Changing the Paradigm of Summer Camp in Israel

By Shawna Goodman Sone

For years, campers’ parents have reported that when their children return home from camp, they are more caring, understand the importance of giving, are more equipped to stand up for what they know is right, and are willing to be more responsible. These are the qualities that will help build a successful nation and a civil society. (American Camping Association)

There is no doubt that summer camping works. Overnight camp has proven itself in North America in creating viable outcomes such as self identity self esteem, leadership, a love for community and respect for a fellow friend. Research has proven that overnight camp is also the most significant influencer in creating positive Jewish identity.

When I moved to Israel in 2015, I learned that overnight camping had barely entered the landscape. Being an alumna of Camp Ramah (Canada of course) I have benefitted from my long-lasting relationships including meeting my husband at camp and my close friends who welcomed me with open arms when we first arrived in Israel. These relationships provided our family with the safety and security to embark on this journey and helped open doors to new friendships. The Ramah network which had originally provided me with the Jewish literacy that allowed me to feel part of a community in Canada, now gave me a sense of connectedness in my new community of Ra’nana.

Our three boys have been fortunate to be able to continue to participate in the North American Jewish camping experience where I feel they are being inoculated with Jewish values in a rich immersive experience. Yes-this does sound completely absurd when you think we moved to Israel where one would feel this “comes with the package.” Unfortunately, there is no perfect package and this Jewish gap is evident in the social landscape of Israel that is so divided between “religious and secular.” Overnight camping in Israel would be a means of filling this gap of bridging these two disconnected communities through a shared experience.

In Israel there are hundreds of day camps run through many different organizations, primarily attended by children under 12, but overnight camping options are minimal and prohibitively expensive for an average Israeli family. The culture of sending your kids away for more than 3 days is not normative and brings many Israeli mothers to tears and laden with anxiety.

So, what we end up seeing are thousands of kids bored and unprogrammed and spending an average of 7 hours on their screens in the hot summer months. The situation also adds to the stress of over scheduled working parents who are concerned each day about what their children are and aren’t doing. We all know that overnight camp provides a much-needed break and change of pace for parents. This reality presents an opportunity to create social change through untapped potential.

Summertime is a gift of possibilities for children. With the help of many partners we can create some affordable summer camping options for Israeli adolescents and teens to maximize their opportunities. Whether gaining a new skill, making a new friend from a different part of the country with an alternate identity or religious practice or providing a personal challenge for them to overcome … this is FOUND time to enrich character and flourish in a thriving experiential environment with a focus on shared values and building common memories. Children should not have to wait for their military experience to be exposed to the broader Israeli society.

In order to do this, a first step would be creating a centre for camping empowerment in Israel that provides a platform for shared learning and practices and to encourage the development of new models. Importantly new language is needed to brand this new initiative because it cannot be imported directly “as is” from our North American family. It needs to be altered and adapted to fit the culture and needs of Israeli society. Resources are required to encourage experimentation and creativity. We have the potential to involve young Israelis who have served as Shlichim and Shinshinim in North American camps and know the value and impact of pluralistic camp experiences, they can be part of the process of considering how to use their expertise and that of other informal educators.

Our Foundation has been working to explore ways to accelerate and looks forward to expanding this conversation as broadly as possible. Camping is the platform for change. Our children are our future and investing in their summers will help to build a more tolerant society that is rooted in community, compassion and co-existence.

Shawna Goodman Sone is the Chair of the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Foundation (based in Canada) and together with her husband Todd is an activist philanthropist in Israel.