From agam to tzrif, camps embracing Israel

From agam to tzrif, camps embracing Israel

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The superhero “Hebrew Girl” runs through the hadar ochel, or dining hall, every day during lunch at Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehudah. Her daily appearance coincides with a silly skit performed by campers from Israel who introduce a new Hebrew word-of-the-day to their peers.

Meanwhile, at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist camp in South Sterling, Pa., the signs posted on buildings around the camp bear a strong resemblance to the road signs in Israel in shape, color, design — and language (Hebrew, Arabic, and English) — and the floor of the ulam, or program building, displays a large-scale map of Israel painted by the campers.

The Reform Movement’s Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., offers its Israel Ideological Framework, a curriculum that grows from year to year, building on itself as campers move up through the age groups.

In-depth Israel education is taking root at Jewish camps around the area.

For years, camps touted the benefits of having shlihim, emissaries from Israel, on staff as an effective portal to Zionism. They prided themselves on injecting Hebrew words into daily life at camp (kids swim in the agam and sleep in a tzrif), and enthusiastically told parents about their Yom Yisrael celebrations.

But with the occasional exception of Zionist-oriented camps like those of the Young Judaea movement, that was the extent of Israel programming.

On the heels of studies showing that today’s youth lack connection to Israel, camp professionals are looking for new ways to foster Zionism among their young charges.

“Israel is on the front page of the paper every day. It’s such a complicated issue, and teachers don’t know where to start,” said Andrea Gottlieb, executive director of, the organization behind Israel Inside. The film, about the character traits of today’s Israelis and accompanied by a curriculum originally developed for religious schools, day schools, and youth groups, was launched at 12 area camps this summer, including Camp Harlam and Tel Yehudah.

Citing various studies showing that “kids today don’t connect with Israel,” Gottlieb said that the film addresses that issue. Showing the film is one way “to connect the YouTube generation to Israel.”

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, director of Camp Harlam, acknowledged that in the past, “the shlihim set the tone for Israel education at the camp.” The question gnawing at Tuckman was how to take control of the content and “fine tune” the messages about Israel that campers were getting.

That’s how she ended up developing the new curriculum. Earlier in the summer she brought in Bible Raps, developed by Jewish rapper Matt Bar, which uses hip-hop to enliven core Jewish texts. In the second session, she used the Israel Inside curriculum.

“People learn in different ways — visually, musically, through a skit. The video is one more tool for understanding Israeli society,” said Tuckman.

Like Tuckman, Tel Yehudah director Weinstein felt the video fit well into the efforts already under way to reinvigorate Israel education at the camp in Barryville, NY. Even though it is specifically a Zionist camp, Israel education has fallen off over the years. Weinstein remembers, as a camper in the 1970s, attending ulpan — Hebrew language class — every day. That activity fell out of favor sometime in the late 1980s, he said.

Now, he’s introduced a new, layered program called Bonim. “For us, Israel has always been ‘in.’ That’s our business, because we are a Zionist camp,” said Weinstein.

But, he added, “We now have a renewed focus not just on Israel education but on the Israel of today. It’s not just the Arab-Israeli conflict, but pluralism in Israel, start-up nation, and diplomacy. We’re going beyond Israel advocacy on campus and looking at the modern country today.”

In addition to informal Israel education sessions on these topics, Weinstein has introduced mandatory conversational Hebrew classes. Israeli campers, who make up fully one-third of the population, are tasked with “bringing more Hebrew into camp,” as Weinstein put it. In addition to performing lunchtime skits, they are making the Hebrew signs posted around camp.

“Having kids their own age who are Israeli provides [American campers] insight into the life of a modern teenage kid living in the modern Israeli state,” he said.

Under the direction of Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Camp JRF increased the number of Israel-based programs running throughout the summer. They were designed to bring Israel into camp, both tangibly — as with the map and building signs — and more creatively. In one project, campers had to think about how different places at camp might feel like different places in Israel.

Like many others, Camp JRF is getting a helpful push from outside groups. Its efforts were funded in part by the Goodman Camping Initiative. The comprehensive Israel education program was launched in December 2011 by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter, an Israel education project funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation.

The Goodman initiative is now in place at 12 camps, including New Jersey Y’s Camp Shoshanim, located in Lake Como, Pa. It hopes to reach 36 camps within four years and provide a trained, permanent, in-house Israel educator at every camp.

In 2009, the Legacy Heritage Fund, headed by New York philanthropist Susan Wexner, awarded the National Ramah Commission a three-year grant for the Ramah Israel Leadership Initiative, designed to advance Israel education at Ramah camps. The same year, a Legacy Heritage grant helped Union for Reform Judaism camps design a pilot program and curriculum for Israel education.

Not every effort has met with success. The conversational Hebrew addition at Tel Yehudah is actually a watered-down version of a Hebrew immersion initiative Weinstein attempted to introduce last summer. “Not enough kids were interested, and I had to cancel it,” he acknowledged.

But looking forward he added on an optimistic note, “The Bonim program has been really effective. Kids are really getting a glimpse of Israel today. They are also enjoying the fun conversational Hebrew. I’m really interested in taking this to the next level next year.”

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