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How are Jewish summer camps talking about Israel? It’s complicated.

The Chalutzim program at Wisconsin’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, the Reform summer camp known as OSRUI, is famous for its Israeli counselors, two hours of daily Hebrew class, and a “British Haganah” reenactment of emigrating to the land of Israel. This summer, Chalutzim will do Israeli dancing on Friday nights as always, but other aspects of the program, for 10th and 11th graders, will be adjusted to include more room for Arab-Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

Counselors will use a variety of maps and resources from Americans for Peace Now, which tracks Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A new program called “Hearing Palestinian Voices” will feature texts and music from the rapper Tamer Nafar. Other sessions will shift outward from the Ashkenazi experience to hear more from Jews around the world, such as the Beta Israel community of Ethiopian Jews.

“My goal is for the conversation around Israel and Zionism to have more nuance,” explained Alli Torf, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois who has headed the program’s makeover. “I think it’s super important to talk about Israel in a really wonderful light but in a really realistic light. If camp doesn’t mean you must be pro-Israel at all times, then it’s a safer space for everyone there.”

OSRUI is one of many camps reevaluating their roles in educating Jewish youngsters about Israel amid an increasingly complicated conversation around the Palestinian conflict. Camps have been facing such pressure for years — in 2018, alumni of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah pressured it to increase education on Palestinian narratives — but the 11-day war in May between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip intensified the issue.

This month, the Reform movement’s Eisner Camp alumni caused a stir by sharing a petition signed by more than 300 people urging for “more realistic” conversation. It called on staff to include “a full spectrum of voices that accurately represent and delve into the diversity of the region” and to “avoid glorification of the Israeli Defense Force and state-sanctioned violence in Israel-centered programming and conversation.”

“I think these people feel that they weren’t presented with both sides of what’s happening in Israel, and that as a Reform Jew you don’t have to be 100% pro-Israel in order to be a good Jew,” said Marlene Lewis, an Eisner alum and parent. “I think they feel that a place like Eisner, which is typically a very open and liberal place, on this subject is teaching things from one side.”

Campers at OSRUI sing songs during Israeli night, known as erev yisrael at camp.

Campers at OSRUI sing songs during Israeli night, known as erev yisrael at camp. Courtesy of OSRUI

Camp is one of the main places that American Jews develop ideas about and relationships to Israel. A 2011 study found that Jews who went to camp were 55% more likely to “feel very emotionally attached to Israel” than those who did not. And the Foundation for Jewish Camp says enrollment in overnight camp has risen in recent years: 80,718 kids attended in 2019, up more than 20% from 66,847 campers in 2009.

But there is also a growing generational divide over how American Jews think about Israel. The 2021 Pew Research survey of American Jews found younger adults were less attached to Israel, with 71% of Jews ages 18-29 saying that caring about Israel is important to their Judaism on some level, compared to the 89% of Jews over 65 who felt it important.

Yonah Lieberman, co-founder of the group IfNotNow, which was started out of a backlash against what members see as Jewish institutions’ one-sided education about Israel, said that camps are a key part of the problem.

“Camps are really failing another generation of American Jews by not telling them the truth about what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people,” said Lieberman, who attended a Zionist camp, Habonin Dror, growing up.

“The people who are running the camps, the directors and the staff and the boards, are of one generation, and the people who are the counselors and the campers are of another generation,” he added. “The folks who are making final decisions have a pretty outdated view about what is legitimate education and information to include in Israel education.”

Israel education remains unchanged at some camps

Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, N.H., is the oldest Zionist camp in the country. Founded in 1939 to encourage aliyah, the camp raised money for what was then known as Palestine, and gun parts were even buried on camp grounds to be shipped to Israel. Hundreds of Israeli scouts have spent summers at Young Judaea, including Yonatan Netanyahu, the war-hero older brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The original logo at the camp said ‘Americanism, Zionism, Judaism,’’ Marcy Kornreich, the camp director, said in an interview. “You can’t unintertwine our relationship in terms of the Zionist movement with the history of the camp. Our commitment to Israel is really central and core to everything we believe in.”

Unlike OSRUI, Camp Young Judaea is not aligned with a denomination of Judaism, making Israel the camp’s core unifying factor among Jews of different backgrounds. (It is also not connected to the national youth movement and other camps with the same name.)

Campers at Camp Young Judaea learn about the Western Wall during Israel education programming.

Campers at Camp Young Judaea learn about the Western Wall during Israel education programming.

Israel programming includes dancing, cooking, history lessons and entertainment. And they don’t plan on changing anything this summer.

“It’s everything from getting familiar with Israeli culture to some Israeli history to using Hebrew in our program — we really want to build a sense of ahavat yisrael,” said Ben Einsidler, the camp’s Judaica director, using the Hebrew term for love of Israel. “There are kids at CYJ that run the gamut in terms of their religious observance, so we want to engender a love of Israel that is personal to everyone on that spectrum.”

Chabad-Lubavitch’s network of 500 Camp Gan Israel programs in North America, meanwhile, works to foster a connection to Israel based in the Torah. Gan Israel is mainly a day-camp program, but has overnight programs separated by gender in various locations and aims to have 10 more overnight camps by 2030; like other Chabad initiatives, the camps are run by Orthodox Jews but serve mostly unaffiliated ones.

Along with typical activities like archery and painting, campers make “salt paintings” of historical sites like the Kotel, learn about the seven species of the land of Israel mentioned in the Torah via a “Master Chef”-style competition and write letters of support to Israeli soldiers.

“We believe in teaching the children about the historical and traditional connection the Jewish people have to the land of Israel,” Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky of Chabad said in an interview. “It’s about teaching them that this is the land of our ancestors, a holy land that is tied to the spirit of the Jewish people.”

Campers at a Florida branch of Chabad's Camp Gan Israel.

Campers at a Florida branch of Chabad’s Camp Gan Israel. Courtesy of Camp Gan Israel

Kotlarsky said many of the Chabad campers are “kids who feel alone in public schools” as Jews, and that “camp experiences really empower them” to push back when they are picked on. “The more unpopular it becomes to stand up for Israel,” he added, “the more we dig our heels in and back it up.”

There’s a generational divide over how to talk about Israel

The discussions about Israel occurring within cabins and camp-directors’ offices mirror those happening in Jewish spaces across the country: during the May flareup between Israel and Hamas, discourse in synagogues, Jewish organizations, the halls of Congress and, most profoundly, on social-media showed a significant shift since the summer-long Israel-Gaza war in 2014.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg of the Union for Reform Judaism said he has noticed, in recent years, an increase in younger campers asking thoughtful questions about Israel.

“I think that we have to be able to engineer a conversation that has varying levels of sophistication, based on who the audience is,” Weinberg said. “We want to instill a love and a connection to Israel and to Jewish peoplehood. And that means that it’s OK to have a disco party and rock out to Israeli techno music and do Israeli dancing without also mentioning the occupation in one breath.

“What I want,” he added, “is for kids to be inspired and then to, whenever it comes up in their summer or in their life, go to Israel and spend significant time there.”

A counselor speaks to campers during programming at OSRUI.

A counselor speaks to campers during programming at OSRUI. Courtesy of OSRUI

Kornreich and Einsidler, of the staunchly Zionist Camp Young Judaea, also acknowledged that older campers and staff have asked harder questions about Israel and the occupation in recent years, and emphasized the importance of allowing for complex conversations. They hope to use the summer to discuss this spring’s tension in Gaza and to break down the recent election to explain the Israeli Knesset and ins and outs of the nation’s political system.

“Obviously, when it’s the elephant in the room, we should talk about it,” Einsidler said. “But the important part when talking about it is presenting truthful unbiased information as best we can. And if that includes naming some uncomfortable things around what Israel does as far as it treats Palestinians, or some of the realities of the conflict over the last several months, I think there’s no reason to shy away from that if we’re doing it in an age-appropriate manner as best we can.”

Camp alumni have shaken up the conversation

The March 2018 meeting of Ramah alumni and directors offers a window into the complexity. Some alumni left the meeting, which followed protests outside Ramah offices by IfNotNow, under the impression that the camps would talk about the occupation that summer.

But afterward, individual camps like Ramah Wisconsin posted messages on their Facebook pages declaring that they had “made no changes in our approaches to Israel education” and Ramah’s national director, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, released a statement rejecting any suggestion that IfNotNow and Ramah were working together.

“Ramah will not partner with any organization that is not unequivocally pro-Israel,” Rabbi Cohen said in an email to supporters and Jewish communal leaders. “Zionism is one of our core educational pillars, and always will be.”

Three years later, as he prepares for this summer’s campers, Cohen said Ramah’s stance remained unchanged. With 10,000 young people enrolled at 15 Ramah camps across the United States, Canada and Israel, he said one of the organization’s goals is to help campers understand and actively fight against a surge of anti-Israel and antisemitic threats.

“When it comes to governmental policy toward Arab neighbors, or toward Palestinian rights and coexistence, or religious pluralism, or many other potentially divisive topics, our community is learning about history and current events from a variety of perspectives,” Cohen said in an email interview.

Ramah alum Eliana Fishman speaks at an IfNotNow Kaddish for Gaza event in summer 2014.

Ramah alum Eliana Fishman speaks at an IfNotNow Kaddish for Gaza event in summer 2014. Courtesy of Eliana Fishman/IfNotNow DC

“One of the wonderful aspects of a Ramah summer is that teen campers and young adult staff members can disagree respectfully and learn from others, keeping an open mind on controversial issues,” he added. “One method of Israel education employed by most of our camps is simulation activities, where campers are assigned roles and are taught different perspectives. Another method is active debate, where all questions are valued and encouraged.”

But Eliana Fishman, one of the alumni at the 2018 meeting with Cohen, said that her 10 summers at Ramah camps in Nyack, N.Y., and the Berkshires did not provide room for such active debate, instead describing the experience as indoctrination to Zionism.

“There was no discussion about the occupation; it was very heavy handed hasbara,” she said, using a Hebrew word for propaganda. “There were certainly no Palestinian voices included, and really minimal left-leaning voices at all.”

Fishman, who now works in progressive data and lobbies for change with IfNotNow, said “there’s real harm that camps like Ramah do,” by encouraging campers to make aliyah, and join the Israel Defense Forces, without really understanding “who they were fighting against or about some of the values that Zionism upholds that are actually problematic.”

At OSRUI, millennial alumni affiliated with IfNotNow were also involved in pushing for change. Rachel Brustein, a camper and counselor at OSRUI from 2008 to 2014, is part of the alumni group calling for more nuanced programming. The demands outlined by the OSRUI anti-occupation alumni group include to “teach about the occupation, eliminate programming that glorifies military violence and celebrate the complexity of Jewish identity and heritage, beyond just the U.S. and Israel.”

Brustein said she is under no illusion that “teaching about the occupation in Jewish summer camp is directly going to end the occupation,” but thinks that it can “create a culture of humanizing Palestinians in the Jewish community, which is extremely critical.”

“I think a lot of Jewish kids who grow up in summer camps and Zionist Jewish institutions get to college and don’t have the language to talk about it,” Brustein said.“Not giving the whole story is a major disservice and contributes to this framing that anti- or non-Zionism equals antisemitism, which just isn’t true.”

Pearl Steinhouse, who is 16 and will be in OSRUI’s Chalutzim program this summer, said she is looking forward to open discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at camp after weeks of toxic, one-sided posts on Instagram and TikTok.

“On social media I feel like I’ve kind of stayed out of the conversation because I feel like I don’t really know enough of both sides to know where I stand, and it’s been a bit overwhelming,” Steinhouse said. “I think being honest and being transparent about what you know and what you maybe don’t know is important in a place like camp where people can fill in those gaps for you and help you help you learn without there being that judgment.”

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