Machane B’Yachad campers

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Jewish Camps Prepare for a Different Kind of Summer

In the aftermath of Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza, campers and staffers alike will be addressing Israel and antisemitism in new ways

Paula Jacobs
June 17, 2024
Machane B’Yachad campers

Courtesy NJY Camps

This article is part of Summer Camp.
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Whether they’re flying the Israeli flag or singing Israeli songs, Jewish summer camps across North America have factored Israel into the camp experience for decades. But this summer, in the aftermath of Oct. 7 and the ongoing war in Gaza, they face unprecedented challenges to their once-familiar routines.

Some overnight camps have expanded the scope of their Israel programming to include more cultural education—but not more politics. Others have added opportunities for campers and staff to discuss antisemitism and the situation in Israel, using an approach that aligns with their specific ideology and values. Camps have also invested heavily in professional development to address the many complexities and their diverse stakeholders with different perspectives including Israeli and American campers and staff, parents, and camp leadership.

“Most camps are concerned—Oct. 7 is something they cannot ignore. Camps have done a lot of work crafting an approach for this summer,” said Rabbi Avi Orlow, vice president for innovation and education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “People will have disagreements, but they are in community and we must deal with a diversity of opinions … Camps need to articulate their values clearly, center work on the well-being of the community, and also allow for the needs of all constituents.”

This summer, when campers come to Camp YJ—a pluralistic Jewish overnight camp in New Hampshire—they will be surrounded by the sights and sounds of Israel, from Hebrew signage to Israeli music and the conversations of Israeli staffers. While Israel has always been part of the camp’s Jewish life program, this year Israel will be the focus, said Executive Director Jon Spack. “It’s an opportunity to dive into why we are here, with a joyful Jewish model that focuses on our deep connection to Israel.”

Historically, YJ campers attended three 50-minute learning sessions each week about “Jewish life,” one of which was dedicated to Israeli culture. This summer, every class period will cover Israel, including its geography, food, and culture. “We are focused on staff bringing the most positive elements of joy to our Jewish life curriculum,” explained Spack. “We are not in a position to ask staff to talk about the political nature in Israel. … There is no more important time for campers, staff from Israel, and college students to come to a place where they can be safe, joyful, and find their journey to a Jewish identity.”

Campers will engage in Israeli culture, dance, and music; learn the “Hebrew word of the day”; and celebrate Israeli innovation on Yom Yisrael, or Israel Day. “We will make space to hold whatever they are bringing to camp while providing them with joyful touch points about Israel,” said YJ director of Jewish life Rabbi Jennifer Rudin. “We want to send them all home with a bag of love of Israel because they are living in a world with so many negative messages.”

YJ is not alone in highlighting the positive aspects of Israeli culture. Fostering cultural connections with Israel has been a longtime focus of the Cohen Camps, a nonprofit family of three New England Jewish overnight camps: Pembroke, Tel Noar, and Tevya. “Our Israel programming at camp in 2024 will be much the same as always: We focus on connecting with Israeli life through song, dance, food, some Hebrew vocabulary, and traditions. Our continued goal is that campers come to see Israel not only as our historic birthplace but as a real place, with culture and language, stories and issues, charisma, and complexity,” said President and CEO Jonathan Cohen. “Part of our program is learning about Israel at a cultural, people-to-people level. We are not getting into the political and not getting into the war.”

This summer, Camp Pembroke in Massachusetts will place greater emphasis on Israel education. All campers will attend a formal “Israel Experience” program for one hour per week. Israeli staffers will also be encouraged to share more about their family traditions and Israeli culture. “Israel has always been part of its program but this year it will be with more intention. We have always felt that Israel is part of the fabric of Camp Pembroke. Now, that thread needs to be a little tighter,” explained Becca Goldman, co-director of the pluralistic, nondenominational, girls’ overnight camp. “Our focus is on our campers to grow connections to Israelis through those interactions and experiences and continue their relationship with Israel.”

Yet even when politics are not on the camp agenda, they loom large. The leadership of NJY Camps has developed a set of guiding principles, setting clear boundaries and expectations for its umbrella organization of seven cross-denominational camps that are part of the Jewish Community Center movement. Also planned are intentional conversations with Jewish and non-Jewish staff about Israel and the Middle East so they can engage with issues around Gaza, Hamas, and Oct. 7 in an informed and respectful way.

Ahavat Yisrael [love of Israel] doesn’t mean that you can’t have disagreements with the Israeli government: That’s healthy and good, and we expect those conversations will occur,” said CEO Michael Schlank. “We want to be respectful and honest about where people are coming from, and have a place in all of our camps where joyous Judaism and love of Israel happens intentionally.”

“We decided to put down some stakes in the ground,” explained Schlank. “The bottom line for us is that our 100-year-old-plus organization is Zionist in nature, and we are dedicated to the principles of Zionism. Discussions around Israel this summer will be that Israel has a right to survive, flourish, and defend itself … We need to celebrate that unlike other traumas, this will be the summer of Oct. 7. We want to highlight the sadness, resilience, and incredible bravery of our families.”

Oct. 7 is very real for NJY Camps: Sivan Elkabets, whose siblings attended NJY Camps, was killed in Kfar Aza. Liri Albag, who had planned to be on staff this summer, remains hostage in Gaza as of this writing. This summer, 100 Israeli staff and 200 children, including those from Sderot and the Gaza Envelope, will attend NJY Camps.

Programming requires sensitivity, particularly for Israeli staffers and campers seeking a respite. “Camp is seven weeks of celebration and getting together with friends. We have to find that fine line in improper times with what it is going on in the world,” said Jeff Braverman, director of NJY’s Camp Nesher, a modern-Orthodox summer camp in the Poconos. The camp will mourn Oct. 7 during the “Three Weeks” mourning period between the 17th of Tammuz through the fast of Tisha B’Av—and will celebrate Giborei Yisrael (Israel’s heroes), including contemporary heroes such as its camp rabbi, Tzvi Wohlgelernter who served in Gaza. Formal conversations about the war are not planned, although informal one-on-one conversations between campers and Israeli staff may occur.

How camps address Israel mirrors the diversity of the Jewish community: At Herzl Camp, a pluralistic Zionist camp in Wisconsin, everything is viewed through the filter of Israel and Jewish education, including developing allegiance to Judaism and to the Jewish homeland, says camp director Tommy Hoffman. On the other hand, Camp Miriam, a Habonim Dror Camp in Vancouver, focuses on creating a culture that promotes authentic conversations, breeds respect, and creates a space for mutual learning, explains director of education Sadie Quinn.

Camp Miriam reflects the ideology of Habonim Dror, the Progressive Labor Zionist Youth movement, emphasizing dialogue and a nuanced approach to key issues. “We are a Jewish summer camp that meets education and dialogue head on, and we address the dilemma of the day, create lasting relationships and informed Jewish leaders. We create critical thinkers and meet kids’ needs in the way kids need to be seen,” said Judah Altman, executive director of Habonim Dror North America. That includes creating discussions about the war and antisemitism education for campers. “As a movement, we care about our kids and relationships … It’s a good space for kids to ask questions of staff members.”

The biggest challenge, though, is addressing the varying needs of Habonim Dror staff members from the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere who bring different experiences and opinions about the war. “As a movement, how do we create a space for staff members to have a space for themselves so they can express their opinions?” said Altman. “Our first and most important value is accepting everyone.”

Campers are not the only ones who’ll see changes this summer. Professional development is a top priority for camp leadership. To meet this need, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has launched several initiatives for camp leaders including: a two-week educational trip to Israel in February, a Web series, and financial grants for Israel education. During a five-part workshop series, camp leaders shared with their peers summer plans for Israel education, while learning from Hillel professionals about the campus experiences of incoming college-age counselors. Sessions engaged camp leadership in nuanced conversations, covering such topics as frameworks for healthy arguments, age-appropriate conversations, and talking about Israel with teenage campers, CITs, and counselors.

YJ has dedicated an estimated 50% more training time than in previous summers. Since October, the camp has participated in 68 hours of Zoom meetings and training with CJP (Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation), the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Resetting the Table, TribeTalk, and the iCenter. Participants have included Israeli and American camp staff, alumni, board members, and families.

Training has incorporated techniques for engaging in difficult conversations about Israel, the war in Gaza, antisemitism, and anti-Israel bias in the U.S. Rudin will apply the techniques she learned from Resetting the Table to build dialogues across divides: “We are going to provide a safe space where kids can reflect on what has happened in their communities since Oct. 7,” she said. “We need to be ready for anything campers bring to camp.”

Staff orientation, scheduled 10 days before camp begins, will address how to discuss Israel and antisemitism with campers and manage uncomfortable conversations they initiate. TribeTalk will also provide three on-site trainings on antisemitism throughout the summer for staff and high school campers.

Cohen Camps, too, have upped professional development this summer, working with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Association of Independent Jewish Camps, and the iCenter. As always, the Jewish Agency will educate Israeli staffers about American customs and American Jewish camp life; this year, it will deliver additional training related to Oct. 7, including how Israelis can share personal stories sensitively and respond to camper questions in age-appropriate ways. The Jewish Agency has also facilitated multiple Zoom calls with non-Israeli staff to educate them about Israel, while TribeTalk has provided antisemitism training for staff and older campers.

For Habonim Dror, training reflects the movement’s values and focus on dialogue-based education. During seminars, biweekly calls, and workshops with organizations including Resetting the Table, staff have learned how to address various stakeholders and engage in meaningful discussions about Israel and the war.

In today’s climate, though, training requires extra sensitivity. “We want our staff to talk to each other and be able to work together given that emotions and tensions are high,” said Allison David, director of Camp JCA Shalom, a nondenominational Jewish overnight camp in Malibu, California. For example, conversations with parents have reflected different perspectives about Israel that children may bring to camp. Staff will learn how to handle difficult conversations, but the goal is to refrain from politics. “We want to make sure that we continue to be a place where people feel comfortable and a connection to Israel whatever it is, and remember that it is camp even when the world is so difficult, and that it is a place where our kids can feel that love and support and joy of being in Jewish community,” explained David.

North American Jewish summer camps are not immune from the aftermath of Oct. 7. How they meet the moment reflects the diversity of the Jewish community with its various ideologies and attitudes about Israel. “Camp is a profound place where people connect to Jewish peoplehood with all our diverse opinions,” said Orlow. “No one is driving toward uniformity.”

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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