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For many pro-Israel campus activists, summer camps are places of inspiration, inculcation and leadership development.
During their summer breaks away from lecture halls and libraries, many undergraduate students assume leadership roles as counselors and mentors to a younger generation in camps across the country. Camps across the Jewish spectrum feature programming, discussions and classes aimed at developing staff members into pro-Israel campus activists.
Camp Ramah in Nyack, a day camp within the Conservative movement, is known for its array of developmental programming for staff members who reside in camp after campers have gone home. Staff programming “allows us to develop a currency and competency to articulate our passions for Israel,” said Josh Cooper, a division head for campers going into kindergarten this summer.
Cooper is highly involved in the Penn Israel Sector at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is majoring in mathematics. He attributes his Israel activity on campus to his 16 summers at Ramah camps.
Rabbi Ami Hersh, the assistant director of Camp Ramah in Nyack since 2006, explained that one of Ramah’s central goals is to teach Ahavat Yisrael, a true love of Israel. “Ramah has a dual mission,” he explained, “of serving campers by day, while educating and empowering its staff at night.” The counselors are immersed in an educational experience over the summer of personal growth and leadership development.
Maya Yair is another campus leader who credits her Israel activism to her many pivotal years at Camp Tel Yehudah, within the Young Judaea movement. Yair is president of Bearcats for Israel at Binghamton University, where she is majoring in political science.
Reflecting on her years as a staff member at Camp Tel Yehudah, Yair shared, “Teaching my campers about Herzl and a variety of Zionist thinkers was practice for my explaining Israel’s origins to peers on campus.”
The attention given to Israel in many camps is unparalleled. According to Hersh, Ramah camp sessions, courses and activities construct an Israel that “isn’t just a foreign place, thousands of miles away – but a real place, close to the heart and close to home.” Ninety percent of Nyack staff members have visited Israel.
“Working as a counselor,” Cooper remarked, “means representing Israel. It’s no different on campus.” Ramah staff members are taught this responsibility.
The overnight camp environment is in some ways similar to the university setting. Both are worlds onto themselves, guided by ethos and detached from the “real world.” In dormitories and camp bunks, during library study sessions and lakeside conversations, time seems to linger, friendships develop, and the semester or summer ends before you know it.
In both arenas, student leaders foster a collective sentiment of love and support for Israel through activities and programming.
Student-counselors consistently point to strong relationships with Israeli staff members as highly influential. “Through bonding with the Mishlachat [a group of Israeli counselors found at many camps], I developed personal friendships with real Israelis,” Yair said.
According to Cooper, having a Mishlachat is valuable because it allows campers and staff members to meet and befriend their Israeli counterparts. “When I advocate for Israel on campus,” he affirmed, “or think about my homeland, my relationships with the Mishlachat staff members are part of what comes to mind.”
Summer camps are strong inculcators of Jewish identity, their impact reaching far beyond eight weeks. The student leaders are primarily responsible for the strong records of success in promoting Jewish identity and the love of Israel among campers.
The links between attending camp and Jewish engagement are well documented in the recently published Jewish Community Study of New York. The study, organized by the UJA-Federation of New York, indicates that children who attend an overnight camp with Jewish content are likely to score much higher on the Index of Jewish Engagement as adults.
“The Jewish family and the various instruments of Jewish education “both formal, as in school, and informal, such as Jewish summer camp — are central to the mission of transmitting Jewish commitment and engagement,” the study reports.
It’s not only movement camps that are part of this effort. The Foundation for Jewish Camp and the i-Center, organizations both focused on shaping the identity and direction of young North American Jews, are piloting an initiative in 12 non-movement camps this summer.