There are plenty of good reasons to send your child to a Jewish overnight camp during the summer: he or she will potentially make new Jewish friends, have positive new Jewish experiences, and maybe even begin identifying his or her own personal Jewish values. But there’s another reason, and it travels 14-plus hours and more than halfway across the world to be with your camper.
All over the country, and in most of the Jewish overnight camps serving Chicago-area families, Israeli shlichim (emissaries) play an integral role in bringing Israel into the camp environment. These young Israeli men and women are recruited near the end of their time in the Israeli army by the Jewish Agency for Israel to work alongside the other staff as bunk counselors or specialists (e.g. lifeguard, arts specialist, Hebrew educator, etc.).
For many campers, shlichim are their first tangible connection to Israel.
“Having Israelis as part of the camp environment is the best thing you can do for Israel education at camp,” said Adam Stewart, director of the Goodman Camping Initiative, a joint program of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter. The Goodman Initiative works with camps, (including nearby B’nai Brith Beber Camp and Camp Henry Horner) on building Israel into their camp experience.
Shlichim at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin this summer.
Shlichim have been a staple of many Jewish camps for many years, but integrating Israel education in an effective and successful way has long been the goal and the challenge. Stewart and the Goodman Initiative work with camps on making Israel education a natural part of camping and a collaborative effort between American staff and shlichim.
“[The initiative] makes use of shlichim as the tremendous resource they are as educators about Israel, but also takes the project of Israel education and makes it a communal responsibility rather than just on the shoulders of Israeli staff,” Stewart said.
How camps choose to implement Israel education during the summer varies. Israeli culture, geography, history, food, current events, and conversational Hebrew are all components that may be emphasized to varying degrees and done so through a variety of both daily programs and special camp events.
“We adopt an approach to Israel education borrowed from Israeli agriculture: a drip of Hebrew language, Israeli culture, and connection to Israel throughout every day,” said Jacob Cytryn, director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
At Camp Ramah and Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), Hebrew language is engrained in the camp culture through the use of Hebrew words in place of English ones for the names of activities, programs, and all the places in camp. OSRUI also offers a seven-week Hebrew immersion unit called Chalutzim in which counselors, most of which are shlichim, speak to campers only in Hebrew throughout the entirety of each day.
Stewart said that Israel education is most powerful when Israel is embedded into the camp setting and feels woven into the fabric of camp.
“It’s about seeing Israel all over the place as part of the daily schedule,” said Kobi Swissa, Media and Performing Arts Director and the senior-most shaliach at JCC Camp Chi.
The shlichim at Chi this summer have covered camp bathrooms with interesting facts about Israel such as technology, and each day they ride around in an Israel-decorated golf cart asking campers questions about Israel and handing out prizes, an activity modeled after the Discovery TV show Cash Cab. Swissa said that for the first time ever, this summer he heard a camper say that Israeli culture was his favorite.
“Shlichim help infiltrate a positive vibe about Israel throughout all of camp,” said Camp Chi Associate Director Brad Finkel. “Their stories and life experience help campers relate to what life in Israel is like.”
Finkel said the ultimate goal is for campers to find a connection to Israel and find the passion and drive to want to travel and have a firsthand Israel experience.
Aside from fun Israel-themed programs, sharing videos and other media, and teaching campers how to make hummus and pita, shlichim help campers find that connection to Israel through the one-on-one connections they make with them. Stewart says empowering Israelis to share their personal stories and recognize that those narratives are their most effective teaching tool is the key, and the Israelis who have been shlichim for multiple years agree.
“Those tiny moments when [an Israeli] comes to the cabin and talks about his personal life—those are the things that campers actually come back home and remember,” said Avi Faine, Rosh Mishlachat (head of shlichim) at OSRUI in his third summer as a shaliach. “When people talk to them about Israel, they have a face to remember, they know someone from Israel. That’s the strongest foundation we can build when we come here.”