I spent 14 of the best years of my life in Jewish summer camp. Those years cemented my Jewish identity and set me on a course for a rewarding career as a Jewish communal professional. In fact, I always thought I would be a Camp Director and am frequently jealous as I watch my childhood camp, and countless others, post pictures of smiling and active Jewish kids in camps all around the US. What fun!
I recently met 10 Israeli teens from our partnership region of Sha’ar HaNegev, all of whom are spending the summer as counselors in Jewish summer camps run by many of our synagogues and organizations. The Jewish Federation’s Summer Camp Israeli Youth Counselors Program brings 10th and 11th grade graduates from Israel to serve as counselors in San Diego. This program is part of our greater goal of deepening relationships between Sha’ar HaNegev and San Diego through mifgashim (exchanges). These Israeli teens expose campers to Israeli culture and society, demonstrating our desire to create deep and lasting connections between our two Jewish communities. While I have no doubt that our own campers and counselors learn a great deal from these enthusiastic young Israeli leaders, it was clear from my conversation last week that the Israelis are also transformed by the experience.
When I asked members of the group why they decided to take part in this experience, some shared that they wanted to learn about other Jewish communities and cultures. Others shared their desire to help American Jews better understand Israeli society and culture. All were looking to have new experiences and seemed genuinely excited AND nervous about the summer ahead. Some of the returning Israeli counselors shared that they are inspired by the sense of Jewish pride and spirit that American Jews demonstrate in these summer camps. As one counselor astutely acknowledged, Jewish pride can be taken for granted when you live in a predominately-Jewish environment.
When I asked them what they wanted me to share in this enews, one said, “I want Americans to know how beautiful Sha’ar Hanegev is, despite what they see on the news.” Another made a haunting statement that I am having a difficult time digesting. She said, “Sha’ar HaNegev is so beautiful, especially when it isn’t on fire.” We talked about the trauma that many of them experience as a result of constant escalations of violence in the region. They talked about the effects of the kite arsonists and how between the fires and the IDF tear gas against violent demonstrators, “it is hard to breathe.” They expressed enthusiasm about being away, but mostly pride in the opportunity to represent their community and to help build deeper bonds between our two Jewish families.
After the program, one young woman came into my office to express her gratitude for the experience. She indicated that they are so proud to represent Sha’ar Hanegev here in San Diego, but also so excited to feel part of and connected to their extended American Jewish brothers and sisters. She wanted me to thank our community’s donors and the Federation for making this experience possible.
Man, this conversation gave me the jolt that I needed, especially as we just wrapped up our 2019 campaign and gear up for 2020. After witnessing the counselors’ enthusiasm, and hearing their dreams and expectations, I am reminded of yet another thing that you, our donors and partners, make happen. I hope you feel as proud as I do that we make this transformative experience possible for these young Israelis and for the hundreds (thousands) of Jewish campers from our community.
One of Federation’s three core areas of focus is connecting San Diego to Israel. Through my interaction with the Israeli counselors, I was fortunate to observe the building of those connections right in front of my eyes. If you have a child or grandchild at a Jewish camp through one of our organizations, make sure you encourage them to meet these incredible young people. They all wanted me to tell you that when you come to Israel, you are welcome to come and visit with them. In fact, they insist on it. They feel grateful to be here.