Campers learn Zionist ideals through language, culture

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In the wilds of Santa Rosa lurks a little Israel.

It's hot and dry there in the summer. Eucalyptus quivers and flies swarm. The youngsters speak Hebrew and sing Israeli folk songs.

Both the physical and cultural climate at Camp Young Judaea-West evoke the Holy Land. "We give an Israeli perspective to everything," says camp director David Boyer.

For 33 years Hadassah's Camp Young Judaea-West has been espousing its Zionist ideal. One of a handful of strictly Zionist-oriented summer camps in the country, it is the only such institution on the West Coast.

To some degree, other camps infuse their programs with a Zionist spirit. The Conservative movement's official camp, Ramah, which maintains seven campsites throughout North America including a site in Ojai, combines religious features with Zionist themes — such as encouraging campers to speak almost exclusively in Hebrew.

Both camps observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. Both teach Hebrew. And despite their different approaches and movement identifications, both camps believe they inspire young campers' enthusiasm about Israel.

Nevertheless, Israel is not Camp Ramah's "main thing," says assistant director Navah Kelman. The camp's main concern is, rather, "connection to the Conservative movement. Hebrew plays an integral role," she acknowledges, and Hebrew "is used as a key into religion, into Jewish culture, and yes, Israel."

Kelman says campers are not expected to speak fluent Hebrew. "It's like Israel. You pick up words here and there," she explains. "After a few days of having all your announcements delivered in Hebrew, you pick it up."

On the other hand, Camp Young Judaea-West injects an Israeli flavor into nearly all of its daily activities.

Each morning starts with Israeli flag-raising and discussion of Israeli current events. The news of the day is Israel's news — its politics, wars, athletic stars. In the evening, camp counselors — many of whom are Israeli — lead Israeli folk-song sessions.

An Israeli envoy serves as the camp's education director.

"We teach the basics of Israel — its history, and Hebrew," Boyer said. "We try to give a feeling of the homeland so when these kids grow up they can make their own decisions about the kinds of Zionists they're going to be.

"Some will make aliyah" and emigrate to Israel, he suggests. "Some will financially support the country. Some will support Israel in other ways. We want the kids to decide how they're going to do that."

But make no mistake: Zionists will emerge, Boyer insists. In fact, he says many campers harbor a strong connection and affinity for Israel even before arriving at camp.

"I think today there's a lot of kids who identify Israel as a homeland," Boyer says, adding that a number of campers claim at least one Israeli parent.

Enrollment is increasing too — another sign that both parents and children believe Zionism is as relevant in this peace-talk era as it was following the Six Day War.

Camp Young Judaea-West is expecting 200 kids this summer. Camp Ramah is gearing up for 500 each session.

"We attract a wide variety of kids from very different backgrounds. They're not all observant but all their parents want more Jewish value in their lives — including an orientation toward Israel," Boyer says.

"They want their children to understand why they can't have chocolate milk with a chicken dinner, what it means to not listen to their Walkman on Shabbat."

At Young Judea, "like in Israel, we focus on the whole experience of making Friday different from the rest of the week," he added.

Merge that with traditional and modern Israeli songs, dance, language, and politics — and "the campers have a better understanding of Israeli culture."