Teaching Israel at Camp

Camp Havaya programs cultivate a love of Israel in campers, and present Israel realistically. Campers learn how to listen deeply to those with whom they disagree.

We’re often asked how we think about Israel education at Camp Havaya. Our response is generally the same: We want our campers to see Israel like they see their family—they love it, but sometimes it can make them angry. Our goal is to help campers build the love so that when the anger and challenge inevitably come, they can grapple with it from a place of deep commitment, rather than as a disconnected outsider. We take this work seriously; in all of our programming (about Israel and pretty much everything else), we aim to be as honest as possible, which means showing nuance even when it might be far easier to be one-sided. We work to give our campers age-appropriate opportunities to explore some of these complexities in a place that, at its core, is deeply committed to Israel and it being the best it can be. As is often the case, we’re at the forefront of this work, boldly leading with our values.

The Basics

This begins in seemingly simple ways. Our outdoor pavilions are all named after cities, and their location in camp is roughly based on the map of Israel, with Tel Aviv near the water, Haifa the furthest “up” in camp, and Jerusalem in the center. Similarly, many of our cabins are named after places in Israel; our middle-schoolers, for example, live in cabins named after rivers, like Arugot and Amud. Especially for younger kids, having Israel “in the air” like this helps to build connection, even if not overtly.

But even these very basic things have deeper underlying values. On the front of each of our cabins, we’ve hung a sign that looks like a street sign in Israel. It has the cabin name in Hebrew, Arabic and English. We wanted them to be as realistic as possible, so when campers visit Israel, they’ll say: “Hey, that street sign looks just like the sign on my cabin at camp!” … and we can say “Nope! The sign on your cabin looks just like that street sign!” When we first put up the signs, visitors would often ask why we included Arabic. “Because there is Arabic on the street signs in Israel,” I’d reply. For some people, this was mind-boggling; how could a Jewish camp put up Arabic? For us, it was just the opposite; how could a Jewish camp not put up Arabic? If we were going to create a real connection to Israel, it couldn’t be a cartoon; it had to be as authentic and honest as possible.

The same was true when our leadership program—a group of teens entering their senior year of high school—painted a large map of Israel on the floor of our rec hall. (Many camps do this on their climbing walls; we wanted it on the floor so everyone had access to it.) Before rolling up their sleeves, they sat together to explore the politics of map drawing. They knew this included both geopolitical issues and Jewish communal issues, and they knew it wouldn’t be easy. We discussed debated areas, and whether or not they should be included as part of Israel on our map. One of the teens said something I’ll never forget: “If I were drawing the map for myself, I would take this piece out, but knowing that this is a community map, I think we have to leave it in.” And so we did. He and his peers understood clearly the need to compromise and to figure out, together, how to draw a map that could work in some way for all of us. (It’s worth noting that we first painted this map eight years ago. On a tour this past summer, someone pointed out that it may now be outdated. So we’re considering repainting. The learning—and painting—is never-ending!)

In addition to how we’ve focused on physical space in camp, one of the most impactful ways we bring Israel to our campers is by bringing shlikhim (Israeli counselors; literally, “emissaries”) to join our summer staff. During their training, we tell them that sharing their personal stories is the most important thing they will do at camp. Because, after all, we are a people of stories, and no matter how much we teach or discuss or explore, that personal connection is what really makes everything come alive. It’s what takes Israel from the news and puts it into real life. It’s what brings it from somebody else’s issue to our own. And it’s what makes us all, in one way or another, family.

Diving Deeper

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote: “What the Crown is to England, that Eretz Yisrael is to the Jewish people.” Much has been written about the ways in which the British monarchy is being updated for the 21st century … and much needs to be considered about how worldwide Jewry connects to Israel. This isn’t to say it should be any less central; rather, the relationship must be reconstructed precisely so it can stay central to the life of the Jewish community.

We’ve built camp on the idea that every camper brings something special to our incredibly accepting and dynamic community. This means that we have all kinds of campers from all kinds of families from all kinds of places with all kinds of views on Israel. With this at our core, we strive not to be political; or, perhaps more accurately, we strive not to take a “side.” Sometimes, this means taking the extra time needed to craft a program in keeping with our values. An example: In 2014, three Israeli boys were kidnapped. Weeks later, the morning after our campers arrived, the boys were found dead … and a Palestinian boy was murdered in retaliation. Many camps and other Jewish organizations jumped to hold rallies and talk about solidarity. We didn’t. We took our time to see what would happen next and to consider how we could teach kids about what was going on in a way that wouldn’t scare them, confuse them or push a particular political viewpoint. It was challenging for our Israeli staff, whose family and friends were being called into Gaza that summer for military purposes, to be told they couldn’t talk about it with their campers. And it was difficult for us, as we worked with our board and our parents to determine whether or not we would still send our annual teen trip to Israel. (We did, and all but two teens went. Those who did go had a magical summer.)

Ultimately, a senior shaliakh brought campers into that rec hall with the map of Israel painted on the floor. He had some kids sit inside the borders of Israel, others in Gaza and the West Bank, and others in the neighboring countries. He handed each kid a balloon and invited half of them to put one puff of air into their balloon. Then he had the other half do the same. He went back and forth until the balloons were ready to burst. Finally, he told everyone to let go of their balloons … and they went flying around the room. He then talked with the kids about how so much of what was (and still is) going on was about tensions rising so high that they just had to explode. There was no “us” and “them,” no “right” and “wrong.” I was in awe as I watched the kids begin to truly grasp some of the complexities of living in the region, not on a political level but on a personal one.

This personal exploration was forefront in our minds as we invited our high-schoolers this past summer, with the help of an expert outside facilitator, to explore competing values like “democracy” and “security.” What does each mean? How is each important in their lives? If they had to choose one over the other, which would they choose? For a group of teens who tend to lean to the left, one might have expected them to choose democracy as more important than security. But when we stepped back and listened to these American kids talking about living in an age of mass shootings, it wasn’t so surprising when they chose security over democracy. Would they have made the same choice if they were talking on a theoretical level about Israel, rather than a visceral level about their own lives? Probably not. But now they have something deeper to consider: what are their core values and how do they impact their daily lives … and their understanding of daily life for their peers halfway around the world?

We work on building this same kind of empathy among our staff members. Especially for American college students, many of whom are used to taking a hardline stance on issues surrounding Israel/Palestine, it can be difficult to separate the personal from the political. So they push their Israeli peers about governmental policies or actions, backing them into a position where they feel the need to defend their country. Because after two or three years in the army, they are defending much more than a country; they’re defending their friends who are still serving and their family members still at home, thousands of miles away. With a deep belief that nobody should be forced to defend their family—and an understanding that individual Israelis aren’t responsible for the decisions of their government any more than individual Americans are for the decisions of ours—we therefore work to change the tenor of the conversation, encouraging open minds instead of judgmental grandstanding.

Visiting Israel

For many of our campers, the capstone experience of their years with us is their time on Havaya Israel. Over the course of four weeks, they explore all areas of Israel—seeing tourist sites and more out-of-the-way places, eating ice-cream and climbing mountains, surfing in Tel Aviv and meeting people from a myriad of backgrounds who help them gain a better understanding for what life is really like in this complicated and amazing place. As with so much of what we do, our goal isn’t to convince our teens that a particular viewpoint is “right;” rather, we want to expose them to a variety of views so they can begin to make decisions for themselves. Because the bottom line is that if we want to prepare teens to speak thoughtfully and passionately about Israel when they get to college and beyond, we have to give them the skills to do so honestly, not just based on one-sided propaganda. (And, of course, we have to make sure they have fun at the same time; that’s where the ice-cream and surfing come in!)

A parent recently told us that her son wrote one of his college application essays about an experience he had on the trip. The group was sitting in a hotel meeting room in Jerusalem, hearing from a group of right-wing, Orthodox settlers from the West Bank. After discussing a range of topics, the discussion turned to LGBT issues. For many of our teens, this was likely the first time they were truly face-to-face with someone whose worldview and deeply held beliefs were so wildly different from, and contrary to, their own. And rather than taking it as an opportunity to really listen, the teens pushed back. The interaction was heated enough that our group leaders called the minute it ended to let us know how upset many of the teens were. So when the parent started telling me the story, I wasn’t surprised that this is what he chose to write about. What surprised me was the lesson he took away. Rather than sitting quietly while his peers pushed, he realized that he should have encouraged them to be more respectful, to open themselves up to opposing worldviews and to really explore how to interact with people who are different from them. Looking back on it, he found that real, meaningful, transformative conversation isn’t about trying to change someone else’s mind; it’s about opening up your own. At the core, our Havaya Summer Programs are places where kids explore Judaism in their own ways and become the best versions of themselves. When we do our job well, the educational moments aren’t only about Judaism or Israel; they’re about how to be the best possible person.

The cumulative impact of all this work, both in camp and in Israel, is described beautifully by one of our teens:

“This trip to Israel has completely changed my idea of Israel. My Jewish identity was born at camp and is still tied to the ideals I learned there. I did not feel that Judaism was changed for me in Israel. But I do now believe in Israel far more than I ever have before. I used to not know if I believed that Israel has to exist. After going to Yad Vashem, and many other important places in Israel, I know that there has to be a Jewish State. However, the inequality I saw in Israel did alarm me, and has made me more critical of Israel. Not because I don’t believe in Israel, but because I love Israel and now have such a close connection to it. This trip has opened up my eyes a lot.”

When we think about Israel education, we go in with our eyes wide open. We know it isn’t easy, and we know it’s ever-changing. But we also know that if we are intellectually honest and hold close to our values, we’ll give our kids the grounding they need to build connections and, we hope, a more peaceful future.

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