Summer Camp is on the Agenda in Israel while Retooling in North America

By Shawna Goodman Sone

This past week the Ministry of Education in Israel was making plans to start training for counselors for day camps in Israel and we are anxiously awaiting word on the status of overnight camps. which are of growing interest in Israel. We began our mission to develop more 10 – 14-day overnight camps here for Israeli kids over a year ago and with the Covid 19 isolation winding down parents are anxiously waiting to learn if this great experiment will launch in summer 2020.

While models of overnight summer camping are underdeveloped in Israel, our recent experience engaging with several leading youth organizations over the past year has shown that there is pent-up demand for overnight summer programs for adolescents. In designing summer camp programs, we need to recognize and be sensitive to the cultural differences between Israelis and North Americans.

Extended overnight summer camping is not normative for Israelis and copy-pasting North American models in Israel will not work. Despite these differences, like North American summer camp experiences we believe that Israeli camps must be filled with experiential learning, in an informal and fun filled environment where kids can be kids, where they can interact with peers of different socio-economic and religious background, where they can explore the world around them and interact socially without being tethered to their screens. We believe that children should have access to this opportunity regardless of family income as is the practice with day camps.

In 2019 together with many organizational partners, our family Foundation established a nonprofit entity, the Forum for Summer Camps Israel. With the leadership of professional informal educators, we were driven to enrich the field and explore ways to provide AN ARRAY of opportunities for children throughout the country.

As a North American who moved to Israel five years ago, I had the benefit of spending many summers at camp where I learned skills, made lifelong friends, became more open and tolerant of others and learned about Judaism in an informal environment. Most important, it was at camp that I met the man I would later marry. Sending our kids to camp has been a priority for my husband and I and I am proud that each of my teenage children has been able to enjoy the same experience that I enjoyed. I see how they mature, gain self confidence from spending time exploring, gaining new skills, and improving building their social and communication skills. My kids return from camp a little wiser, more self aware and more socially engaged then they were before the Summer.

In making an investment to provide overnight summer camps that are diverse and accessible we realized that four things were required; creating a “made in Israel model” while learning from best practices in North America, providing an opportunity that would be attractive for kids, gaining trust of parents and keeping the price at a manageable level for middle class families and providing subsidies for those of lesser means.

Twenty -four organizations with an interest in OVERNIGHT camps came forward to our call for participation (some have experience with overnight camp and others do not) and joined the Forum for Summer Camps Israel. These organizations represent all sectors of Israeli life and many different specialty interests. Each camp shares the same basic objective: To provide children ages 11-16 a high-quality overnight experience of at least 10 days with standards for health, security, content, and volunteerism.

We were all set to go for summer 2020. Generous donors came on board offering scholarship funds. Our website was in its final stages. Each camp was ready to begin recruitment. But all came to an abrupt stop when COVID 19 became the great disrupter and we were faced with a vastly different scenario. Ensuring a healthy and safe environment is of paramount importance and we understand that families will be nervous and uneasy whether to send their kids into the unknown of an overnight experience with concerns about the pandemic restarting.

So, should we have summer camp in Israel this year? This is a question that only the health experts and government authorities can answer along with parents. The list of pros and cons are many led by the understanding that camp can provide a safe and isolated environment with limited exposure to others while at the same time the work required to provide this security bubble is extensive and needs a well organized plan with consideration of all potential risks.

Even if the goal of getting another 1000 children to overnight camp is not met this summer we have created a committed group of dynamic informal educators and next summer will allow us to move ahead with our audacious goal of having 10,000 Israel children attend a ten day to two week camp by summer 2023.

The time has arrived for Israeli families to own summers in a more meaningful way for their adolescent and teen-age children. The world of overnight camp offers endless opportunities and gets kids off the couch, away for their digital devices and promotes human contact, something we all need after this long period of isolation.

Shawna Goodman Sone is Chair, Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation and Founder of Summer Camps Israel.