Goldman Fund awards $1.2 million to camps: Grants to beef up Jewish identity, bring Israelis here

Anticipating another slim summer for teen travel to Israel, a San Francisco foundation is pumping $1.2 million into closer-to-home alternatives.

Officials with the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund hope the recently unveiled grants will spark programs that preserve ties between Jewish youngsters here and nationwide to their faith.

"If we don't do something about the declining number of teens having an experience in Israel, we will lose an important connection with the next generation," said foundation President Richard Goldman in a prepared statement.

Locally, Goldman funds will help Camp Tawonga, an independent Jewish camp just outside Yosemite, design a service-oriented travel program, likely somewhere in the United States, for the summer of 2004.

The funds will also provide $1,200 scholarships to the first 60 applicants for Camp Ramah in California's Meytiv social-action camp in Sacramento this summer.

And for the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a grant will underwrite scholarships of at least $1,000 to the first 200 campers signing up for a new "Go West!" travel program in the western states this summer.

The four-week camp consists of visits to national parks, a wilderness trip to Alaska and a 10-day stint at Saratoga's UAHC Camp Swig, where campers will participate in community-service projects.

Debbie Findling, program officer at the Goldman foundation, said the largely family-run board of trustees wanted funding to reach out particularly to "teens from the Bay Area.

"The Jewish community's most poignant and powerful identity-building tool is not available," she said.

As a result, trustees hope to offer Jewish teens here and throughout the country an alternative to "working at Taco Bell in the summer."

About half of the overall grant will be spent bringing 200 Israeli teens and 40 young adult shlichim, or emissaries, to Jewish summer camps in the United States and Canada.

Jewish camp officials locally and nationwide applauded the funding.

"We are very hopeful that the program will build real people-to-people experiences," said Rabbi Ramie Arian, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, which represents 120 overnight camps in North America.

"I think it's fantastic news," said Nechama Tamler, who ran the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education's long-running but now-canceled summer pilgrimage to Israel for local 10th-graders.

"It's two summers that we've missed sending several hundred kids to Israel."

Once a rite of passage, the summer trips for Jewish teens have plummeted because of safety concerns about the Mideast.

Goldman officials say the number of American youngsters visiting Israel fell from 10,000 in the summer of 2000 to as few as 250 last summer.

"I don't think anything takes the place of an Israel trip," said Tamler, whose program last escorted 160 teens there in the summer of 2000. "But I also think we're living in different times."

With continued violence rocking Israel and the looming threat of a U.S. attack on Iraq, observers expect few parents will send their children to Israel this June.

As a result, "now people are kind of scrambling," said Tamler, who is planning a teen summer trip to the American South, which will combine touring with social action.

At Camp Tawonga, leaders report waiting lists for some sessions and already have fielded 50 applications for just 16 junior counselor slots.

"It's our guess that parents of American kids are going to be slow to return to the earlier numbers of kids going to Israel," said Ken Kramarz, Tawonga's executive director.

With help from the Goldman grant, Tawonga hopes to host 17 Israeli campers and shlichim this summer — almost twice last summer's contingent.

While it's not equivalent to a trip to Israel, Kramarz thinks the presence of Israelis at his camp will sustain "some sort of living bridge between Jews in America and Jews in Israel."

The camp also received a $62,000 Goldman grant to develop a service-learning trip in the United States for Jewish teens next year. In addition, Tawonga is running a three-week service trip to El Salvador this summer.

The Southern California-based Camp Ramah, affiliated with the Conservative movement, got $150,000 from the Goldman Fund to sponsor scholarships for its Meytiv social action program.

Zachary Lasker, the camp's assistant director, hopes to expand the six-week program from last summer's 25 participants to at least 60 campers. With the scholarship help, the cost of the camp is $2,900, which "should be in the realm of possibility for most families," he said.

Ramah also plans to host 10 Israeli campers in Sacramento. "With campers from Israel will come stories of what it's like to be a kid in Israel. Relationships will develop. Americans will hopefully become good friends with kids in Israel, whether it's pen pals or hopefully visits."

Lasker views the efforts as alternatives but no substitute for trips to Israel.

But not everyone embraced the idea of the summer alternatives.

Talia Leibler, the Israel trip director for the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, said she had ambivalent feelings about the home-based expeditions.

While she supports programs that promote Jewish causes and identity, "on the other hand, I think it's kind of saying, 'Don't go to Israel in these times.'

"I think in these times it's really important to go to Israel and support Israel."

To that end, the East Bay JCF took 12 teens there last summer and plans to run another four-week trip in June. More than 100 teens went on the 2000 trip, and the 2001 trip was canceled. Eight teens are signed up for this year's trip, Leibler said.

Findling of the Goldman Fund, which she described as a "huge supporter of Israel," replied that "to not fund alternative programs for teens is to deny the reality, which is they're not going to Israel."

Started in 1951 by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the fund has recently expanded its focus on "Jewish giving," according to Goldman officials. The foundation — one of the largest philanthropies in the Bay Area with more than $400 million in assets — last summer hired Findling specifically to handle Jewish affairs.

The fund is earmarking $645,000 to help the Foundation for Jewish Camping place Israeli campers in about 10 camps in the United States and Canada.

Admittedly, the alternative programs "can never replace the spiritual, historical or emotional impact of travel to Israel," said Paul Reichenbach, co-director of the UAHC's youth division.

"Are we able to capture some of that warmth and excitement on some of these alternative programs? Absolutely."