They are words uttered by parents from coast to coast: “What do I do with my kids when school’s closed and I have to work?” It’s a question asked whether it’s a planned vacation day, teacher in-service day, snow day or, as in February, Presidents’ Day—a legal holiday when schools, banks and government offices are closed.

More than that, it looms on the horizon for spring break, which varies in school districts all over the United States, with some that fall later in April timed to Passover and some that have already started.

Children enjoy snow-tubing at the Gan Israel winter camp  in Anchorage, Alaska. Credit: Gan Izzy Alaska In-Service Day Winter Camps 2019.

The problem is the same all the way in Alaska, where “day care and child care are difficult to find and expensive,” according to Allie Paskin, the mother of two.

Filling the void, at least in Anchorage, is the Alaska Jewish Campus, which debuted its latest program—a one-day Jewish Camp Gan Israel adventure—earlier this year on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which fell on Jan. 21. Its second one-day camp session was held on Feb. 18, Presidents’ Day, and had more than two-dozen kids in kindergarten through sixth grade in attendance.

Some communities do offer winter break mini-camps, but according to Rabbi Yossi Greenberg, co-director of the Alaska Jewish Campus with his wife, Esty, few, if any, do so on teacher in-service days and legal U.S. holidays.

“This was such a hit! You can’t imagine,” said Greenberg. “Parents were beyond thrilled.”

Kids cook at the Jewish Camp Gan Israel adventure in Anchorage, Alaska. Credit: Gan Izzy Alaska In-Service Day Winter Camps 2019.

Having a vacation-day program that includes Jewish learning, but with a camp vibe—complete with Judaic-themed arts-and-crafts, games, group cheers and more—during school vacation days was the brainchild of Mushky Glitsenstein, who runs the annual Camp Gan Israel summer camp in Anchorage and serves as the center’s youth director along with her husband, Rabbi Levi Glitsenstein.

“Camp Gan Izzy is one of our most popular programs,” says Glitsenstein. “It’s all about being in a really fun, exciting Jewish environment, experiencing the love and warmth of Judaism. The impact is monumental.”

After getting inquiries from parents over the years about providing programming on school holidays, Glitsenstein felt now was the time to offer the mini-camp. Part of the reasoning was the benefit to parents, but also the fact that kids aren’t always able to make it to more formal educational programs.

Enjoying the great outdoors at at the Jewish Camp Gan Israel adventure in Anchorage, Alaska. Credit: Gan Izzy Alaska In-Service Day Winter Camps 2019.

“This is a very special way to give the broader Jewish community a means to be involved. It is also a chance for the kids to be together and enjoy their heritage,” said Rabbi Levi Glitsenstein.

Getting together with other Jewish children is part of the appeal for Paskin, who signed up her 9-year-old daughter, Kaiya, as soon as she heard about the camp. (Kaiya also attends Camp Gan Israel in the summer, and the Chabad’s Talmud Torah Afterschool Program and STEAM Hebrew Club.)

“I loved the idea of Kaiya getting together with her friends in a nurturing, fun Jewish environment and getting to make memories that she is going to bring up for the whole year,” she said, adding that it also gives Kaiya “a sense of community with her peers.”

As Alaskans value their unique outdoor lifestyle, every camp session includes outdoor adventures like horseback-riding and hiking. Its winter session was no exception, though instead the kids enjoyed activities like sledding and snow-tubing.

The focus of Jewish learning during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day camp was the holiday of Tu B’Shevat (the “New Year for Trees”) as the two fell on the same day this calendar year.

Shabbat was the focus of the Presidents’ Day activities. There was challah to be made and braided; chicken soup to be prepped and cooked; and matzah balls to be mixed and shaped. The latter was one Kaiya’s favorite camp activities. According to her mother, the third-grader said camp was “awesome,” and attributed her daughter’s silence on the drive home to her being “totally happy and totally exhausted.”

Busy making art projects at the Jewish Camp Gan Israel adventure in Anchorage, Alaska. Credit: Gan Izzy Alaska In-Service Day Winter Camps 2019.

‘Respite for the parents’

Initially, the winter camp for Gan Izzy was supposed to run for an entire week during the Presidents’ Day vacation break. However, the week-long school vacation was canceled after the Nov. 30 earthquake in Alaska that measured a 7.0 on the Richter scale. Damage in the area was extensive enough that schools in the area were closed for a week, and the district had to take back the February vacation days. (The Alaska Jewish Museum, which is a project of the Lubavitch center there, sustained some structural damage in the earthquake.)

Also offering a day program for families on legal holidays is the Friendship Circle of Fairfield County in Connecticut, which provides programming for children with special needs and their families. Their “Natan’s Camp” program, which is staffed by teen volunteers from the community, has been running for several years now and was most recently held on Presidents’ Day.

Edible Jewish art at the Jewish Camp Gan Israel adventure in Anchorage, Alaska. Credit: Gan Izzy Alaska In-Service Day Winter Camps 2019.

“For families of individuals with special needs, a vacation day can be stressful and draining,” said Chanie Kamman, FC’s family coordinator. “We created a program that provides respite for the parents, while at the same time gives children and their siblings a fun day in a safe and loving environment.”

In Alaska, meanwhile, the Camp Gan Izzy winter program was such a hit with local families that at least one mother is already asking organizers to expand. As she posted on social media, “Can you please start a teen camp?”

She’ll be happy to know the Glitsensteins are working on it.