by Rabbi Yehudit Werchow

“When we’re at our best, how would Israel be present in our camp?”

This question was raised by one of the URJ’s camp directors during a phone conversation about the upcoming summer. This is one of the most important questions for leading a change process around Israel engagement, but even more important is who asks the question. The fact that it was raised by a camp director reflecting on opportunities for growth in the camp’s Israel educational work is an inspiring sign about the positive change in the URJ Camps’ educational work around Israel engagement.

Five years ago, URJ Camps launched an Israel education and advocacy initiative with the generous support of the Legacy Heritage Fund. Partnering with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Education on the New York campus, the iCenter and MAKOM, the URJ worked to develop strategies, curricula and an evaluation processes to reimagine, enhance and deepen the presence of Israel at URJ camps. With collaborative input from academics, educators, camp directors, camp staff and campers themselves, the URJ staff experimented with diverse educational methodologies that reshaped Israel engagement models, creating stronger connections between North Americans and Israelis while also strengthening Jewish education overall.

Prior to launching the initiative, the URJ Camps had strong Israel-related content, but it wasn’t always a collaborative effort between shlichim (The Jewish Agency’s Israeli emissaries) and North American staff. Sometimes, it happened in a silo. The goal of the initiative was to move beyond having a “Yom Israel” and sporadic Israel activities, but rather to create a camp culture where Israel is a core component of Jewish education and a joint responsibility of Israelis and North American staff. Through this close collaboration, both groups and individuals are inspired to develop a sense of commitment to the Jewish people, Israel and Judaism in the camp community.

The change process was developed in a few concentric circles. First, URJ staff worked with camp directors to build on the directors’ own connections to Israel, focusing on the role of Israel in their personal Jewish narratives and articulating a vision for the presence of Israel in the camp community. Then, each camp’s education leadership team mapped the presence of Israel within their camp and identified areas for growth. In the next stage the URJ invested in the training and mentoring of camp directors, educators, staff and shlichim together, so that they would all feel inspired, knowledgeable and empowered to lead nuanced and substantive Israel experiences together in their camps. In many of our camps, one outcome of this new process resulted in Israelis and North Americans co-leading inspiring worship services that celebrated their connections with each other and with Israel.

Two years into the process, the URJ’s learning seminar for all camp educators was moved to Israel so that as one component, these professionals could participate together with the shlichim in the Jewish Agency’s training seminar. This joint training created invaluable opportunities to create a collaborative cohort as part of the summer preparation. The training emphasized the importance of a team approach, key to the success of all facets of the URJ camps’ culture. These shared learning experiences are enhanced throughout the network of educators who share best practices, mentor each other, and contribute individually and collectively as a team to the ongoing growth of Jewish education within URJ camps.

In another step in the process, the URJ staff transitioned from an off-the-shelf Israel curriculum to one that was developed collaboratively by our own educational staff as a result of their learning seminar in Israel. Not only does this curriculum enable educators to “customize” it to fit their own camp’s culture, but also to integrate the arts, politics, culture, history and other aspects of Israel into the core components of the camps’ broader curricula.

In an effort to bring Israel to the camps’ wider community, including the Reform Movement at-large, the URJ and the Jewish Agency for Israel launched a new model for community shlichut. In this model, shlichim, working in congregations during the school year and at camp during the summer, not only enhance their own Jewish journeys by becoming active members of the congregational and camp communities, but also serve as the bridge that connects the camp and the congregation to each other and to Israel.

After five years of intensive and exciting work, not only is Israel engagement within URJ camps visibly integrated into rituals, public spaces and throughout the community, but also within the consciousness of educators, staff and, most important, the campers themselves. However, the work is far from finished. The URJ is committed building on what we have learned and partnering with other organizations in our efforts to enhance the ways we incorporate Israel and Israelis into camp and community life and contributing to the field of Israel education.

Rabbi Yehudit Werchow is the Union for Reform Judaism’s Senior Shlicha and the Director for Israel Engagement.