Jewish Agency to bring 1,500 Israeli teens affected by war to summer camps around the world

New initiative, Campers2Gether, is supported by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Mosaic United and others, looks to offer respite, healing to teens from war-torn areas

Some 1,500 Israeli teenagers who have been directly affected by the Israel-Hamas war and the fighting along Israel’s northern border will travel to Jewish camps this summer as part of a new $10 million initiative spearheaded by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the organization told eJewishPhilanthropy exclusively.

This program, known as Campers2Gether, is meant to both give the Israeli teens both a respite from the turmoil at home and a chance to connect with Jewish communities around the world, but primarily in the United States.

“We know that being in an environment that’s less stressful and being in an environment that’s loving, being around people who are laughing and happy, can help people form a better imagination of their future. They can dream of a better future,” Shelly Kedar, director of the Jewish Agency’s Connecting the Jewish People Unit, told eJP.

“And we want to remind them that we are one people,” she said. “This is a solidarity moment that we need to turn into peoplehood.”

The program is being led by the Jewish Agency, which is also providing $2 million of its funding, alongside the Foundation for Jewish Camp. It is also being funded by the Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry through Mosaic United, as well as the Jewish Federations of North America, the United Kingdom’s United Jewish Israel Appeal, the Bnei Akiva youth movement, the JCC Association of North America, the Hallelujah Project and others.

The project currently has an earmarked budget of $10 million, including the travel costs and compensation for the participating camps. Kedar said some of the camps have offered to pay for the Israeli campers or to only charge the Jewish Agency “at cost,” so the budget may end up being less than planned.

“For so many of us in the Jewish community, some of our fondest memories come from summer camp — a thoughtful, safe environment where we were able to practice independence, make new friendships, and learn about ourselves,” Mark Wilf, the Jewish Agency’s chairman of the board of governors, said in a statement. “Campers2Gether now takes the transformative power of the Jewish summer camp setting to the next level at a time of unprecedented need for the Jewish people. The program will generate positive experiences for affected Israeli teens, utilizing the camp community to convey a healing sense of unity, while simultaneously providing a platform for global Jewish youth to understand Israel on a personal level.”

Kedar said the program came together in response to requests from the parents of teenagers from these conflict zones who told caseworkers from the Jewish Agency’s Fund for Victims of Terror that they were most interested in some kind of summer program for their kids. 

The Jewish Agency has not yet opened the program for applications, but Kedar said they expect that the full 1,500 slots will be taken up by eligible teens in light of the requests from parents for summer activities. “This is the No. 1 thing that they asked for,” she said.

The Jewish Agency effectively combined two of its existing initiatives, its shlichut, or emissary, program that sends young Israeli adults to serve as staff at summer camps, and the Communities2Gether program that connects communities in Israel with ones abroad, which is now expanding in the wake of the Oct. 7 terror attacks.

“A lot of camp directors have been waiting to do something proactive and good, and this is it,” Kedar said. “They are opening their hearts and their bunks to these Israeli teens.”

The mental health of the participants is a top priority for the program, according to Kedar. It was devised in collaboration with Israeli psychotrauma specialist Mooli Lahad, the founder of the International Community Stress Prevention Center and a world leader in the treatment of stress, particularly as it relates to conflict.

The 1,500 teenagers, aged 14-16, who will take part in the program will travel to summer camps, mostly in the United States but some in Europe and elsewhere around the world, in groups of 20. They will be accompanied by two counselors from their communities and a mental health professional. Before they go, they will meet to prepare for the trip, and after they return, they will meet again to discuss it.

“Supplementing the experience are therapeutic activities and counseling sessions facilitated by professionals,” the Jewish Agency said.

In addition to expecting the program to help the Israeli participants, Kedar said she believes that it will also have a positive impact on the other campers.

“Meeting people who have gone through hell and being able to just play and laugh and be together, that can give strength and pride to the American teens, and that’s something we need,” Kedar said, adding: “Resilience generates resilience.”

In addition to preparing the Israeli participants for the potential challenges of the trip, both their own struggles and those faced by Diaspora Jewry amid rising antisemitism since Oct. 7, the summer camps that will receive them will also work to get their staff ready for the Israeli teens, all of whom have experienced personal losses of some kind. 

“We need mutual sensitivity,” Kedar said. “There are a lot of materials and tools that we’ve prepared.”

While all of those involved are “serious” about preparing for the program as much as possible, she said there likely would inevitably be some kind of friction or uncomfortable encounter at one of the camps. National organizations, as well as individual camps across the United States, have been holding discussions about the specific challenges they are facing this coming summer in terms of the heated debate around the Israel-Hamas war and divisions about it within the Jewish community.

“There are no guarantees. We do our best, we try to think of everything and we try to be honest and vulnerable,” Kidar said. “It’s not going to be perfect. We can’t guarantee that there’s not going to be a difficult conversation. So we equip people with tools on how to have sensitive conversations, how to be active listeners.”

At the same time, she said she expected that there would be a certain “self-selection” among the participating camps. “Camps that think Israel is a controversial issue aren’t necessarily going to put themselves forward for this,” Kedar said.

The Jewish Agency is still determining which Israeli teens will be sent to which summer camps. Kedar and her team are taking into consideration a number of factors, including matching participants to appropriate camps in terms of religious observance (not sending a secular teen to a more religious camp or vice versa), existing relationships between communities, transportation costs and distances.

For instance, Kedar said, a group of teens that are expected to have greater mental health needs may not be sent to a camp in California but could instead go to the Jewish Agency’s camp in Greece, which is just a two-hour flight away.

The teens will mostly travel to camps in July, during their second session, as this is “a bit calmer and usually a bit smaller” than the first session of the summer, Kedar said.

The Jewish Agency is treating the program as a three-year project, Kedar said, preparing the “infrastructure” for it so that it can be run more than once. 

“We hope that this summer will have minimal incidents and maximum impact,” she said. “And hopefully — bli neder [without vowing] — this won’t be a one-off thing.”