Although this is my son’s third summer at Tel Yehudah (TY), it occurred to me that I had never visited the place. So last week I took the morning off from work and drove him up to Barryville, N.Y., to drop him and his enormous duffel bags off for the first session and to see for myself Young Judaea’s national teen leadership camp.
The loudspeakers were blaring the same playlist of Israeli pop that I hear at events at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA), the Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Livingston which my son attended until eighth grade and his brother still attends. On the outside wall of TY’s chadar ochel (dining hall), a large colorful mural included biblical verses, in Hebrew and English, describing the Land of Israel and its seven agricultural species. It wasn’t any different from the hand-painted banners with Land of Israel verses that decorate the walls of the gym at the Jewish Educational Center, the Orthodox day school in Elizabeth, where I’ve watched the Kushner Cobras take on the JEC Thunder in floor hockey. There should be nothing surprising about these similarities, and yet, the commonalities were a terrific reminder of the reasons my wife and I choose to send our kids to Young Judaea summer camps.
Young Judaea is a North American Zionist youth movement. It is also politically nonpartisan and religiously pluralistic. Its camps are Shabbat observant and strictly kosher, and they reach out to all Jewish youth — Conservative, secular, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Reform, and unaffiliated. Staff and campers come from Great Britain, Israel, and Russia. The children and teens spend their summers immersed in all things Israel and Zionism. They also see and appreciate that kids who may not worship like them, look like them, or attend the same kind of schools that they attend love Israel just as much as they do, and that we actually have far more, and more profound, similarities than differences as a people. We enrolled our children in the Young Judaea camp system because we believe that internalizing this is crucial, even a matter of Jewish survival.
This perspective has continued into the school year. Our oldest son is now a high school student at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, part of the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School network and a recognized national leader in Israel education. He is among the more religiously observant students, and I love how completely irrelevant that is to his classmates, who are of varying observance levels and who instantly and wholly swept him up into their ranks. He also remains tight with his JKHA buddies, and together they attend Friday night onegs sponsored by the Orthodox NCSY youth movement and the Saturday morning teen minyan in our Modern Orthodox synagogue.
Walking around the grounds of TY, I saw some heads with kipot, others without, and lots of hamsa jewelry. I saw the Makom Tefillah, the outdoor area where prayer services are held, including the Orthodox one our son helps run. There are sinks in the chadar ochel where people can wash their hands with the ritual blessing and say Hamotzi before meals if they so choose, or learn about that mitzvah if they’re unfamiliar with it. I didn’t get a chance to meet our son’s Israeli counselor, who promised to speak with him only in Hebrew this summer. The campers and staff members love one another, and any concerns arising from differences in their backgrounds and practices don’t seem to make it past the gate.
Everyone at TY benefits from partaking in the mixed, matched, deepened, and enhanced Zionist and Jewish life that permeates the camp and scents the air (or maybe that was the outrageous homemade matbucha — thanks for the recipe, Stu).
Is this a little heavy on the kumbaya? You bet. My cup runneth over with it, and so should yours. We can’t afford to be otherwise. Identifying as Jews and Zionists — loud, proud, and together — is as important now as ever, if not more so, as demonstrated by the recently published “Sounding the Alarm: The American-Israeli Relationship.” This study from the Brand Israel Group, a consortium of marketing and advertising executives, highlights the significantly declining support for Israel among Jewish college students in the United States and cites a missing sense of shared values as one of the causes.
As I drove out of camp, the classic Israeli song, and Young Judaea’s unofficial anthem, “Ani V’ata,” was playing on the loudspeaker. “You and I will change the world.” Gotcha.