Friday August 13, 2021 – ה’ באלול תשפ”א
“If some of the American staff would take the time to talk to us and get to know us, they would find our mishlachat is quite politically diverse and most of us are on the left to far left. But we are all Zionists, we love our country, and we’ve come here to share the things we love and that we’re committed to making it better.”
This statement by a young Israeli working in our summer camps shines a light on a fundamental disconnect between Israeli shlichim and American Jewish camp staff and must be addressed seriously.
For decades, a backbone of the Jewish summer camp experience has been having a mishlachat (delegation) of Israelis serving on staff. Bringing Israeli specialists and counselors for the summer season is one way that many Jewish camps and their movements have incorporated Israel, positively exposing Jewish children to the human side of Israel’s vibrancy and creativity. Through personal contact with Israelis, campers can come to know Israel as a place where real people live and can share in their challenges and experiences.
Dr. Elan Ezrachi wrote about the challenges inherent in this cultural exchange this way:
“[The] Mishlahat gave the children and staff an opportunity to explore the realities of the Jewish state in a personal and direct way. It also brought to camp a Hebrew/Judaic workforce that was unavailable in the United States.”
At the same time, however, North American children and staff discovered that Israelis were culturally and linguistically different. The camps did not anticipate the differences, and inadequate attention to processing and understanding them required an investment needed to produce the desired educational goals. This failure led to misunderstanding and, at times, the conflict between the two groups.
The secular Israeli was a strange creature in an America of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. The Bible expert who never attended a synagogue was an enigma at best and strange at worst.
To the Israeli, Americans seemed pampered, naive, and “galuti,” (“exilic”) a pejorative term in the Israeli context. To Americans, Israelis seemed brusque and aggressive – “He’s so Israeli!” Both are examples of misunderstanding of one about the other.
Camps frequently turn to Israeli staff and shlichim to serve as program specialists. However, clearly defined roles in the areas of sports, culture (music/dance/art), and camping skills often circumscribe the camp’s ability to make effective use of the staff members’ knowledge of Israeli issues and concerns.
Israeli educational bodies that send shlichim have made efforts to develop curricular pieces that they can “carry” to camp. Topics include the Hebrew language, Tisha B’av observances, and current issues within Israeli society. Although conceptually strong, these specific preparations frequently fall short on implementation within the camp setting.
The attempt to create “mass” programming to be instituted by Israelis with little understanding of American youth and process can be a recipe for failure. Frequently, Israeli staff members are left to fend for themselves without the support needed to be successful. Models that integrate American staff into the delivery of this programming tend to have a stronger impact at camp.”
Despite being written decades ago, Dr. Ezrachi’s critique still rings true today.
The Cultural Challenge
There is no lack of challenges with this model. It goes without saying that bringing young motivated Israeli shlichim to a North American environment is ripe with cultural gaps, differences of approaches to rules and regulations, and integration into the North American system.
This year a great deal of time was spent working with Israeli staff to internalize our Movement’s approach to racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. Throughout the summer, some Israelis expressed the feeling that while we go out of our way to celebrate differences, diversity, and previously marginalized identities, their Israeli identity was purposefully sidelined – perhaps because of “hot-button” political issues. One Israeli staff member raised by English speaking parents in Israel said:
“I totally get the conversation around White privilege in America and don’t disagree. However, could American Jews also acknowledge the privilege of having a Jewish State that we didn’t fight or risk our lives for, or even give up 2-3 years in the prime of our lives to defend and serve? Instead, I feel like I’m looked down upon and treated with contempt for just being Israeli.”
Many shlichim want to share their experience in the Israeli army. I once met a 24-year-old bunk counselor who explained that as a young company commander he was responsible for the welfare, health, and safety of 250 soldiers. He knew every one of their stories, their family backgrounds, and their “issues,” but at camp, he felt that he was barely trusted with even minor responsibilities.
Fewer and fewer camps are allowing a “Yom Tzahal” (i.e. “IDF Day”) – where the Israeli shlichim dress in uniform and demonstrate a day in the life of basic training. Some camps still hold an IDF day, but many stopped because parents complained after seeing a video of their children doing pushups and crawling around in the mud wearing camouflage. IDF day also raised the ire of many young American activists who criticized what they perceived to be the glorification of a militaristic culture.
However, IDF day also offers the opportunity to discuss serious issues and to introduce Israel in all its complexity. It is important to note that the IDF plays a major role in Israeli society. It’s impossible to understand Israel without exposure to the IDF. If we are bringing young Israeli shlichim from Israel to be at our camps, how can we expect them not to speak about the last three years of their lives? And finally, an IDF day is an excellent opportunity to raise issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, moral and ethical dilemmas, and possibilities toward peace and reconciliation with Palestinians and the Arab world, and what our obligations/opportunities as North American-Jews might be?
This summer I sat with a group of 20 teenagers and two IDF combat veterans to discuss examples of moral dilemmas in Israel’s history. From a very personal perspective, the two veterans explained that they rather would have been anywhere else and would have loved not to have had to serve in the army. They would have preferred to have gone straight to university like in the States, and with that, they felt the IDF prepared them to think for themselves and make tough moral decisions.
IDF day, when done well, has the potential to help our campers, staff, and faculty gain an understanding of life in Israel. It brings the opportunity not to glorify militarization but rather to enter into controversial, provocative, and nuanced conversations.
‘Come as Israelis Return as Jews’
The impact of our camping systems on the Israeli shlichim is substantial. For many shlichim, camp is their first encounter with liberal Judaism, and for some their first adult encounter with Judaism itself. At camp Israelis experience forms of Jewish expression that are less common in Israel. These include egalitarianism, guitars and musical instruments in prayer services, and a general openness to alternative and experimental Jewish practice and observance. Our Israeli madrichim internalize this kind of Jewish expression and begin to ask why it is less prevalent in Israel. “At camp, I learned that being Jewish is fun, open, and pleasant, while at home I feel like it is very black and white,” explained a counselor who grew up on a secular kibbutz. “I do feel a sense of spirituality, but always thought that that wouldn’t fit within Judaism,” she admitted. “Now I have completely changed my outlook and would be open to exploring more options like this in Israel.”
Israeli shlichim can become two-way ambassadors through our camps – from Israel to Diaspora Jewish camps and communities, and then from liberal American Judaism back to Israel. Many of our Israeli Reform Movement leaders were exposed to American Reform Judaism as young shlichim and went on to found congregations, become rabbis, and bring a bit of what they experienced abroad to Israeli society.
Here are three suggestions to successfully integrate Israelis into camp/North American culture:
- Don’t shy away from the conversations about Israel and politics. Don’t ambush them right off the plane, but create conducive environments for raising these issues and ask them to participate and share their experience in all its complexity.
- Remember they are not trained or professional educators. Dumping the responsibility for Israel education on the mishlachat is insufficient. Just like any other staff, they come with great ideas and passion but are not necessarily well-versed in informal educational theory, so they need guidance and support.
- Speak to them [also] in their language. When North American Jews come to Israel, the entire country bends over backward to speak to them in English, have all signage and material in English, and make sure they understand. Of course, our shlichim are expected to have passable English, but it would help to provide background reading, forms, and instructions in Hebrew, especially if we want them to read and internalize what we are telling them.
Many former campers remember the close relationships they forged with their Israeli staff members as central and formative memories of their childhood and camping experiences. They have visited them in Israel, and still see them as those who provided their first impression of Israel and Israelis. Shlichim have the potential to forge lasting connections between our campers and Israel – and we can do a better job of helping them succeed and using our camp communities as a model of partnership with Israeli and Diaspora Jews in visioning the next generation of Reform Zionists.
This concludes the three-part series on the place of Israel at North American Jewish summer camps. As is generally the case, there is much more to discuss on these topics which I hope will come up as a result of these pieces. I do see summer camps both as a microcosm of the broader Jewish community and as partnership frameworks that complement the year-round education taking place in our congregations, religious schools, and youth movement. I look forward to examining the place of Israel in additional frameworks or institutions and in the fall will be looking at our institutions of supplementary Jewish education. Thank you for reading, and I welcome your comments and feedback.