December 16, 2018

A direct connection for a Holy Land education

Aviv Mussali believes there’s one surefire way to effectively teach American Jews about the Holy Land while they are at camp: introduce them to native Israelis like him.

“Bringing Israeli education to camp can’t be done better than bringing Israelis to camp to do that,” said Mussali, who became a senior scout at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu in the summer of 2009. “Israelis come with passion for education, especially after finishing the army. They have seen the conflicts, and they have lived through rough times. Speaking about their stories, and even just being there as friends, is a great tool.”

His role at camp involved hosting Israeli activities, integrating costumes and props from the country and rewarding campers with Hebrew T-shirts. Mussali had such a great experience that he went on to serve two more summers there, leading its Israel Day and giving a weekly update on events in the Jewish state.

This approach to Israel education is by no means unique among local Jewish overnight camps, many of which offer special programming, hire Israeli staff members and integrate Israeli education into regular activities.

For example, this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles’ summer camp in Running Springs will be commemorating it with special art, dance, music and cooking programs. It will focus on the traditions of the different ethnicities — Russian, Ethiopian and American — that have immigrated to Israel.

According to Executive Director Menachem Hecht, this program will be “a really integrated, immersive, holistic educational experience. It brings to life our heritage and our relationship to Israel.”

A number of the Bnei Akiva staff members are Israeli, flying in to work for the summer. Often, when campers or staff go to Israel to visit or study, this helps provide them with a social network there and a place to spend Shabbat, he said.

At the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps (WBTC) in Malibu — Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp — staff from Israel teach attendees about their country and serve as role models. Campers who are at least sophomores in high school also have the opportunity to go to Israel for four weeks with WBTC and the North American Federation of Temple Youth, according to the WBTC website.

“Bringing Israeli education to camp can’t be done better than bringing Israelis to camp to do that.” -Aviv Mussali

Camp Ramah in California in Ojai is another camp that offers opportunities to learn about Israel by actually going there. It sends campers to the Holy Land through the Ramah Israel Seminar, a six-week exploration and study trip for former Ramah campers entering the 12th grade.

According to Rabbi Joe Menashe, executive director of the camp, there are currently 12 campers on a semester-long program in Israel called Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY). Students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades go to Israel to learn secular and religious studies, participate in simulated army training and do community service.

These campers may be inspired to travel because of the 30 Israeli emissaries who work there every summer. Ariella Moss Peterseil, an Israeli who is associate director of Camp Ramah, started out at Camp Ramah in Canada in 2000 right after she finished her army training.

She said that in Ojai, the camp has a Yom Israel (Israel Day) each session that’s run by the Israeli educators: “They choose a topic and the campers and staff have an experiential day all around camp, which includes food, music, educational programming, dress up, ceremonies, activities, debates and sometimes social action for a cause in Israel.”

Peterseil emphasized that in order to gain a real education on and relationship with the Holy Land, campers need direct contact with Israelis.

“Our kids cannot have a positive connection or real knowledge about this place we call home unless they get to have real hands-on experiences and relationships with Israelis,” she said. “We achieve this by bringing a group of 30 young Israelis every summer and believe that the friendships and relationships are the most important part of the shlichut [mission].”

During the weeks that Camp Alonim in Simi Valley is in session each summer, campers there also have the chance to interact with Israeli staff members. According to Executive Director Josh Levine, the camp has an extensive Israeli folk dancing program, and kids are taught how to broadcast Israeli music over their camp radio station. An Israeli song plays as a signal to campers that it’s time to clean their bunks. 

Levine said it’s important that the campers gain an Israeli education because the country is “a major fact of Jewish life today, not only for Israelis but also for Americans.”

“We want campers to learn about Israel and the diversity and vibrancy of the life and culture there in a short amount of time,” he said.