Israeli campers find religion for the soul at Tawonga

The hills are alive with the sound of Hebrew. At least, up at Camp Tawonga they are.

Tawonga, one of the most popular Jewish summer camps in the state, rolled out the blue-and-white carpet this year, welcoming more Israelis than ever before.

Not only does the counseling and administrative staff include a record 11 Israelis, but a host of young campers from northern Israel recently arrived to spend the waning days of summer in the forest near Yosemite.

Organizers call that program Noar l'Noar (teen to teen), which brings Israeli youth to American Jewish summer camps. Now in its pilot year, the program has proved an unqualified success, according to everyone at Camp Tawonga.

Just ask the Israeli kids.

"It's a dream every day," says Guy Wright, 15, from Kibbutz Dafna, who with his Jimi Hendrix headband and near flawless English, looks like he could have walked off the set of "Boston Public."

"It's easier here to be Jewish," adds Asaf Tzur, 15, of Kiryat Shmona, just back from a two-night backpacking trip near the Yosemite Valley. "Here Judaism is a religion for the soul."

Back home, Tzur and his Noar l'Noar colleagues grew up steeped in secular Israeli society. Though Jewish nationhood is in their blood and bones, little of the actual faith filtered into their lives.

But at Camp Tawonga, Tzur entered a Jewish environment different from anything he'd seen before.

Hamotzi before every meal; Kabbalat Shabbat services; Havdallah; even a girls' ritual mikvah ceremony in the Tuolumne River nearby: Tawonga has offered the wide-eyed Israelis a refreshing view of Judaism.

And not just campers. Several of the Israeli staffers (called shlichim, Hebrew for messengers) similarly found a new appreciation for both their Jewish heritage and for Yankee ingenuity while at Camp Tawonga thousands of miles from home.

"Americans are very organized," says Israeli Leor Levi, 25, a supervisor of counselors and now in his fourth summer at Tawonga. "If this was an Israeli camp, it would be a disaster!"

Another thing on which all of Tawonga's Israelis agree: Americans are very polite.

"When people bump into you here, they say, 'Excuse me,'" notes camper Or Krispil, 15, of Kiryat Shmona. "In Israel, that wouldn't happen. Also, people here are very understanding. Some kids were afraid to jump in the water at the river, and everyone said, 'It's OK.' In Israel, kids would say, 'You're chicken.'"

Counselor Ronit Levin, a native of Tel Aviv currently spending her first summer at Tawonga, echoes the sentiment: "This camp is a special place. They really try to understand the kids' needs."

Principal among those is a need for acceptance.

The Tawonga creed of supporting each camper's self-esteem clearly touches every aspect of camp life. There's a lot of love at Tawonga, and the hugging never stops among campers, staff and even the many animals that scamper about (most notably Lucky, the oh-so-cute baby goat who happily head-butts everyone within reach).

Several of the Israeli staffers are Israel Defense Forces vets, something the American campers find fascinating. "Most kids here don't know what's going on in Israel," says Levi. "But the Israeli campers know they'll be going into the army soon, while the Americans will soon be going to a party college."

That Israeli instinct for danger does get somewhat blunted within the camp's pastoral confines. Instead of suicide bombers, Levi and his colleagues keep on the lookout for poison oak and the occasional brown bear wandering into camp seeking food.

Celebrating cultural differences was always part of the plan for Noar l'Noar's organizers. Ann Gonski, Tawonga's associate director, notes that the program was funded by a grant from The Goldman Family Fund to the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

"The Goldmans pay 60 percent of cost plus airfare," she says. "The family pays $500, and the camp raises the rest. We worked with a liaison in Kiryat Shmona."

Not all of the selected Israeli teens ended up at Tawonga. A handful joined one of the camp's popular Quest programs, touring the Pacific Northwest on a backpacking, river rafting and mountain biking extravaganza.

But all were a welcome addition to the extended Camp Tawonga family.

"They came to us as a gift," says Gonski. "Our kids are not going to Israel right now, so having Israeli kids in the bunks, having normal conversations, is wonderful for them. The Israeli kids get a lot out of it, too. One told me the other day, 'They're trying to turn me into a Jew here.'"

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.