Showing Israel's Dark Side at Jewish Summer Camp

Should camp counselors venture beyond Zionist kitsch and delve deeper into the dire moral and political circumstances faced by Israel?

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As this year’s Jewish summer camp season reaches its apex in North America, I’m thinking about how our camps are teaching the topic of Israel. Writing in the Foundation for Jewish Camp blog, Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow lays out an approach for helping staff begin to think about how to connect campers with the Jewish homeland. To the staff he trains, he asks, “What...type of food...reminds you of Israel? How would you describe the taste...? What feelings...does this evoke? What is a smell that makes you think of Israel? What is something you’ve seen in Israel that you would want to see again? What sounds remind you of Israel? If you were to reach out and imagine touching something from Israel, what would it feel like?”

Referring to this as “thin-slicing” – the quick-take approach popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, Orlow suggests that the “process of looking at Israel through taste, smell, sight, sound and touch ma[kes] Israel come alive.”

I like this thin-slicing approach to acquainting campers with Israeli culture. But I also wonder, with some trepidation, how we might use this approach to get campers and counselors thinking more broadly about Israel’s geopolitics.

My summer camp Israel education included a love for preschool Israeli circle dances, a sappy attachment to the folk-rock band Kaveret and comfort with Israeli slang. And then there were the simulated shuk evenings, our own Eurovision-style song contest, cheery Zionist folk songs piped over the staticky ramkol [loudspeaker], and Hebrew spoken from morning to night.

Neither is it rare, at Jewish camps, for Zionist euphoria to be paired with outright melancholy. Jewish camps already tend to be quite good at simulating experiences of Jewish persecution and redemption. Who hasn’t spent a lakeside Tisha B’av mired in inter-generational memory of collective persecution? And who hasn’t played a moonlight version of “tower and stockade,” the Jewish version of capture the flag? At my camp, the “escape from the Soviet Union” program was an annual highlight, with counselors permitted to unleash their inner sadist at their younger charges, for one night only. Later, with that program proving so popular, a “Holocaust Night” was added.

Today, camps routinely sing Hatikvah around the flagpole. 'IDF days' are popular at many camps. No doubt many Jewish camps run through the dates of Israel’s wars, lingering over the lightning victory of June 1967. As we speak, counselors might be dressing up as David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir. Who knows? The latest, cutting-edge Israel programming might even include a mock Rothschild Boulevard replete with tent protests, introducing campers to the challenges of wealth distribution in a startup-nation economy.

But would we ever allow that thin slicing to cut a little closer to the bone? Might we allow our Israel educators to pause to reflect the human cost that was wrought by world Jewry’s greatest modern triumph? Alongside the simulations of maddening Soviet-style bureaucracy, would we consider creating West Bank checkpoint simulations, with some campers assigned to be soldiers and others, Palestinians? And as our campers race across the field playing “tower and stockade” and creating the Jewish State all over again, would we ever allow words like “nakba” to enter the summer lexicon?

I wonder how we can begin to drill down on the dire moral and political circumstances facing Israel today. I wonder how we can begin to get our campers to look to the future – not only to the past, as deliciously nostalgic as it can be. I wonder if we can try to do better than relying on the old, safe mantra that Israel’s political situation is “complex.” Obviously the dynamics of history and politics, wherever they play out, are complex. But for each person in that tiny region and in their respective Diasporas who has ever clamored for their personal or collective freedom, the situation is also painfully simple.

Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @Sucharov

Illustrative image of kids at summer camp. Credit: Rotem Golan