Israeli Druze brings a rare diversity to Camp Tawonga

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Like the hundreds of other post-army shlichim placed by the Jewish Agency for Israel each summer at American Jewish camps, the 22-year-old Israeli left the harshness of Israel Defense Force drills for something more serene — a summer at Camp Tawonga in the forest near Yosemite.

Even at Tawonga, Halabi is only one of five shlichim, or Israel emissaries. He is overseeing a cabin of a dozen campers, aged 12 and 13. And like other shlichim, he provides them with a taste of Israel.

But in one way Halabi is entirely unique.

Halabi, a Druze from the northern village of Daliat el Carmel near Haifa, is the first-ever non-Jewish shaliach sent to an American Jewish summer camp by the Jewish Agency.

"I am 100 percent Israeli and very patriotic," said Halabi, who finished his army service just four days before the start of camp. "I wanted the campers to see there are other cultures in Israel and that we are all friends with each other. For sure Israel is not only for Jews — even though it is definitely a Jewish country."

Halabi's presence reflects a greater mission of the camp to address the impact of the intifada on Bay Area teens, many of whom were unable to travel to Israel this summer due to the continued violence. The Israel Center of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco last year convened a meeting of camp officials and others to brainstorm ways that Jewish camps could respond to this issue.

Out of the effort came the idea to "more accurately reflect the interesting and diverse nature of the Israeli people and bring new understandings to kids," explained Ken Kramarz, executive director of Camp Tawonga. "Since Israel is about 20 percent non-Jewish, the shlichim delegation to Tawonga ought to be 20 percent non-Jewish."

But not only is Halabi not Jewish, he is Druze — a religion and culture not widely understood or known of, although there is a small community of Druze in the United States. Since the start of camp, Halabi has been finding himself explaining what it means to be Druze to many people, including campers and staff.

The most common misperception, he said, is that the Druze in Israel are Arab and Muslim, when actually they are not at all.

Halabi explained that the reason for this misperception is that since the number of Druze in the world is so small, only about 1.5 million, the group has adapted and somewhat assimilated to whatever culture is around them.

That's why the Druze in Israel support Israel — Druze in Syria, meanwhile, support Syria and Druze in Lebanon support Lebanon."We couldn't survive if we didn't."

Halabi said it "is not strange" for him to want to protect Israel, even though he's not Jewish. "I don't have any country other than Israel. It was my duty to go into the army…and something I wanted to do."

Since his arrival, he has found himself checking the Internet "all the time, to know what's going on in Israel." Every terrorist attack and suicide bombing "is hard for me," says Halabi, noting that he fears he will see the name of a friend among the casualties.

"It's a small country and even if you don't know the person you probably know a friend of theirs."

While he tries not to "hang around in fear," somewhere in his mind "I'm thinking about it all the time."

The Druze religion, says Halabi, is an entirely different matter from nationality. Those on the outside "can't know anything about it" and even those who are Druze "don't know much." Only those Druze who choose to become deeply religious learn the religion's secrets. In the past, this was done to avoid religious persecution, and now it is tradition, he said.

Still, most of Halabi's friends in Israel are Jewish. He attended Jewish schools, learned all about Judaism and even often celebrates the Jewish holidays with his friends.

"When I meet with Jewish guys they don't seem different. We have tight relationships."

Halabi feels the same way about the people at Camp Tawonga. He described the campers and staff as "very positive about life" and accepting of "people who are different."

"They make you feel exactly like at home."