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What Jewish Camps Taught Your Kids About Israel This Summer

One of the most ubiquitous programs at Jewish summer camp used to be the mock IDF boot camp. Israeli counselors would take their charges into an open field, or maybe an obstacle course, and make them respond to commands in Hebrew. Campers would be ordered to stand still at attention, or to march in formation, or to do army crawls. Those who disobeyed orders had to do pushups. One counselor working at a camp this summer remembered, as a camper, holding sticks meant to represent guns, rounding the corner of a ga-ga pit to try to launch a surprise attack and getting sprayed with a SuperSoaker for not being sufficiently sneaky.

This was all done, according to camp directors and counselors who talked to the Forward, to teach campers about Israel’s mandatory military service – which their Jewish brethren on the other side of the world would be doing in a few short years.

Such programs happened as recently as a few years ago at the country’s two largest summer camp systems — the Reform movement’s URJ Camps and the Conservative movement’s Ramah — but not anymore. One camp held them as late as last year but stopped this year because parents had complained after seeing a video of their children doing pushups, the counselor told the Forward. The complaints were something to the effect of “how dare you try to brainwash our children with propaganda,” said the counselor, who is currently working at camp and requested anonymity for that reason.

Both movements say that the change is not a result of a formal policy, but rather broader developments in Jewish camping culture and practices. The boot camp’s time may have passed — and teaching about Israel to older campers has deepened — as American Jews’ relationship with Israel has gotten more complicated. Still, most camps have boundaries, especially around how they teach about Israel’s control over territories acquired in the 1967 Six-Day War that Palestinians now claim as part of their own state.

“The camps are still sort of dancing around the subject,” Brandeis University education professor Jonathan Krasner, who is co-writing a book on Jewish summer camps, told the Forward. “They still would prefer to show Israel as a kind of ideal Israel as opposed to a real Israel, as a place that is an amazing place, but also a place that has its challenges. And I don’t think camps are so interested in getting into challenges.”

Jewish summer camps are perhaps the most effective way to create in children a connection to Judaism that endures into adulthood. According to a 2011 study by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, overnight camp attendees were 55% more likely to “feel very emotionally attached to Israel” than non-campers — regardless of their Jewish education and background. They were also 45% more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more, 37% more likely to always or usually light Shabbat candles, and 25% more likely to donate to a Jewish charity.

The attendance numbers are growing. According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, 70,000 kids attended overnight camps in 2010; the number has now reached around 82,000 (the Pew Research Center estimated in 2013 that there were 1.7 million Americans under the age of 18 being raised at least partly Jewish). Camps have proven to be so successful and popular that even Jewish day schools are trying to learn their secrets.

Education or indoctrination?

Israel wasn’t always a part of the Jewish sleep away camp experience, however.

The American Jewish camping movement began in the decades before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Camps affiliated with Zionist youth groups embraced Israel right away, but others, including the Reform movement’s camps, waited until the 1950s or 1960s, Krasner explained.

When they did so, they brought in shlichim, emissaries from Israel — fluent Hebrew speakers and veterans of the Israeli army – to “make them more affirmatively Jewish,” Krasner said. For decades, the emphasis was on a celebration of Israeli culture: counselors teaching folk dancing, for example.

That shifted during the Second Intifada, a period of Palestinian rebellion that started in September 2000 and lasted roughly five years. Israel was criticized for its armed responses to terrorism and failure to make peace with the Palestinians, and Jewish communal leaders grew concerned that a small but growing number of young Jews were not following the party line.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, people taught about Israel, but there wasn’t such a thing as ‘Israel education,’” Krasner explained. “You might have learned about it in your Jewish history class or if you were studying Bible, but this idea of Israel education as hasbara [propaganda] for Israel, that it was sort of where you don’t know where education ends and public relations begins, you didn’t really see that in an overt way connected to the conflict until the early 2000s.”

Now some millennials, turned off by what they describe as the political heavy-handedness of their Israel education, are increasingly willing to criticize Israeli policy and even its existence. They are becoming young Jewish communal leaders; some of them are parents of campers. This is causing a bit of a counter-reaction, as schools and camps grow increasingly receptive to recognizing the nuances and challenges of Israel. The move away from military re-enactment is a part of that trend.

“It can’t just be the occupation”

The Ramah and URJ camps operate according to guidance given by their national movements regarding everything from Jewish observance to campground insurance policies to Israel education. (Camps affiliated with Orthodox movements did not respond to the Forward’s requests to speak for this story).

Younger campers still encounter Israel mainly through music and food. Older campers, however, are learning about the issues their parents are grappling with.

The Reform camps reflect their movement’s positions favoring a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Israel is both a Jewish state and a democracy, said Rabbi Reuven Greenwald, the URJ’s director of Israel engagement.

At one camp, campers had a guided conversation about Women of the Wall, an Israeli organization supported by the Reform movement that is fighting for the right of women to pray audibly and in groups at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, said a former URJ lead counselor who requested anonymity for professional reasons.

URJ counselors have also run programs on Israeli cultures and ethnic groups that aimed to show the country’s diversity.

“I dressed up like a Bedouin and invited people into my ‘tents,’” said the person who’s working as a counselor this summer. “We learned about Druze and Arab Israelis, and what it’s like being a Jew of European or African or Middle Eastern descent.”

Ramah also uses reenactment as an educational tactic at camp.

In 2014, for instance, as part of a day of education about the Six-Day War, incoming 10th graders at Ramah Wisconsin were assigned to learn about different Israeli soldiers who fought in the war and were profiled in Yossi Klein Halevi’s book “Like Dreamers.”

Campers reenacted their lives, which diverged wildly. Some went on to become leaders in Israel’s burgeoning settler movement; others joined left-wing peace movements and another still became a rock star.

The campers conducted political debates their soldier was involved in, including on the settlement issue as well as whether Israel should be governed by secular or Jewish law.

Some campers even constructed settlements of their own before being told by the “Israeli government” that they must be dismantled. They then discussed whether it was appropriate to forcibly evacuate Jews from their homes in pursuit of peace, as Israel has done numerous times.

“The tough thing is that…we’re not there [in Israel],” said the current counselor, who is not affiliated with that camp. “What we can do is talk about the things that Israel has that are unique” – its geography, diversity, history and culture. “It can’t just be the occupation. Israel is so much more than that.”

Blasting trashy Israeli pop songs in the dining hall has a role to play, even if it isn’t “nuanced,” the counselor said: “All those kids are going to go home, they’re going to know this song and what it means for Israel, and they’ll have a piece of Israel to take home with them.”

Even leaders of the left-wing Jewish grassroots group IfNotNow acknowledge that Ramah’s approach to Israel has gotten less militaristic over the last few years.

One Ramah camp’s annual daylong Israel simulation program used to reenact wars, Ramah alumna and IfNotNow organizer Aviva Schwartz told the Forward. But now, she said, “In the past few years, it’s not really been war, and has shifted into unpacking different topics,” like Jewish immigration to Israel.

How to create a “true commitment” to Israel

However, IfNotNow is not satisfied.

Members of the group have lobbied the camps they attended, particularly Ramah to change their educational practices and “include an honest understanding of the Occupation and Palestinian narratives.”

They even created a syllabus, including books and documentaries by Palestinians and left-wing Israelis and links to the websites of anti-occupation groups like Breaking the Silence.

Ramah rebuffed IfNotNow, which does not take a position for or against Zionism or the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. The camp refused to consider the group’s input and publicly characterized their suggestions as “anti-Israel educational messages” that they would not permit.

“We want [campers] to learn the full Israeli spectrum” of political opinion, Camp Ramah national director Rabbi Mitch Cohen said. When asked if he was talking more about the specific political opinions of Jewish Israelis rather than the views of Arab-Israelis, Cohen responded, “I probably am.”

The dispute between Ramah and IfNotNow boils down to this: IfNotNow wants those perspectives considered in camp as well.

Some Jewish camps already include those perspectives, however.

“We also explore some of the less popular [elements]…the other parts of Israel, including the occupation,” said David Weiss, the director of Camp Galil in Pennsylvania, affiliated with the left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror. “Habonim Dror in the U.S. has been both pro-Israel and anti-occupation since the 1970s. This is not a new position for us.”

Being upfront about Israeli faults and Palestinian perspectives is better for young Jews and for Israel in the long run, said Dalit Shlapobersky, the director of another Habonim Dror camp, Gilboa, in California.

“We believe that honest and complex education…yields a true commitment,” she said, noting that many Habonim Dror alums are involved in Jewish and Israel-related organizations.

Cohen was equivocal when asked about teaching Palestinian or Arab-Israeli perspectives.

“Could our kids be exposed to what the Arab parties are thinking?” he asked rhetorically. “For that matter, we want them to know what Hamas is thinking. The same way you learn about World War II and what Hitler was thinking.” But, he added, “There’s a difference between studying opinions and what the camp stands for.”

Indeed, Krasner said that for all their talk of nuance and complexity, most camps are only willing to go so far.

“Even though camps are interested in bringing Israel into their camps, they’re also very interested in keeping camp as a kind of a bubble,” he said. “They’re very interested in making sure that you have this kind of environment, that is a 24/7 environment, that’s cut off from the rest of the world. To say that they want to bring Israel to the camp doesn’t mean that they want to bring the conflict to the camp, or whatever the latest crisis is.”

Camp was in session, for example, during the summer of 2014, when Israel was at war with Hamas in Gaza. Israeli civilians were bombarded by rockets and more than 2,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed by Israeli counter-attacks.

Most camps didn’t want to engage in-depth with the war beyond broadly signaling support for Israel and its army, Krasner said, citing colleagues who did field visits during that time. Camp is supposed to be fun and magical, he said, and war doesn’t fit.

The person who’s working as a counselor now said fostering a connection to Israel among campers of varying Jewish backgrounds and knowledge bases, all while ensuring nuance was present, was easier said than done.

But the former lead counselor expressed frustration that so much education was surface-level, focusing on food, camping and running around. She had praise for the success of the shlichim in fostering closer connections to Israel just by their presences and bonds forged with campers, but said camps could do more.

“I think there’s a desire to get deeper into the nuances of Israel, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet,” she said. “Camp is a really fast-paced environment, it’s a lot of young people being in charge. I think everyone wishes we could be more intentional about Israel education, but before you know it, camp is halfway over, and then it’s over.”

Correction, October 16: An earlier version of this article stated that more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians were killed in the 2014 Gaza war. In fact, while at least 2,000 Palestinian people died in the conflict, many were combatants and so the civilian casualty rate was lower, though exact numbers are disputed.

Contact Aiden Pink at [email protected] or on Twitter, @aidenpink

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