Unique summer camp unites families, ethnic groups to build Jewish identity

Ethiopian families from Afula, sabra families from Kiryat Tivon and Bat Hefer, and immigrant families from Russia and Yemen unite in Jerusalem.

coexistance camp 248 88 (photo credit: Ron Friedman)
coexistance camp 248 88
(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Ethiopian families from Afula, sabra families from Kiryat Tivon and Bat Hefer, and immigrant families from Russia and Yemen united this week at a summer camp in the capital. The Family Summer Camp, run by the YAHALOM organization, whose mission is to build Jewish and Israeli identities by focusing on the family unit, takes place at three locations in Jerusalem. The camp tries to build relationships that cross ethnic boundaries. "No one asks where you are from or when you came to Israel. Everyone becomes his own person living in Israel," Anat Aharoni, a Yemenite mother from Beit Dagan who is attending the camp with her three daughters, said on Tuesday. "I don't think of the Ethiopian families in this camp as Ethiopians. They've become people with heart-wrenching stories who live their lives, just like I do here in Israel." YAHALOM has expanded rapidly, and since 2003 has afforded some 650 people a year the opportunity to participate in the camp. "The Family Summer Camp offers a large dose of quality time for parents and children, who, cut off from television and Internet, rediscover each other and their likeness to other Israeli families with vastly different social backgrounds," YAHALOM director Derek Perlman said. Yafa Solomon, an Ethiopian mother from Kiryat Gat who is attending the camp at Boyer High School in the Bayit Vagan neighborhood this week, explained: "I often come to Jerusalem, but it's such a different experience to be here with my daughter. I see the city in a new light and we are bonding over our common heritage." "I like spending more time with my mom," said 16-year-old Ronit Motza, also an Ethiopian participant from Kiryat Gat. "I think I understand my mom a little better and we talk more about issues which are important to Jewish people but that we wouldn't normally talk about." The atmosphere at Boyer this week was exceptional. Children from vastly different economic, social and ethnic backgrounds played ball games and chatted noisily together in front of the building. The adults optimistically and enthusiastically talked, and bonded while jointly hosting barbecue dinners for fellow group members. "Not only is it a family experience, it's also a group experience. I hope we all keep in touch after the camp," said 12-year-old Livan Solomon, from Kiryat Gat. Each family is placed in a group with approximately five other families from varying backgrounds. The groups tour culturally important sites in Jerusalem in the mornings and in the afternoons participate in discussions about Judaism, the history of Israel, and Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. "The experience is really special, the group unites as an extended family. Together, we are discovering our history of the Jewish people and ancient Jerusalem. We all share this same history," Aharoni said. She cited the story of an Ethiopian girl in her group. The girl is attending the camp with her uncle, but without her parents, and turned 12 this week. She had no plans to celebrate her birthday, so the group came together and, with limited resources, threw her a party with music, decorations and food. The summer camp is supported by US-based foundations, allowing it to charge NIS 385 for four days and three nights. "The price is cheap, but you get so much more than what you pay for," single mother and first-time participant Aharoni said. Several families have returned to the camp for a second, third and fourth time and YAHALOM accommodates this by arranging different trips. Tamar Dror, vice principal of one of the schools where YAHALOM runs programs throughout the school year, came with her family for the third time this summer. "Each year we return because we always learn more and gain new insights into our Jewish and Israeli identity," she said. Many families leave highly motivated to further engage their Jewish identity. "When we go home we will do things differently and will understand more about what it means for us to be Jewish," said 14-year-old Liora Solomon. YAHALOM encourages families to continue to strengthen their Jewish identity and to keep in touch with fellow group members. For the first time this year, the organization is encouraging participants to return to Jerusalem for Selichot prayer services ahead of Rosh Hashana. This year YAHALOM is starting to encourage families to come together for Shabbat lunches when they are back in their home communities. Dani, the 12-year-old son of Ilana, a Russian immigrant living in Beersheba, said, "I love this camp, it's good to spend time with my family and I have made new friends. "But there is still lots to learn about Israel that I want to come back again next year. Even if I don't, though, I will still know more than all my school friends about Jerusalem and Israel because of the camp this year."