Israel Up Close offers preparation and connection prior to camp
By Aaron Greenberg
With camp season underway, many Jewish campers will experience Israeli culture in a meaningful way for the first time, introduced to them by one of the many Israeli shlichim, or emissaries, placed in day camps across North America. Shlichim have long been a part of Jewish day and overnight camps, offering an authentic introduction to the culture of the Jewish homeland.
These young women and men attend a four-day training seminar run annually each spring in Israel by The Jewish Agency (JAFI). Nonetheless, they come to camp sight unseen, not necessarily prepared for what to expect despite emails, phone calls and facetime with their supervisors.
In order to the address the discrepancy between expectation and reality of the day camp setting, JCC Association of North America established Israel Up Close in 2013. This has allowed 51 day camp directors to attend the shlichim training. Not only do they gain insight into how the shlichim are prepared, but they offer valuable resources into the discourse about day camp.
A fifth cohort recently wrapped up, in which 10 day camp directors who had not participated in the training seminar previously, were able to attend through generous grants from JCC Association of North America. The funding was made possible through the Lenny Rubin Israel Education Fund, named for a former JCC Association professional who had a tremendous passion for Israel.
Israel Up Close participants were joined by another dozen camp representatives, many Israel Up Close alumni, to represent the field of Jewish day camps, answer questions, and model camp routines and programs. This was significant, as it was only the second year that a day camp-only seminar has been held, allowing for a focused approach to how Jewish day camps function in North America. Participants share their expertise, which drills down into such topics as busing, flagpole gatherings, Maccabiah competitions, and welcoming Shabbat.
And that knowledge is invaluable to the shlichim.
Noam Spector was going to be the only shlichah on staff at the Dwares JCC of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island last summer. She was admittedly nervous about the experience when she arrived at the JAFI seminar in spring 2016. Meeting Seth Finkel, Camp Chaverim’s director, eased many of her concerns.
“It made camp more real for me,” Spector explains. “I felt more excited for camp and understood better how things work. I knew nothing about summer camps and it made it so much easier to plan ahead.”
Finkel, on his end, brought pictures of the camp, a sample schedule and basically provided a nuts-and-bolts view of how camp operates. Noam was able to hit the ground running when she arrived in Rhode Island several weeks later.
“It was like picking up a family member at the airport,” he says when she arrived. “I knew who she was, she knew who I was, we had been talking once a week, emailing and Skyping, but Israel Up Close really helped build in excitement.”
Noam’s summer was by all assessments a successful one. Campers and staff alike loved her. They created a memory book for her. According to Finkel, parents saw the effect she had on their kids and the camp program. More significantly, Noam is returning to Camp Chaverim this summer.
And at the Summer Shlichim Seminar this year? She was one of the group leaders.
Bringing shlichim to camps only makes sense if directors can prepare them properly. That requires both an understanding of Israel as well as being in Israel for the training seminar.
That’s why Israel Up Close! not only brought the day-camp directors to the JAFI training seminar, but also provided an introduction to Israel education in JCCs, as well as an educational touring itinerary in Israel. After the conclusion of the seminar, camp directors explored Israel during two-and-a-half days of educational touring that introduced various perspectives: historical (Biblical and contemporary), political, technological, and spiritual.
Bringing shlichim to North American camps is an investment that JCC camps make because they know that creating personal relationships between Jews in North America and Jews in Israel is critical. These relationships give American Jews a reason to care about Israel and what happens there – their friends and camp counselors live there. As one director put it following the program, “I am walking away from this trip with a new understanding of Israel and its people, a deeper connection to my Jewish religion and a long list of ideas for improving my camp program.”
Also notable is that JAFI has shared an unexpected result of the shlichim program – the effect it has on the Israelis who serve as shlichim. Many discover from this intimate connection to Jewish life in the diaspora that being Jewish does not require them to be ultra-religious. Through the shlichim program, campers, staff and shlichim learn from one another many things, among them just how diverse being Jewish can be.
Being a part of Israel Up Close has also enabled camp representatives to engage with each other to discuss how their day camps can serve as “gateways” to the JCC and communities they serve and how shlichim can help JCCs create a vibrant and authentic Israel presence across all the program departments. The opportunity to share with colleagues and build a network of other camp professionals was a valuable takeaway from the experience, and the communication between participants has continued as the directors returned home to their summer planning.
The program’s success speaks for itself. So many directors who participate for the first time return even in subsequent years when the camp must cover the costs.
As Finkel of Camp Chaverim notes, if Spector hadn’t been returning this year to his camp, he would have been at the seminar training this year eagerly meeting his new slichah or shaliach. “When you create a personal context with the shlichim and a personal perspective, it enables you to speak about why you are doing this at camp. It becomes more important to me to make Israel a priority at camp.”
And Spector’s bond with her Rhode Island community is deep. Her host family from last year has asked if she’ll be staying with them again this year, and a camp family visiting Israel recently visited her in her hometown. During the bomb threat hoaxes that plagued JCCs earlier this year, Noam made the reverse call that so many North Americans do to Israel during trying times – to find out if everyone she loved was safe.
JCC day camps are by far the most numerous represented at the JAFI training, both in the number of shilchim that will be staffing those camps, and the directors who attend. Having the Israelis who will engage with the largest number of Jewish campers in North America through our network of JCC camps prepared for what to expect is what Israel Up Close was designed to do. That it succeeds each summer is evident, when both shlichim and directors know what they’re in for. In the end, it’s the campers and staff who win – experiencing an Israeli cultural encounter they both love, and won’t soon forget.
Aaron Greenberg is the senior consultant for day camp initiatives at JCC Association of North America.