Campfire stories from Israel at Ramah: I felt a missile go just over my head’

My pre-camp seminar with 35 staff members from Israel had just wrapped up, but Avinoam, our 21-year-old Israeli basketball coach for the summer, lingered behind, looking nervous and shaken.

“Rabbi Dan, I want to let the kids get to know me this summer, like you said, so they can learn about what it’s like to be Israeli and to be in Israel,” he told me. “But I need to tell you something. I don’t know if you know this, but last summer I was in Lebanon. I watched my best friend blown up right in front of me, and I felt a missile go just over my head,” he said, moving his hand along the path the missile had taken just a few inches from his ear. “It could have been me too,” he continued. “I want to tell this story, maybe not to the little kids, but to the staff for sure. But I don’t know whether I should, and I don’t know how. I need your advice.”

I told Avinoam I would help him tell his story this summer because, at camp, Israel is not merely an issue for debate and discussion. Israel is personal.

Like so many camps across the country, Camp Ramah in California is employing young Israelis this summer to bring Israel into our programs. The Israelis, most of them still in or just out of the army, lead Israel activities, coach basketball and teach dance.

But the most important thing they will do at Ramah is not on the schedule — it is called harga’ah. Harga’ah (literally “relaxation”) is a quiet activity campers do before bedtime. I encourage our Israeli staff to use the time to share pictures from home, sing songs or tell a story.

This year, many of those stories, like Avinoam’s, will be about last summer’s war in Lebanon.

I got a preview of those stories at the pre-summer seminar I run in Israel every spring.

At a creative service on Shabbat morning, I asked the group to share a time when they have felt loved. A young Yemenite named Avi raised his hand.

“I was in Lebanon last summer and went on regular missions, he said. “I returned to base one night early in the war and checked messages on my cell phone and heard my father’s voice. ‘You are my son, Avi, and I know what you are doing is dangerous. I love you very much, Avi, and I am very proud of you.’ That is when I felt very loved.”

During one session, the conversation turned to what would happen if Israel is, God forbid, again at war this summer, as many military experts predict.

Yahel, who is spending her second summer at Ramah, explained: “It is very hard. Your friends are far away and the camp is so happy and inside you are worried, but the kids need you, and you want to give them a good experience. It is hard …” Yahel said, and her voice trailed off.

She looked down, and paused for a while, and everyone waited quietly. She looked up: “It is hard when one of your best friends dies. I could not go to the funeral. I was too far away, and I would never have made it in time. So you mourn at camp, and we lean on each other, and the camp, the staff, they really love you and want to take care of you.”

For our campers this summer, Israel is Avinoam, Avi and Yahel. They fought a war last summer and they are here this summer to help teach the American Jewish community something that now, more than ever, we need to learn. War is not a headline in a newspaper; it is personal. That is a story that needs to be told, and one that our children will not soon forget.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.