New Israel Engagement Models for Jewish Camps

by Rabbi Yehudit Werchow

“When we’re at our best, how would Israel be present in our camp?”

This question was raised by one of the URJ’s camp directors during a phone conversation about the upcoming summer. This is one of the most important questions for leading a change process around Israel engagement, but even more important is who asks the question. The fact that it was raised by a camp director reflecting on opportunities for growth in the camp’s Israel educational work is an inspiring sign about the positive change in the URJ Camps’ educational work around Israel engagement.

Five years ago, URJ Camps launched an Israel education and advocacy initiative with the generous support of the Legacy Heritage Fund. Partnering with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Education on the New York campus, the iCenter and MAKOM, the URJ worked to develop strategies, curricula and an evaluation processes to reimagine, enhance and deepen the presence of Israel at URJ camps. With collaborative input from academics, educators, camp directors, camp staff and campers themselves, the URJ staff experimented with diverse educational methodologies that reshaped Israel engagement models, creating stronger connections between North Americans and Israelis while also strengthening Jewish education overall.

Prior to launching the initiative, the URJ Camps had strong Israel-related content, but it wasn’t always a collaborative effort between shlichim (The Jewish Agency’s Israeli emissaries) and North American staff. Sometimes, it happened in a silo. The goal of the initiative was to move beyond having a “Yom Israel” and sporadic Israel activities, but rather to create a camp culture where Israel is a core component of Jewish education and a joint responsibility of Israelis and North American staff. Through this close collaboration, both groups and individuals are inspired to develop a sense of commitment to the Jewish people, Israel and Judaism in the camp community.

The change process was developed in a few concentric circles. First, URJ staff worked with camp directors to build on the directors’ own connections to Israel, focusing on the role of Israel in their personal Jewish narratives and articulating a vision for the presence of Israel in the camp community. Then, each camp’s education leadership team mapped the presence of Israel within their camp and identified areas for growth. In the next stage the URJ invested in the training and mentoring of camp directors, educators, staff and shlichim together, so that they would all feel inspired, knowledgeable and empowered to lead nuanced and substantive Israel experiences together in their camps. In many of our camps, one outcome of this new process resulted in Israelis and North Americans co-leading inspiring worship services that celebrated their connections with each other and with Israel.

Two years into the process, the URJ’s learning seminar for all camp educators was moved to Israel so that as one component, these professionals could participate together with the shlichim in the Jewish Agency’s training seminar. This joint training created invaluable opportunities to create a collaborative cohort as part of the summer preparation. The training emphasized the importance of a team approach, key to the success of all facets of the URJ camps’ culture. These shared learning experiences are enhanced throughout the network of educators who share best practices, mentor each other, and contribute individually and collectively as a team to the ongoing growth of Jewish education within URJ camps.

In another step in the process, the URJ staff transitioned from an off-the-shelf Israel curriculum to one that was developed collaboratively by our own educational staff as a result of their learning seminar in Israel. Not only does this curriculum enable educators to “customize” it to fit their own camp’s culture, but also to integrate the arts, politics, culture, history and other aspects of Israel into the core components of the camps’ broader curricula.

In an effort to bring Israel to the camps’ wider community, including the Reform Movement at-large, the URJ and the Jewish Agency for Israel launched a new model for community shlichut. In this model, shlichim, working in congregations during the school year and at camp during the summer, not only enhance their own Jewish journeys by becoming active members of the congregational and camp communities, but also serve as the bridge that connects the camp and the congregation to each other and to Israel.

After five years of intensive and exciting work, not only is Israel engagement within URJ camps visibly integrated into rituals, public spaces and throughout the community, but also within the consciousness of educators, staff and, most important, the campers themselves. However, the work is far from finished. The URJ is committed building on what we have learned and partnering with other organizations in our efforts to enhance the ways we incorporate Israel and Israelis into camp and community life and contributing to the field of Israel education.

Rabbi Yehudit Werchow is the Union for Reform Judaism’s Senior Shlicha and the Director for Israel Engagement.

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  1. says

    It’s really inspiring to read this article. I’ve worked at URJ Greene Family Camp throughout the length of this 5 year initiative. We have seen such development and deepening of our Israel-related content. We have become more intentional and deliberate, which has led to new programs, celebrations, and structures for creating collaboration among staff, as well as more creative thinking and planning. It’s exciting to read this article and to be reminded of the larger context and trajectory of our work. Thank you!

    Rabbi Ana Bonnheim
    Associate Director, URJ Greene Family Camp

  2. says

    At the Cohen Camps (Camps Pembroke, Tel Noar and Tevya), where Israel and Zionism have been an integral part of our camps from their founding by my grandfather, we have looked in the past few years for new ways to integrate Israel education and Jewish values. Our camps have historically been in a similar place as the URJ camps with Shlichim tasked with Israel education, so it seemed to be layered on top of the rest of the camp program. In the past few years we’ve taken a careful look how to make Israel education relevant to today’s young people, believing strongly that Israel education shouldn’t be separate from teaching Jewish values.

    We have mapped out an “arc of Jewish life” for a child’s years at camp that emphasizes different core Jewish values at each age level, and are concurrently developing Israel education that connects with those same values. Our change process has been inspired and molded by two important programs – Chazon, which helps camp directors develop their own vision of Israel education, and the Goodman Initiative, that trains staff in Israel education that is value-based and historically-informed.

    The highest rung of the “ladder” of Israel education is bringing campers to Israel. Seventy-five percent of our eligible campers participate in our Dor L’Dor Leadership program, the capstone of campers’ years at the Cohen Camps, which includes a five-week Israel trip. Increasingly, we are providing opportunities for these graduates who become counselors (currently 100% of our home-grown staff have had at least one Israel experience) to bring their Israel experience back into camp, as they collaborate with Shlichim in developing new programs and continue their own Israel education through American-Israeli staff interactions.

  3. Shalom Orzach says

    This article and the comments are extremely encouraging and highlight a collaborative model between shlichim and North American staffs which has become normative, reflecting the larger collaborative model between a growing number of initiatives thoughtfully and intentionally reshaping the field of Israel education at camp.

    Shalom Orzach
    Avi Chai Project Director
    Director of Education
    Shlichut and Israel Fellows Unit
    Jewish Agency for Israel