I sat down to interview a prospective summer camp counselor, and suddenly I felt a wave of anxiety.
The meeting, more than a decade ago, was no ordinary interview. Ilan, in green fatigues, was shouldering a semi-automatic weapon.
He was among a special pool of Israeli young adults near the end of their army service who had applied to serve as shlichim (ambassadors) at North American Jewish camps in a program administered by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Nervously eyeing his gun, I was tempted just to say, “Take the job! It’s yours!”
The truth is, there was anxiety on both sides of the table. Ilan and I came from different worlds. He was born into a secular, Zionist household to parents who made aliyah from India. I grew up Los Angeles, in a family that was deeply involved in the Jewish community. At the age at which Ilan was training as a soldier, I was leading Shabbat services at my college Hillel.
For most Israelis, being Jewish is an unquestioned part of their core identity. But their engagement in Jewish practice tends to be more complex, concentrated on the extreme ends of the secular/religious spectrum. North American Jews, in contrast, have increasingly rich and diverse approaches to Jewish life and learning.
I have made 11 trips to Israel to recruit shlichim — previously for Camp Ramah in California and more recently for Camp Bob Waldorf in Glendale, where I am the director. When I interview these candidates, I can’t help but wonder what they will make of camp — our gleeful approach to prayer, our particular Shabbat rituals and our obsession with Israeli folk dancing (an activity that, ironically, isn’t often part of their lives).
While the stated goal of bringing these young Israelis to camp is to strengthen American campers’ and staff members’ connection with Israel, I am routinely inspired by how the experience affects the Israelis themselves.
This year, the Jewish Agency will invest $3 million in its Summer Shlichim Program. Roughly 4,500 candidates will be screened and 1,400 matched with 180 day and overnight camps. They arrive eager to teach about history and culture, facilitate difficult conversations around conflict and peace, and inspire Americans to visit Israel. Often they succeed. In the process, many develop an emotional attachment to camp. They forge deep and lasting friendships and their own Jewish identity evolves. It’s an investment with multiple returns.
“Camp really opened my eyes and taught me to see and appreciate different shades in Judaism.” — Erez
Consider Erez, whom I met more than a decade ago when I worked at Ramah. Erez had grown up Orthodox in Israel, and the idea of liberal Judaism was completely unfamiliar to him. That summer, I watched him build relationships with other staffers and his 15-year-old campers over cups of Turkish coffee that he prepared. He was warm and curious and took his programming duties seriously. By summer’s end, he felt proud of how he had represented Israel and was acutely aware of his own growth as a Jew.
“Camp really opened my eyes and taught me to see and appreciate different shades in Judaism. It deeply influenced my spirituality,” he told me recently. “Every time I look for a synagogue now, I search for services that are fun, happy and full of song.”
Elinoy had spent three years as a combat and fitness instructor in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) before she came to Camp Bob Waldorf as a shlicha in 2016. Raised in a secular family on a kibbutz, she found that working at a Jewish summer camp in the United States made her see her Jewish identity in a new light. For the first time, she came to view Judaism not just as a religion, but as a source of meaning, inclusion and cohesion.
Before camp, she had never recited the Birkat ha-Mazon, the blessing after meals, but she soon found herself singing it along with the campers. “I do not find meaning with the entire blessing, but at camp, I found some strong points,” Elinoy told me recently. “Reciting it makes me grateful for the food on my table and appreciative of my life.”
Even more surprising to shlichim like Erez and Elinoy is how being at camp makes them grow in their relationships with Israel. Both arrived eager to teach about the diverse range of people who have a claim on Israel and the complex ethical issues the IDF soldiers confront. Elinoy recalls an IDF training simulation she ran at camp that provoked an important discussion.
“It gave campers an opportunity to ask questions about growing up in Israel and opened serious conversations about what it means to serve our country,” she said. “These conversations emphasized my identity as an Israeli and opened my eyes to how people in the U.S. view the IDF.”
By stepping into their roles as educators, shlichim also become students of Israel through the eyes of non-Israelis. Encountering American Jews and their varied opinions of Israel, they are sometimes forced to confront unexpected points of view. Their perspective on political and religious issues may evolve, as does their understanding of what it means to be a Zionist in the Diaspora.
Just as invaluable are the lifelong relationships that camps nurture between Israelis and Americans — and among the Israelis. At Bob Waldorf, Elinoy started running each morning with Stevie, an American staff member, and soon their friendship blossomed into a serious
relationship. This month, Stevie plans to enroll in a graduate program at Tel Aviv University and is relieved to know that camp friends await.
He and Elinoy plan to return this summer to Camp Bob Waldorf, where Elinoy — to her own surprise — has applied to be the camp’s Jewish educator.
Erez, who spent four summers at Ramah, still considers his camp friends to be his closest. Of the six buddies with whom he spent his entire wedding day, four were from camp.
On my most recent Israel trip, I met my old friend Ilan at a Tel Aviv café. No longer in his fatigues, Ilan now works as a film editor. He is eager to share how much his camp experience transformed his connection to Judaism and Israel.
“The contact with the staff and campers all gave me a sense of belonging a stranger would not understand,” he said.
Then, just before we parted ways, he smiled. “I was hoping you were going to invite me to return to camp,” he said, “with my wife and 2-year-old son!”
Zach Lasker is director of Camp Bob Waldorf on the Max Straus Campus in Glendale and the former camp director at Camp Ramah in California.