Training Israelis for American Jewish Summer Camps

Shira Protas, from Zichron Yaakov, who was a counselor at OSRUI (Camp Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute) in Wisconsin; courtesy Abigail Pickus.

[This piece was originally published in eJewish Philanthropy on April 28, 2010.]

by Abigail Pickus

Small circles of young Israelis dot a stretch of lawn on a kibbutz outside Netanya. Deep in conversation, the participants sit cross legged or stretch out, listening intently, debating.

It isn’t summer camp – but rather training for Jewish summer camp, North American style, for the extraordinary young Israelis hand-picked by the Jewish Agency to be shlichim – emissaries – at Jewish camps from all the leading youth and community organizations throughout North America. Run by the Jewish Agency, the two week-long training sessions have prepped a total of 1100 shlichim – culled out of 5,000 applicants – for their work this summer as everything from counselors and waterfront staff to camping guides at 200 Jewish day-and overnight camps.

“This whole seminar is a build up to camp itself,” said Davidi Winograd, Director of the Summer Shlichim Program for the Jewish Agency. In addition to running the training sessions, Winograd oversees the selection process and helps match each individual shaliach with the camp that best fits their skills and personal qualities. The majority of the shlichim are in their 20s, and while some are currently serving in the army or performing national service, most have recently finished their army duty and will begin their university studies in the fall.

Since this venture will be for many of the young shlichim their first extended stay in North America, these training sessions, run by veteran shlichim who have spent past summers at camp, as well as by camp directors themselves, will prepare them for everything from North American customs and culture to the specific ideology of their camp.

“The whole idea is to simulate how camp is since they are coming from the army or from life in general in Israel and they have no idea what it is like at camp,” said Yoav Hershkovitz, 24, from Jerusalem, a session leader who spent last summer as a shaliach at Camp Tamarack in Michigan, where he will return again this summer.

But beyond basic acculturation tips, these training sessions open the door to something deeper and more intangible: Jewish identity and Peoplehood. For at its core, shlichut is a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora. It is a way to bring a very personal Israel to the Jewish community abroad.

A tall order, indeed. And a nuanced one, to boot. Which is why the organizers of the training sessions make sure that many of the programs encourage the shlichim to probe into their Jewish and Israeli identities. One such program called, “Journey to my Jewish Identity,” is an exhibition set up inside a tent where shlichim learn about the history of the Jewish people while simultaneously probing their own ancestry and identities.

“This opens up a lot of questions because many people leave the tent with a lot more questions that they came in with,” said Hershkovitz.

Which is exactly the point.

What is shlichut?” asked Hershkovitz. “First you start by being a good counselor, but within that your shlichut is all about a connection to Jewish identity. And then the challenge becomes how to translate our experiences into Israeli educational programs at camp.”

For Rabbi Loren Sykes, Director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, who attended one of the training sessions, Israeli shlichim are invaluable to his campers and to the camp experience.

“Today, the only thing most North American kids know about Israel are crises and tragedies, so the best way to build a connection to the next generation is to introduce them to Israelis, to bring a shaliach of every flavor – religious and secular, left and right – to camp. Their real job is to build as many meaningful relationships to campers and staff members as possible.”

One 20-year-old shalich, whose name cannot be published because he is currently serving in the army, is looking forward to bringing “his” Israel to his campers in America. “I hope that I will help them think differently about Israel, to think better about Israel. Maybe I will be an example for them to make Aliyah or to join the army,” he said. And in return he knows that he will “bring their side of the story to back to Israel.”

Shira Protas, 21, from Zichron Yaakov, who will be a counselor at OSRUI (Camp Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute) in Wisconsin, hopes to share with her campers more about life in Israel. And she hopes to bring back a deeper connection to Judaism. “I also think they can teach me a lot. I am not religious and grew up in a secular family so I am looking forward to being connected to religion. This will be something new for me,” she said.

Indeed, shlichut works both ways.

“The impact is mutual,” said Winograd. “They bring back lot of good energy after being exposed to rich Jewish life in North America.”

Looking around the beautiful grounds full of hundreds of young Israelis deep into their training session, Winograd added, “But this is only the first step of their personal journey. Here they get the training, but they still have a lot of work to do on their own.”

Summer 2012 update: According to The Jewish Agency, the organization has brought more shlichim to North America this summer (2012) than it has in recent years. The 1,054 delegates for 2012 compare to 1,029 last year, 1,020 in 2010, and 1,026 in 2009. Shlichim are currently working at more than 200 camps in 150 communities in 35 states and provinces, including large delegations at camps serving New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta.