Israeli-born shlichim at Camp Ramah Northern California last summer. (Photo/Courtesy)
Israeli-born shlichim at Camp Ramah Northern California last summer. (Photo/Courtesy)

How the Israel-Hamas war could impact local Jewish overnight camps this summer

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Summer after summer, Israeli emissaries in their early 20s — “shlichim” in Hebrew — have been as integral to Camp Ramah Northern California as swimming, arts and crafts and seaside Shabbat celebrations along the craggy coast of Monterey Bay. This year, due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, some familiar faces could be missing.

“We are concerned that many of our Israeli staff members from last summer who are planning to return to Ramah will not be released from their reserve army service in time to work at camp,”  said Geoffrey Menkowitz, executive director of Camp Ramah Northern California. “We have contingency plans for staffing, but it will be heartbreaking not to have them back with us.”

Menkowitz’s reaction is well warranted.

The Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and the subsequent war have disrupted Israeli society and reached across continents, leading to a spike in antisemitic incidents such as violence on college campuses and “anti-Zionist” boycotts of businesses. A number of Jewish camps across the U.S. are also mourning the loss of former Israeli staff members and campers killed in the massacre.

Each year, the Jewish Agency for Israel sends shlichim around the world to schools, synagogues, Jewish community centers, federations, camps and beyond. Many are young adults just out of their compulsory military service.

In summer 2023, the agency dispatched 1,500 shlichim to 158 North American camps. This year, with life during wartime so unpredictable, the agency initially wasn’t sure it could send shlichim at all, said Gal Atia, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s summer shlichut program.

Despite delays and challenges, the program is currently set to move ahead. With applications higher than ever, the agency actually expects to send around 100 more shlichim to North American camps than last year.

Still, the war means not everyone accepted into the program can follow through with their plans, and that may include some beloved shlichim who would have returned to local camps where they’ve worked in the past.

Normally, the Israel Defense Forces releases some soldiers early from their mandatory service to become summer shlichim. As it now stands, 90 soldiers have had to drop out of the shlichim program due to the war, according to the agency.

“We hope to reduce that number as much as we can,” Atia said.

Maccabi Sports Camp, a program of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, has welcomed a small number of shlichim, up to four annually, since its inception in 2014. The emissaries share Israeli culture and traditions, teach Hebrew and offer kids the opportunity to meet and even befriend Israelis, sometimes for the first time.

The camp doesn’t yet have a final tally of 2024 shlichim. However, “it feels pretty positive right now” that the same number will join as in years past, said Josh Steinharter, executive director of the overnight camp, which cultivates sports skills along with Jewish community.

Never has it been more critical for Jewish youth to connect with proud Israelis, he added.

“With the rise of antisemitism and a lot of negative Israel rhetoric out there, giving our campers and our domestic staff the opportunity to develop relationships with Israelis is a huge, important part of our program,” Steinharter said. “They can hear firsthand what it’s like to live and grow up in Israel on a normal day, and what it’s like to live through this tragic conflict.”

Noy Messinger of Israel (left) with volleyball coach Emily Horner at the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp. (Photo/Courtesy)
Noy Messinger of Israel (left) with volleyball coach Emily Horner at JCC Maccabi Sports Camp. (Photo/Courtesy)

Maccabi Sports Camp is already preparing for the arrival of the shlichim. It’s doing so, he said, by exploring how to make them feel cared for, supported and understood.

“We are giving more thought and preparation to how these staff are going to show up when they get here in a few months having been through what they’ve been through,” he said. Similar discussions are underway at Camp Ramah Northern California, which is expanding its care team with an additional mental health professional from Israel.

Camp Ramah Northern California is among the Jewish camps that typically send staff members to Israel to interview potential shlichim, and this year was no different. The trip, however, included sobering elements no one could have imagined five months ago.

“While in Israel, we also met with survivors of Oct. 7, family members of those murdered in the attacks, soldiers currently serving in reserve duty and family members of the hostages,” said executive director Menkowitz, who traveled there in January. “As representatives of our camp community, we wanted to show our support. As educators and leaders, it was vital for us to visit the sites of these horrors to bear witness.”

URJ Camp Newman typically hires 20 to 25 Israeli staff members each summer.

“These connections are year-round and lifelong,” said Ruben Arquilevich, vice president of camp and immersives for the Union for Reform Judaism and Camp Newman’s former executive director.

Camp Newman doesn’t yet know how many shlichim will join its campers in the Santa Rosa redwoods this summer. However, it does hope to be among the North American Jewish camps hosting Israeli teens who have been displaced by war from their homes near the Gaza border and along the northern border with Lebanon.

With the rise of antisemitism and a lot of negative Israel rhetoric out there, giving our campers and our domestic staff the opportunity to develop relationships with Israelis is a huge, important part of our program.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, Mosaic United and the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism are sponsoring an initiative called Campers2Gether.

As part of the program, Israelis trained in trauma-informed care and in North American Jewish life, including the rise in antisemitism that’s left so many Jews around the world rattled and afraid, will accompany the Israeli teens to camps here.

In advance of the possible arrival of these Israeli teens, Camp Newman is developing programming to create a supportive environment. This includes working to make sure it’s a safe place for expressing diverse views and adding extra mental, emotional, social and spiritual assistance.

Special preparations are also in motion at the Jewish Agency for Israel. With the help of mental health professionals, Atia said, the agency is training its camp-bound shlichim to share their Oct. 7 stories in a way that’s age-appropriate for campers and reminding them they have stories far broader than the tragedy they’ve experienced. The agency is also training the shlichim in resilience because some situations and conversations outside of Israel could be challenging.

“The reality is no one knows what will be triggers,” Atia said, “so we want to give them tools.”

In addition, the agency wants to make sure the shlichim understand the stresses some of their North American peers and supervisors have been experiencing at school and elsewhere. And it’s guiding them on how to productively navigate differing perspectives about the war.

“When I feel safe, I don’t tend to put up a shield when I feel attacked when someone’s talking about Israel,” Atia said. “When I understand that you are my brother and my sister and you’re not a threat to me and you care for me, I will have the conversation with you and hug you at the end, rather than fight you and be angry with you.”

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.