For a summer camp and its island neighbors, a cooling off of relations

Relations between the Habonim Dror camp and residents of Gabriola Island have had their ups and downs.

Camp Miriam 1 298.88 (photo credit: Amir Mizroch)
Camp Miriam 1 298.88
(photo credit: Amir Mizroch)
"Put some ruach [spirit] into it!" a summer camp counselor barks, and seven little girls jump up and down chanting what has become Canada's second national anthem: Reduce, Reuse, Re-cy-cle! Only 10-year-olds have enough energy to keep this going for close to 10 minutes. "You guys are going to dance your tachatim [behinds] off. I want to see the ruach through the roof!" Reduce, Reuse, Re-cy-cle! The chant reverberates through old Douglas fir trees on Camp Miriam, a Habonim Dror Jewish summer camp in the forest, 48 kilometers (30 miles) west of Vancouver, on Gabriola Island on the banks of Clarke Bay, which juts into the Georgia Strait in the Pacific Ocean around British Columbia, Canada. You couldn't ask for a more natural, serene and pastoral place to have a summer camp. The island offers beautiful views to both the mainland Sunshine Coast Mountains and Vancouver Island, as well as unspoiled forest parks, beaches and whale and eagle sightings. In the machane (camp), where "renewable Jewish energy" is cultivated, other children are drawn away from their seder yom avoda (workday schedules) to the hopping and clapping girls performing their song and dance outside the hadar ochel (mess hall). Soon, the girls are joined by Halutzim (Pioneers), Bonim (Builders), Sayarim (Scouts) and Shomrim (Guards), as one of the camp counselors calls over the loudspeakers, in the quaint English-Hebrew mix used on this camp: "Kol hamachane [the whole camp] get your tachatim to the hadar ochel." As the smell of freshly cooked pancakes fills the air and mixes with the scent of the evergreen pine forest, and the happy eco-chant reverberates through the trees, all is good on beautiful Camp Miriam. But as the chanting and clapping makes its way above the camp, across the road and over the small bay adjoining the main road a few hundred meters away, some of the retirees and artists who make up the majority of Camp Miriam's neighbors are annoyed to have their lazy Friday morning peace and quiet so shrilly and persistently disturbed by such revelry. For them, the noise is a constant irritant, like a neighbor's dog that won't stop barking, or his car alarm that won't stop wailing. And they want it to stop now. Relations between the Habonim Dror camp and the residents of Gabriola Island traditionally have been good, even though there have been some ups and downs in the past. In fact, some of the neighbors have a long association with the camp, and several have been over for meals and discussions. But the peace lately has not been a warm one, and for the first time that anyone here can remember, both sides have taken to the local island newspaper, the Gabriola Sounder, to air their differences. The relationship between a vibrant and expanding Jewish summer camp and a rapidly growing island - whose long-time residents want their slice of heaven on earth kept secret, and quiet, for as long as possible - is a microcosm of several such scenarios throughout the world, where several Jewish camps from Habonim, Bnei Akiva, Betar and others all interact with local communities. And it seems that Israel is not the only Jewish property in the world that has land and water disputes with its immediate neighbors. At the core of the dispute, which last week hit the Sounder in the form of letters by both sides, is a plan to expand Camp Miriam to provide better facilities for its increasing number of campers. The camp committee also wants to close a section of the public road, Chichester Road, that runs right through the middle of the camp by buying that section of it. The road - which doesn't physically exist and is more a right of way - is technically designated as a public highway and was prospected in 1913 but never actually paved. The camp committee argues that since the road was planned more than 80 years ago, and since the camp is expanding, and because nobody actually uses the right of way, Miriam should be allowed to build on it. In a letter to the Sounder, one of the neighbors wrote that Miriam should not be allowed to build on a government highway, and that island residents should be able to walk freely on this public road. In its response, the camp committee said it was more than willing to meet with the neighbors to work out an agreement, and also noted that the road goes through the camp where "visitors have walked through the middle of the camp, which could compromise the health and safety of our campers." While not saying so in the letter to the Sounder, the camp committee is worried about just anybody walking into the camp at any time. And like other summer camps in North America, Camp Miriam has to adhere to strict camp security guidelines, such as criminal background checks for any visitors who are not parents of campers and other invited guests. What has essentially transpired here is that as Gabriola Island - a paradise forest island of 57.6 square kilometers (22.2 square miles) and with a resident population of about 4,000 - became more popular due to its beauty and its short ferry ride from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, more people moved here and bought land, some near Camp Miriam, which is located on prime waterfront property. It's impossible to keep a place like this a secret. In addition, there is also a long-standing plan to replace the ferries on the south coast of Vancouver Island with a bridge across the strait, a plan Gabriola Islanders abhor, and which will bring much more traffic to their haven. And like every island or coastline, waterfront property is of the highest value. As more and more of the land around Camp Miriam was bought up and inhabited, so its seclusion and freedom shrank. But you couldn't tell that from the atmosphere inside the camp. Loud and boisterous singing, especially in Hebrew, is encouraged - indeed much of what happens here, including menial work, is carried out in song. Clapping, dancing and the beating of drums are also encouraged, and performed with zest. The median age of the island's population in 2006 was 52.9. Camp Miriam's median is somewhere around 12. The camp's inhabitants, and its neighbors, are at completely different stages of their lives, and it shows. In one of the complaint letters, a neighbor said she was distraught to see a young boy "beating wildly" on the drums. There is a water shortage on the forest island. Average temperature is 22º C (72º F). Average rainfall is 89 centimeters (35 inches), well below the mainland. Summers on the island can be dry, so water conservation is important. The official Go Gabriola tourist information pamphlet says water conservation "comes up in every conversation" between people who have lived on the island long enough. In a part of her letter to the Sounder, one of the neighbors complained that "my well goes down almost to empty when the camp is in session" in the summer, and "goes back up again in winter," thereby tangentially accusing Camp Miriam of usurping water from her well. A source on the camp committee characterized that accusation as preposterous, and designed to hurt. Firstly, Camp Miriam only uses its own wells, the source said, as well as buying drinking water from the mainland. And secondly, everybody's wells go down in the summer (when it doesn't rain) and go back up again in winter (when it does rain). In addition, Camp Miriam (a forest camp, and forests have their own very specific rules for fire and water) has made the pond on its territory available to the firefighters should they need it, a gesture highly appreciated by the island's fire chief, Rick Jackson. Finally, the camp is so water conscious that the kids don't shower every day; some shower just once or twice a week and when they do shower, they are told to keep it short. Not what every Jewish mother wants to hear, but there you have it. In her letter complaining about the camp, the same neighbor accused Miriam of being irresponsible regarding the high fire hazard on the island, saying there was a fire last year on camp grounds, a fire so serious that the fire chief had to come and put out the blaze. Again, the camp committee rejects the accusation, saying the fire actually occurred seven years ago, and by the time the fire chief got to the camp, the fire was out. There has never been open hostility between the camp and its neighbors, and nobody is expecting relations to sour to an untenable level, but there is a palpable sense of deterioration in the air. During last Friday's oneg (weekly pre-Shabbat communal ritual), one of the immediate neighbors, obviously upset by the sight of so many young, happy children walking on the beach near his home, stepped out of his door and, beer in hand, walked all the way to where a group of the kids had gathered and asked them to leave. "Please, please get out of here," he said, according to one of those present. One of the counselors calmly told the irate neighbor that the group was about to leave anyway. "The sooner the better," retorted the neighbor, who turned on his heels and walked sharply back to his home. In addition, Haven, one of the guest resorts on the island, has banned Camp Miriam counselors and campers from the resort after an incident in which, according to sources familiar with the event, some Camp Miriam counselors got too rowdy in Haven's Jacuzzi late one night. Haven is not just a simple guest house, it is also a "learning and healing" institute, and seems to be the new-age, spiritual center of Gabriola Island. Its proprietors, like the rest of the island, want extreme peace and quiet. These incidents contrast with many other examples of good relations between the camp and the rest of the island. Camp Miriam is heavily involved in community relations, donating its old kitchen to the island. It is also involved in the annual Gabriola Festival, providing rehearsal space for the Gabriola Players - a theatrical troupe. It also loaned a canoe and equipment for training in the winter months to the "Gabriola Gryphons" dragon-boat team, which won a silver medal at a Nanaimo race last year. It helps sponsor a hospital foundation, as well as helps out at an emergency food depot. The camp even rents out its pool (of which part of the fence is supposedly built on the public road) to swimming lessons for the island's children when the camp is not in session. For some kids here, Camp Miriam is the only Jewish, Israel, Zionist experience they will have all year, and for that reason alone, the few weeks spent on machane are vital to the Jewish community of Vancouver and British Columbia. The camp has an 80 percent retention rate, so many of the kids who come here stay together as they grow older. The friendships that have been forged here over the years - the camp was established in 1948 - have by and large migrated to the mainland, where many of Vancouver's Jewish community is somehow connected to this camp, as well as others like it spread throughout North America. Since much of the communication between camp counselors and children takes place in that strange mix of English-Hebrew, the kids have to learn some Hebrew to get by. When someone speaks too long in English, everyone around is trained to shout at them: "Ivrit, ivrit, daber ivrit, Machane Miriam machane ivrit!" - Hebrew, Hebrew, speak in Hebrew. Camp Miriam is a Hebrew camp.