A Powerful Peoplehood

by Michal Ben-Dov

How do we best engage Israelis in the imperative issue of Jewish Peoplehood? How do we build and solidify relationships with Jews from the Diaspora? How can we better involve Israelis in the global Jewish conversation happening today?

These are the burning questions which I asked myself over the past two years at the Mandel Leadership Institute, and before that as the co-founder of Camp USA, a bridge building program that sends Israeli teens to Jewish overnight camps in North America. My vision as an educator in the field is to connect Israelis to the notion of Jewish Peoplehood, and work to expose them to the global Jewish community. Particularly, the Jewish community of North America, for reasons of size, dynamic variability, and vitality, should be brought into the Israeli consciousness and a deeper, more nuanced understanding developed to expand and create meaningful relationships which will form a living bridge between the communities. Clearly, Israelis should be engaged in a conversation with entire Jewish world. I believe this is in accordance with a shift I am detecting in the organized Jewish world that is starting to look at Israelis as another target audience, and focus on enhancing their education on Jewish Peoplehood. Yet this shift is yet to hit the wide Israeli society, and I am convinced that we must work to change the culture here in Israel, one person at a time.

Recently, I was happy to meet an old high school friend at the GA, now a world-renowned lawyer and lecturer on Bioethics. He had just returned from North America, having participated in a Haifa-Boston exchange program for young attorneys. We talked about how the experience of being involved in this Israel-US exchange was significant, as it helped him to understand this concept of Jewish Peoplehood. Excitedly, he told me about the beauty of the community that hosted him in Boston. The surprising intimacy and connection he immediately felt with his hosts; the realization that he has deep commonalities with people he had never met; their shared responsibility for strengthening the other, which was realized in many small and large gestures and behaviors. “Connecting with the North American Jewish community,” he said, “was powerful.”

Since 2005, Camp USA has been doing this kind of powerful. Making space for Israeli campers at Jewish overnight camps in North America is perhaps the most powerful action we can take in order to influence the next generation of global Jews. The relationships that form at summer camp between teenagers at an influential age are the seeds of the future bridge between the two largest Jewish communities in the world. As the Jewish People face the 21st century and the globalized reality of our present times, camp is where the next generation will find significance in their mutual relationship.

What we can learn from each other – what we must learn from each other, in order to make our lives in Israel, America and anywhere in the world worthwhile, is essential. Israelis must be exposed to the big tent of American Judaism where they might find value in their Jewish identity. It’s where they can find other, newer forms of living and practicing a vibrant Jewish cultural life. In turn, Americans can find a tangible expression of Jewish life in Israel that strengthens their understanding, sense of communal belonging, and their own identities. Thus, we ensure a mutually valuable connection, where we will all find profound meaning.

This is the power of camp. And we are always aspiring to spread it. We would like more Israeli and North American children to be exposed to one another, and more summer camps as our partners. Trying to make a difference and providing life-changing experiences that will impact our future as individuals, a People and a community.

Michal Ben-Dov is the co-founder and educational director of Camp USA. She is a recent graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem and a professional and scholar dedicated to Jewish Peoplehood and Israel-Diaspora relations.