By Deborah Fineblum
Last summer, Israeli teen Yoav Madani was offered something most kids would jump at: an overseas trip with his family. But his response to the invite surprised his parents.
“No thanks,” he said. “I’d rather go back to camp.”
As it turns out, for the last three years, Yoav’s summer camp has been anything but ordinary.
“It’s a chance I get every summer to be really creative,” said the 16-year-old from Netanya. “I’ve got friends coming back from around Israel, France, New Jersey and lots of other places. Besides, since I’m in camp with kids from 30 countries like Italy, Greece, America and England, it’s like I am going overseas.”
Yuval’s experience is a microcosm of the broader goals of the Big Idea camps, where children from around the world get a taste of Israel’s culture of innovation.
The seeds of Big Idea were planted more than a decade ago when a young Israeli, Dotan Tamir, spent the summer after his army service working in a technology camp in the U.S.
“I was exposed to American technology camps with lots of Jewish campers, so I thought, ‘Why isn’t there an overnight technology camp in ‘start-up nation’ for Jewish kids from around the world?’ It could be a way for the kids to relate to Israel in a whole new way,” Tamir told JNS.org.
Ten years later, Big Idea divides more than 1,000 youngsters ages 7-18 into Nanobyte, Kilobyte, Megabyte and Gigabyte groups for workshops on 3D modeling, computer programming, DJ mixing, photography, robotics, jewelry design, video production, and other high-tech or creative disciplines. The main Big Idea camp is located on the outskirts of Zichron Yaakov, a town known for its wineries and stunning Mediterranean views.
“The same counselors who wake them up in the morning are also experts in their fields who teach them during the day,” said Tamir.
Now 33, Tamir emphasizes how campers need no special skill, talent or knowledge to enroll – “just some curiosity and an open mind.”
The camps also provide Israeli and diaspora participants alike the chance to expand their social circles.
Jill Loris has been sending her children – Sam, 17, and Rachel, 15 – to Big Idea for the last four years.
“I’m more arty, so I didn’t know about going to a technology camp,” said Rachel, who studies drama at New York’s LaGuardia Arts School. “But the camp has a happy medium between technology and art, plus we can surf and just hang out with friends.”
For her brother Sam, the highlights are photoshop, animation, computer game design and “my friends who come back year after year.”
“I would never have these friends, many of them Israelis, without Big Idea,” he said.
For Yoav Madani, Big Idea has given him a vision for his potential.
“I’ve always loved images, but before camp all I had were some ideas. Now I say to myself, ‘Wait, I might have a future in photography. I can do this,’” he said.
Big Idea’s founder is pleased with the community he has created.
“We’ve got techies and artsy kids too, a good mix,” Tamir said. “Together they feel like this is their place to be themselves.”
One little-known aspect of the camp is its inclusion program. Intended for high-functioning children on the autism spectrum, the program is run discreetly so other campers don’t always realize who receives extra support.
The camp costs $2,495 for two weeks, and those who aren’t able to afford it – such as Ethiopian and other refugee/immigrant families – can receive scholarships.
The tuition is money well spent, said Avi Chelouche, director of Jewish life at Tarbut V’Torah, a Jewish day school in Irvine, Calif.
“Our kids come back each fall excited about the latest innovations, and very Zionistic,” he said. “They experience the kind of Israel you can’t find in books.”
In addition to the overnight camp locations in Zichron Yaakov and Afula, Big Idea now runs three technology day camps for participants ages 7-14 across Israel, as well as day camps in JCCs in Rockville, Md., and Tenafly, N.J. Further, the organization rolled out a technology gap-year program in Israel for ages 18-20 this year.
But the core program – attracting 1,000 campers to the Zichron Yaakov campus – remains the most popular offering.
“Now they love learning and Israel,” Jill Loris said, reflecting on the result of her children’s camp experience. “With all the anti-Israel forces out there, that’s never been more important.”