Summer camps: A transformative two-way street for Jewish peoplehood - opinion

In the context of today’s relationship between Israel and world Jewry, this mentality is arguably more important than ever.

 THE WRITER directs an activity at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin (photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
THE WRITER directs an activity at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin
(photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)

Although Israel has always been my home, my second home for 14 summers was Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where I served as one of The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Summer Camp shlichim (“emissaries”).

Camp is where I met my future wife. It’s where my children are currently spending the summer, even while I’m not there. It’s where I gained the tools and experiences to make some of my most formative life choices. And it’s where I went from being an Israeli to being an Israeli Jew.

Summer camp emissaries discover that it takes a certain degree of effort to be Jewish in North America, whether it be investing in Jewish education, finding kosher food, getting involved with community organizations, or simply because challenges such as antisemitism and the nature of college life can make it easier not to be Jewish.

At summer camp, many of these Israeli shlichim get the chance to experience and embrace pluralistic Judaism for the first time, through weekday and Shabbat prayers, havdala, and other rituals. They often reflect on the experience as a turning point in regard to how they view themselves, Judaism, and the world.

Without a doubt, bringing a taste of Israel to North America’s summer camps is the central role and core mission of the shlichim. This summer, The Jewish Agency sent 1,500 young Israelis, ages 19-25, to North American Jewish summer camps where they impart their experience and skills, creating lasting bonds with campers and forging connections to Israel. The shlichim hail from all over Israel and from a variety of backgrounds, in a true display of the country’s diversity.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (credit: REUTERS)

At the same time, the deep influence of the experience on the emissaries themselves proves that the process of cultivating a sense of Jewish peoplehood goes both ways. By immersing themselves in North American Jewish life, these Israeli emissaries bring that unique experience back to their Shabbat tables in Israel and by extension, they transform Israeli society – particularly by enriching the ways in which Judaism is practiced in the Jewish state.

Summer camp also transforms the shlichim on a professional level. As the American Camp Association has noted, the “Top 10 Most In-Demand Skills For the Next 10 Years” (according to Forbes) are dominated by those that counselors gain at summer camp: emotional intelligence, creativity, collaboration, flexibility, leadership, and continuous learning. Indeed, from 19-25 – the ages at which summer camp emissaries serve – professional development is one of a young adult’s most important priorities in life.

This certainly reflects my own experience at Camp Ramah, where I served as a basketball counselor and along the way assumed a leadership role in sports programming – providing me with essential skills such as team building, in order to later thrive as a manager in the workplace.

Further, by running a sports program for campers with special needs, I was inspired to study special education. Today, my US summer camp experience has truly come full circle, in my capacity as director of The Jewish Agency’s Summer Shlichut Program.

In these ways, the emissary’s mission is a mutually beneficial two-way street. North American Jewish campers experience authentic connections with Israel by developing relationships with emissaries. Meanwhile, these are defined not only by the Israel-centric experiences that they bring to camp but also by the Jewish communal experiences and professional knowledge that they bring back to Israel.

Jewish Agency's emissaries' impact on Israeli society felt to this day

We can see the emissaries’ impact on Israeli society through the accomplishments of high-profile alums of the shlichut program, such as MK Idan Roll and famed actor and producer Maor Zaguri.

Ultimately, relationship-building represents the essence of the emissaries’ two-way street. Shlichim leave The Jewish Agency’s pre-camp training with a variety of tools and with the basic understanding that their central goal is to create meaningful relationships and share their story – that is, in fact, the essence of their mission.

In the context of today’s relationship between Israel and world Jewry, this mentality is arguably more important than ever. By bringing the Israeli experience to North American Jewish campers and then providing shlichim with the personal and professional development that empowers them to make an impact on Israeli society upon their return, this mission will continue to strengthen the relationship between North American Jewry and Israel for years to come.

The writer is director of the Summer Shlichut Program at The Jewish Agency for Israel.