Preparing for summer

Summer camp as a catalyst for thoughtful experiential Israel education

In Short

At Ramah, we want our campers and staff members to have a strong, enduring connection to Israel. We want them to be in relationship with the diverse people of Israel, especially with those who have made a commitment to spend their summers working with our campers in North America.

Three camp counselors stood at the front of our seminar room at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and asked a pair of questions. “What do you love about camp?” and “What would you change about camp?” In response to the first, we heard many enthusiastic answers: Camp builds up my confidence; it makes me feel surprised by what I can accomplish; it challenges me creatively; it allows me to be the first Jewish educator in the lives of my young campers; it provides a Jewish experience that feels fun and spirited with people my age. 

In response to the second, we heard thoughtful critiques and suggestions for improving camp culture, maximizing leadership opportunities for young staff, raising salaries and other concrete recommendations. 

These three counselors then asked a third simple, yet profound, question: “Even after offering these suggestions for improvement, do you still love camp?” All hands shot up. This strategically designed activity demonstrated powerfully how each of us can hold multiple emotions, even negative ones, while maintaining a core, positive commitment to an institution. These creative counselors helped their peers bridge this exercise and experience to their relationship to Israel, reminding them that with regard to Israel, they can also feel multiple, even conflicting, emotions.

This brief exercise offers but one example of the possibilities that the summer camp setting affords for thoughtful, experiential Israel education. Many Jewish camps have at their core a strong vision for how campers, staff members and alumni should be engaged with Israel and Israelis. Such education is and should be core to the enterprise, as the Jewish camping sector has a strong vision for how campers, staff members and alumni should be engaged with Israel and Israelis.

For example, at Ramah, we want our campers and staff members to have a strong, enduring connection to Israel. We want them to be in relationship with the diverse people of Israel, especially with those who have made a commitment to spend their summers working with our campers in North America. We want them to have fun taking in the vast cultural production of Israel, including music, dance, food, visual art and the Hebrew language. 

On a more serious note, we want them to grapple honestly, in developmentally appropriate ways, with the big questions Zionism raises about what it means to balance power and vulnerability, democracy and Judaism and the perspectives of those living in Israel with those living in other parts of the Jewish world. We accomplish these goals by working hard to build a community of trust throughout the summer and beyond.

With these challenges and goals in mind, the National Ramah Commission has partnered closely with the Shalom Hartman Institute to offer Maslul Yisrael/Camp Counselor iEngage Seminar, a week-long opportunity for returning senior counselors, mostly current college students, to study in Jerusalem with the talented faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute. After a successful pilot in 2022, Hartman invited other camps to participate this year. This year there were counselors from nine different Ramah camps (overnight and day), Camp Yavneh, Camp Judaea and Island Quest Day Camp.

Together, the 22 counselors who participated this year — most from North America with one Israeli staff member — explored some of the toughest questions facing Israel and the relationship between Israel and North American Jews, all while experiencing the sights and sounds of Israel. They studied texts together in chevruta (pairs), took eye-opening tours of East Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, cooked Jewish foods, met Israeli shlichim (emissaries) working at our camps this summer and practiced leading Israel-related activities like the one described above. On Shabbat, we davened with Kehillat Zion and the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center minyan, immersing ourselves in two of Jerusalem’s vibrant egalitarian communities. 

Over the course of our week with Hartman, we explored big themes that directly speak to the current moment in Israel: “Israel as a Jewish Story,” “The Possibility of Jewish Democracy,” “Navigating Power and Democracy,” “Power and Occupation” and “Jewish Peoplehood and Israel.” The participants listened respectfully to the multiple perspectives that were shared within each topic, and reflected on how that kind of deep listening can elevate similar conversation and the exchange of diverse viewpoints about Israel at camp. 

One participant said, “I have never experienced Israel education as engaging and transformative as I have this past week. I picked up many skills and approaches to Israel and Jewish education from Hartman that I’m excited to bring to camp this summer.” The Israeli participant reflected, “Israel, like anything, cannot be perfect. I can both realize that it is my home where I live and carry out my day to day and also be critical of the things I disagree with without undermining its right to existence.”

This experience took place at a key moment, both for Israel and for the field of Jewish camping in North America. When we arrived, the country was still in the midst of struggling with the proposal by the current coalition for a judicial overhaul. As one Hartman faculty member suggested, this controversy has picked at the deepest wounds of Israeli society. Our young staff members need to be prepared this summer to address the timely questions related to this issue and its ramifications for the relationship between Israel and North America, both with their campers in age-appropriate ways, and among fellow staff members, Israelis and North American Jews alike. This seminar gave our staff the content and preparation they need to support their campers and peers through tough conversations on what’s happening in Israel right now.

At the same time, many North American Jewish camps are struggling to recruit and retain staff, especially for senior counselor roles. Competition for potential counselors’ time during the summer has increased in recent years, as these college students seek out internships that could lead to full-time work after graduation. And yet, year-round camp professionals (and many seasonal staff alumni!) know just how relevant working as a counselor or unit head can be to prepare for successful work in a range of careers.

The opportunity to participate in the Maslul Yisrael/Camp Counselor iEngage Seminar in Israel serves as an incentive for our seasonal staff to return to camp for a second, third or fourth summer and beyond. In partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute, we invest in our counselors’ education, leadership and professional development. During our week in Israel, we learned with some of the most talented scholars, educators and activists working in Israel today, and enjoyed excellent accommodations and delicious food. And, most importantly, Hartman took seriously our participants’ questions, perspectives and pedagogy as educators in their own right. 

In concert with our cherished partnership with Hartman, Ramah has taken additional steps to prepare for another summer of committed and thoughtful engagement with Israel. Through our longstanding relationship with the Jewish Agency, 300 shlichim and shlichot are coming to work at Ramah camps this summer. For the intensive training weekend for these Israeli staff members at Kibbutz Shefayim, we brought over 30 year-round North American staff, including 13 members of Kerem, our cohort of young professionals in their 20s. 

We are also thrilled that Dr. Yizhar Hess, Vice Chair of the World Zionist Organization, joined us at our spring training conference for rashei edot (unit heads). Dr. Hess reminded these camp leaders that Israel is the state, not just of all its citizens, but of all the Jewish people, and therefore North American participation in big conversations about Israel’s character are not just welcome but essential. 

Because of our investments and partnerships with the Shalom Hartman Institute and others, we anticipate that Ramah camps this summer will be communities where conversation, study and experiences of Israel will be passionate, thoughtful and engaging, with space for productive disagreement. In so doing, we will confidently assert and deepen our core commitment to Israel. 

Daniel Olson is the director of strategic initiatives and research at the National Ramah Commission. He completed his PhD in education and Jewish studies at NYU in 2020.