Summer camps and Israel, what should be taught?

Camp Gan Israel campers at the “Kotel” Photo provided

Israel is frequently at the heart of Jewish camping. Children return home with additional Hebrew vocabulary they learned from their favorite Israeli counselors and are quick to show off new Israeli dance steps.

But how do summer camps teach the more controversial side of the Jewish state — Israeli history, geography and politics?

For the youngest campers the ins and outs of the two-state solution aren’t typically incorporated into the camp day.

Chaya Wolvovsky, camp director of Camp Gan Israel in Silver Spring, said her campers, girls and boys ages 2 to 11, celebrate Israeli culture with activities like Israel Day, where campers dress in blue and white, write notes to place on a paper Kotel, drink Israeli-style chocolate milk and learn Israeli dancing. Café Gan is three-day a week Israeli and Judaic focused “funshop,” reinforce a connection to Israel that many of the campers already possess, she said.

The politics of Israel and the ongoing conflict are not on the café’s menu.

“They’re young… our goal is our children should realize that Israel is our home, Israel is our holy place,” said Wolvovsky.

At Camp Milldale in Baltimore, the Israeli flag is raised daily and Israeli counselors teach about their native culture. There isn’t much discussion of maps — the only one Amy Bram, camp director, put up is a kitschy map with camels. The elementary school-age campers are taught to have a positive relationship to Israel, which again, doesn’t delve deeply into the conflict.

But the counselors, the majority of whom are in high school and college, do have a dialogue about Israel, said Bram.

Last summer, as rocket fire rained down on Israel, the Israeli counselors checked in with the news to make sure their loved ones were safe. Thus began a tradition of sharing Israeli news items. The counselors discuss the importance of news sources, compare how Israeli news outlets report events versus how outside media portrays the same events.

The discussions have “no agenda,” Bram stressed. “The agenda is to connect to Israel. We don’t [preach] any party line.”

“What we are teaching is a love of Israel, which is not the same as a love of Israeli politics,” said Bram. In the United States, she tells them, it’s patriotic to voice your views of the government, the same can be true of Israel.

Daily updates on the war between Israel and Hamas were also part of last summer’s experience at Camp Moshava. At the overnight camp in Street, Israel is felt everywhere. “Mosh,” as it is informally known, is part of the Habonim Dror kibbutz movement. Israeli counselors are on staff, special time is set aside each day to learn about Israel through hands-on activities that include making pita and eating falafel, and Hebrew is incorporated through activities and songs.

As to maps, Executive Director Jen Silber said: “There are lots of different maps from different sources all around camp, which has led to some interesting discussions and comparisons.”

Older campers are prone to asking questions about the conflict. “They are given a nonjudgmental space to talk and there is lots of room for varying opinions,” she said. “We don’t shy away from the conflict. We give them the space to think critically and analytically.”

Rising 11th grade students go to Israel and they tend to walk away with more in-depth knowledge. For the high school students, “Israel is more real for them, more personal,” she said.

J Street launched a maps initiative at its annual conference in March, urging its members to bring updated maps delineating the green line into their synagogues and other Jewish communal spaces. Maps without the green line, they wrote to supporters, “are a clear symptom of a larger problem.”

“When the Green Line disappears from our maps, it also disappears from our consciousness,” the letter titled “Why Maps Matter” read in part. “If we cannot envision the outlines of the two-state solution on our maps, how can we advocate for it?”

Americans for Peace Now likewise advocates for the use of accurate maps. According to Rabbi Alana Suskin, director of strategic communications for APN, the organization offers hard-copy maps that depict the green line and has a much downloaded app called Facts on the Ground: The APN Map Project which tracks settlement activity.

“I remember growing up [and people would say], ‘those bad people…they want to own all the land from the river to the sea.

Look how they draw their maps; they don’t include Israel,” said Suskin. “And yet, we do the same thing” by not drawing the green line.

Suskin, whose child attends Camp Ramah, said she understood younger children not delving into the conflict, but she expressed hope that older campers would reflect on what the path to peace might look like, particularly, she said, because they’ll soon be off to college.

She stressed that Jewish young adults need to be prepared.

“They have to know both, that Israel is wonderful and essential to being Jewish, and also know that there are issues,” she said.
“One of the major issues of this conflict is that we have to draw a border,” said Suskin. “People need to see the information, to see it every day that the triangle we like to draw isn’t so simple.”

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