Campers get to experience Israel — without the travel

Eve Wettstein, 24 years old and program coordinator for Camp Ramah in California, can summon up a defining moment in her commitment to Judaism:

An American teenager left home for a brief trip to Israel and returned a different person, deeply committed.

"That," she said, "was a very important summer for me."

Trips like Wettstein's have become a rite of passage for many American Jews. As late as 2000, as many as 10,000 Jewish teenagers made the trip from the United States to Israel. But today travel is one more victim in the ongoing violence plaguing the Middle East. Last year's press reports pegged the number of such pilgrims at less than 1,000.

Now that fewer teens are getting firsthand experience in Israel, more camp administrators are working harder than ever to bring that experience home.

About 50,000 youngsters attend nonprofit Jewish summer camps each year, and those camps enjoy a 96 percent occupancy rate, according to the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camping. Waiting lists are common.

Foundation Executive Director Ramie Arian said while Israel programs are not new, they may be more vital than ever before.

Arian noted that many camps bring in a handful of the 1,200 "shlichim," or messengers, who train in Israel to assist in American camps. These are Israeli citizens in their early 20s who have already served a stint in the military. They receive a stipend for their summers of mingling with and educating American youngsters.

In addition to the shlichim, Camp Tawonga plans to host seven campers from Israel. Many camps do likewise, Arian said. Some use "Israel Scouts," a program that provides a caravan of entertainers with a Jewish message.

Hebrew is also common. Camps, such as Wettstein's Conservative Ramah in Ojai, use the language for daily announcements as well as the names of cabins and programs.

Ramah dropped one tradition, though, precisely to strengthen the bond with Israel. The camp's annual "Israel Day" was scrapped because administrators thought that teaching about Jewish heritage was too important to cram into a single day.

"That is our primary mission," Wettstein said.

Meanwhile, Union of American Hebrew Congregations camps in Santa Rosa and Saratoga kept their Israel Day and the tradition of spending an hour a day on Israel programming while bolstering the number of visitors from overseas.

"Israel programming has always been and continues to be at the core of our program," said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of UAHC camps Swig and Newman.

There are newer initiatives, too.

"There is currently a very significant focus on finding ways to further strengthen the Israel-related elements of Jewish overnight summer camps," Arian said. "This is a direct response to the impulse, in the face of the current crisis and in the face of the current reluctance of Americans to send their children on trips to Israel, to bring more of Israel to American children."

One such response is Project Noar L'Noar. Created with the support of the Goldman Fund, "Youth to Youth" provides money for 200 Israeli campers to attend American camps. The Foundation for Jewish Camping hopes understanding comes from togetherness.

The foundation is also working with Birthright Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel to send American camp counselors to Israel in the spring to energize them for the summer sessions. The 10-day trips should help the counselors bring a piece of Israel home to their young charges. For their part, camp administrators, including Wettstein, plan to attend the Foundation's "Israel Education @ Camp" seminar in March. The two-day program in New York is designed to give tips on imparting the cultural experience, without the travel.

Finally, the foundation plans to ask camps for their own creative ideas. With money provided by the Los Angeles-based Maurice Amado Foundation, the camping organization plans to give out grants of at least $50,000 to promote original ideas for teaching campers about Israel.

Some of the most creative urges seem to center a long way from the cradle of Judaism.

UAHC's Arquilevich is working to send 200 of his teens from Camp Swig — who might otherwise trek to Israel — on social-action tours of the West culminating with a working trip to Alaska.

Meanwhile 30 teens from Camp Tawonga plan to travel to El Salvador this summer with the help of American Jewish World Service. Tawonga Executive Director Ken Kramarz said it is the first teen service program run through the renowned service organization and a new kind of link to the Jewish tradition.

Campers will benefit from a Jewish curriculum while in Central America and learn something about their religion that is not necessarily taught in books, Kramarz said.

"The raison d'être of Judaism is to make the world a better place," he said.