Does Israel Education Matter at Camp?

by Susan Rifkin

Ask today’s Jewish youth “What is Israel?” and you would probably get a response that includes Hebrew, hummus, culture and conflict. Israel Night at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly included many of these elements, with a record number of attendees feasting on Israeli delicacies, singing and dancing to Israeli music.

Ask today’s “older” generation the same question and the answer would be much different – Jewish homeland, heritage, pioneering and perseverance. While there is no one correct answer, talking about Israel is complex and multifaceted. One’s perspective is colored by personal experiences, relationships and what has been heard from others. At 65 years young, Israel’s story is one of determination, problem solving, leadership, strategic thinking, peaceful coexistence and innovation. Coincidentally, many of these traits can also be used to describe the camp environment and skills learned at camp.

Feelings about Jewish camp are similarly rooted in our own personal experiences and recollections. Whether we remember raising the Israeli flag each morning before breakfast, talking to the staff shlichut about their IDF service or embedding Hebrew words into our daily vocabulary, our perceptions are a direct result of our individual stories. The more details that exist in our own stories, the stronger the emotions.

As camp staffers and board members will attest, camp is a unique environment for education, community building and instilling values. We have learned that education and fun are not mutually exclusive, and that teachable moments exist in both structured and unstructured environments. Experiential education is a growing field that is well suited for the camp landscape. Sessions at Leaders Assembly – including “What’s Your Israel Connection?”, “Making (Israel) History Our Story” and “Integrating Israel Trips into the Culture of Your Camp” gave camp decision makers a number of ways to bring Israel to camp.

Two years ago, the Goodman Foundation, in partnership with the Avi Chai and Marcus Foundations, launched the Goodman Initiative in Modern Israel History by using the expertise of the iCenter and the Foundation for Jewish Camp to bring Israel to life at camp. Mentors train camp staff to bridge the gap between old and new Israel thinking; create educational, memorable yet fun experiences relating to Israel; and dispel the notion that Israel is a country so foreign and different that North Americans cannot relate. Inclusion of shlichim as part of the core camp staff adds to the understanding and curiosity surrounding Israel. In addition to sharing historical facts and events, the beauty and culture of Israel entices campers to want to experience Israel firsthand.

Camp directors shared that “Goodman” (as it is commonly known) has been a game changer, providing resources, outcomes and applications well beyond their expectations. Many have used the opportunity to partner with synagogues, youth groups and schools in their areas to keep the experience going year round and recruit campers and staff jointly. These new relationships build community and deepen the connection to both Israel and Jewish identity.

Armed with a database of activity modules downloaded as apps on their smartphones, Goodman staffers impart Israel knowledge, trivia and culture through methods that fit their camp’s personality. Age appropriate conversations take place throughout the day and in many areas of the facility: be it Israel trivia posted on dining tables, a rock climbing wall created to lay out Israel’s geography or campers dressed up as prominent Israeli leaders parading through the camp, Israel lives at camp, allowing campers and staff to create their own personal narratives and memories that will stay with them far into the future.

The key takeaways from the Israel Track at Leaders Assembly address the real reason for funding the incorporation of Israel at Jewish camp.

  • Israel education adds a unique dimension to camp through culture, sports and relationships.
  • Israeli innovation and achievements are a source of pride.
  • Shlichim help overcome the “foreign” mentality of Israel as a faraway and very different place. And help show campers that many aspects of our lives are similar to the daily lives of Israelis.
  • We are all a part of the Israel community, with shared values, hopes and dreams.

So, “What is Israel?” I hope we will hear more answers such as “Israel is my community and a part of me.”

Susan Rifkin joined the Lillian & Larry Goodman Foundations as Executive Director in 2011. She oversees all staff and grants related to the Foundations’ 5 areas of giving: Israel, Modern Israel History Education, Substance Abuse Prevention, Hunger Relief and Chicago Projects.