial School.
The problem was that there was no URJ Camp in Canada, and so this experience was limited to a very small number of kids each summer, and I was determined to be a part of a movement to build our own camp in Canada. So, when I returned from rabbinical school to Toronto, I joined the Reform Camp Committee that had just been created, and we began our work. Some years later, I joined the staff of the URJ (known as the UAHC in those days) as the Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, and near the end of my tenure there, I resurrected the Camp Committee, which had become dormant, and we resumed the sacred work that would lead to the creation of Camp George.
Together with Gavin Herman, the Chair of the Camp Committee, I traveled across Northern Ontario. For an entire year, every Tuesday, we would set out in search of a waterfront campsite that we could purchase and turn into the Canadian camp that was our shared dream. There were false starts, a couple of near purchases, and even a well-known Jewish summer camp north of Toronto that almost became the Camp George property. After two and a half years, we were successful in identifying the site on Maple Lake, and through the generous support of the Reisman family, Camp George was born.
I have many fond memories of my time at Camp— Shabbat song sessions, services overlooking Maple Lake, climbing to the platform on the ropes course and zip lining, canoeing and waterskiing, and even walking across the frozen lake to the island during a winter retreat! I can still remember the opening day of Camp George in the first year in 1999, when everything was new, and being given the honour of leading the service of dedication for the Beit T’fillah. Lights out in the cabins and late nights in the Faculty Lounge, good times spent with friends—that is what camp is all about!
Of all of the achievements of my rabbinate, my involvement with the men and women who made Camp George a reality is the most precious to me. I am proud to have been among the founders, to have served on the first Camp Committee and as the first Chair of the Faculty Committee. And most of all, I am proud to have been named as Founding Rabbi of Camp George.
In its first decade, Camp George was like a summer home for my family. Over the years, Beth and our two children all spent time on the camp staff. I served on the faculty of Camp George for the first 10 years, before my personal and professional life led me to San Francisco, California. Since then, I have visited camp often, occasionally serving as a guest “Shabbat faculty” member, and I have watched from a distance as the camp has grown to serve hundreds of Reform Jewish youth, in fulfillment of its founders’ dreams. Happy 20th Anniversary!!
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