Trump's Visa Crackdown Could Have 'Drastic Impact' on Jewish Summer Camps

U.S. administration’s plan to cut foreign participation in work-exchange programs could bar Israeli counselors and deal a blow to Jewish summer camps across the U.S.

Eden Village Jewish summer camp, in New York State, 2017.
Mario Guerrero

The Trump administration’s crackdown on visas to foreigners could include an unlikely victim: Jewish summer camps.

According to recent reports, the government’s plan to cut or end the J-1 visa program, which benefits a wide spectrum of foreign workers, would also target those employed at summer camps. Israelis have long been a key fixture at Jewish summer camps across the United States.

“Participation of Jewish counselors and staff from Israel and other countries in the J-1 Camp Counselor and Summer Work Travel programs is critical to the mission of the Jewish camp field – and the American camp experiences as a whole,” Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp told Haaretz.

“Elimination of these cultural exchange programs would have a drastic impact – both educationally and operationally – on the many programs we support,” he warned.

Each summer FJC offers support to more than 300 summer camps serving more than 200,000 Jewish children, teens and young adults.

Fingerman said FJC is acting in coordination with the American Camp Association, the Jewish camping movements (including the JCC Association, the Union for Reform Judaism and Ramah) and the Jewish Federations of North America to try to block the move.

As part of the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order issued in April, the Trump administration plans to re-examine existing U.S. immigration regulations.

Tallulah, a Christian Kids4Peace participant from Seattle, at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington, summer 2017.
Jordan Goldwarg

The Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism – which operates numerous summer camps in North America – is currently encouraging its members to write the White House, the U.S. State Department and Congress to express support for the existing J-1 visa program. In a statement, the Religious Action Center noted that the White House order “misguidedly targets these kinds of vital international cultural experiences for elimination – directly and negatively impacting our camps and our campers.”

Summer camps run by the Reform movement “provide a unique and powerful experience for thousands of campers each year,” the statement added. “Much of that power comes from the presence of Israeli counselors and other international staff who enrich the experience each summer. Learning about Israel from Israelis and building personal connections to the Jewish homeland makes URJ camps unlike any others.”

Israelis are 'a big plus'

According to Shaylee Cioban, director of the Jewish Agency’s program for summer envoys (shlichim), Israelis have been working as counselors and in other staff positions at Jewish summer camps in the United States for roughly 50 years. This past summer, 1,342 Israelis were dispatched by the Agency to work at such summer camps abroad, mainly in the United States. A few dozen others found work in U.S. summer camps through other organizations or personal connections, Cioban said.

Out of all the Israelis employed during the summer, 1,100 were able to work in the United States, thanks to the J-1 visa program, she added. The rest held U.S. citizenship and, therefore, did not need of a visa.

“Most of the Israelis we send get hired as counselors – general and specialized – and about 150 of them are returning envoys, who serve as supervisors and senior staff,” said Cioban. The counselors are placed in a wide variety of Jewish summer camps, including two that are not defined as Jewish per se, but serve a Jewish population, she added.

Most of these Israelis have completed their compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces. “The fact that they tend to be older on average than the American counselors is considered a big plus,” said Cioban.

“As far as we know, no final decision has been taken, but we are monitoring the situation,” she added. “If the J-1 program is cut, it would be a big blow to the Jewish summer camps in the U.S.”