Tawonga campers befriend, learn from diverse Israeli teens

Among the elements that define overnight camp — pine trees, acoustic guitars, bug juice — it’s not often that you hear campers gush about things like peace work and multiculturalism.

But at Camp Tawonga’s fourth and final session of the summer, those topics are precisely what made it a memorable, meaningful experience for campers such as Miranda Lyons-Cohen, a 15-year-old from Oakland.

This summer, a delegation of 24 Israeli teens — which included four Arab Israelis and four Ethiopian Israelis — attended a three-week Tawonga session as campers.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but found that we’re similar in so many ways,” Lyons-Cohen said. “We became really good friends. We talked about the war and coexistence and how to create peace. I don’t talk about those things with my friends at school. I feel I learned a lot from them.”

The cultural exchange began in 2001 after the second intifada discouraged thousands of parents from sending their teens to Israel. As a solution, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund gave money to 13 summer camps, including Tawonga, to bring Israeli teens to the United States.

In 2005, Tawonga partnered with an Israeli nonprofit to add Ethiopian Jewish teens to the mix, and this year went a step beyond that to include Arab Israeli teens. All came from northern Israel. Additional funding for the trip came from the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“We want our community to see Israel in all its fantastic diversity,” said Anne Gonski, interim executive director of Tawonga.

The Shapira neighborhood in Gedera, where the Ethiopian teens come from, is about 80 percent Ethiopian. Unemployment is high, and four out of five families live below the poverty line.

For the Ethiopian Israeli teens who went to Tawonga, “it was the first time ever they were ‘the Israelis.’ In Israel they are always referred to as the ‘Ethiopians,'” said Yuvi Tashomi in an email. An Ethiopian Israeli, she was a counselor with the first group to come to Tawonga in 2005. She continues to work with teens who attend camp.

“At Tawonga, different is interesting, not threatening, and the kids’ self-confidence simply boosted,” she added. “On top of that … they have ambitions now, all of a sudden the swamp they were in, seems not so deep. They realized that they can make a change in their lives.”

The Arab teens were no strangers to coexistence work. They all attend a bicultural, bilingual (Arabic and Hebrew) school in Misgav, a town in the lower Galilee. There, the student body is half Jewish and half Arab. From a young age the students are engaged in discussing diversity and peace.

Gonski admitted people were nervous about the addition of Arab Israelis, but only because some worried the Arab teens could feel uncomfortable in a 95 percent Jewish setting. The staff ensured that didn’t happen.

Kaylie Smith, a 23-year-old from Oakland, worked with an Arab-Israeli woman named Ulla. The co-counselors took seriously their job of making all feel a part of the camp community. Smith said she explained to the Arab campers anything that might take them out of their comfort zone, like Shabbat rituals and Israel Day. On the flip side, the Arab teens were given a platform to explain their own religious and cultural traditions to their fellow campers.

They did all the normal camp stuff, like exchanging pop music, hiking through Yosemite and staying up late laughing in their bunks. They also engaged in team-building activities, where they talked about stereotypes, future goals, hopes and fears.

“I think the teens saw that they can build relationships with all people, that we can create peace slowly,” Smith said. “I think they know they built something really special, and I hope they have faith in themselves to realize they can continue to do it outside of camp.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.