By Aaron Selkow, Director of Camp Harlam
I sat in a classroom last week with fellow URJ camp directors, Rabbi Mark Covitz (GUCI) and Bobby Harris (Coleman), along with my colleague at Camp Harlam, Rabbi Vicki Tuckman. There was a graph mapped out on the floor with lots of different papers spread across it, and there were more than 40 Israeli staff (Shlichim, or “emissaries”) sitting around the room. These staff members will be travelling to work with our camps this summer, including 26 at Harlam, and the classroom was at Kibbutz Shefayim in Israel. This was my tenth time at the Summer Shlichim Seminar; my first time as the director at Harlam.
The papers on the floor were meant to convey the sense of connection to and knowledge of Israel by three different constituencies at camp: ourselves, the staff, and the campers. My small blue piece of paper was sitting amongst many in the quadrant that represented moderate knowledge and extremely strong connection to Israel. I know that our staff members were very pleased to see where I placed my paper, and I know this because I had the chance to sit with them at a meal the next day when they asked about it: “Aaron, you really like Israel, huh?”
I do “really like Israel”, to be sure. But as I explained to these 20-somethings that were about to embark on a momentous journey to the United States and join the North American Jewish camp culture, it was for a very specific reason. It was because of them.
As a young camp director back in 2001, I took my very first trip to interview and hire Israelis. It was a big step for our camp and an even bigger step for me because it was my very first trip to Israel. No NFTY experience in my past, no camp trip, no Birthright program…I had been a Jewish communal professional and educator for more than seven years at that point, but had not yet experienced Israel for myself. That trip was an extraordinary time for me, and as a result, my connection to Israel had become personal and pronounced. But as I explained to these men and women that were now planning to embark on an exciting journey of their own, it was not the history of Israel that made this so significant for me. It was not the land of Israel, the sights and sounds, the tastes and texts. All of those were formidable and became part of my own Ahavat Israel (“Love of Israel”), but in fact, it was the person-to-person relationships that I started to form on that first trip that ultimately led me to where I am today.
The URJ and its camping network have a unique ability to feed that desire for me and for those at Camp Harlam. The long-standing partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel and Summer Shlichim Program, the offerings of funded programs for more advanced Israel education through the Avi Chai and Goodman Family Foundations, the support of our educators and professionals in year-round programming and their own Israel experiences (including Rabbi Vicki) through the support of the Legacy Heritage Foundation, the connection to NFTY-EIE (Eisendrath International Exchange) participants while they enjoy a semester immersed in Israeli culture, having Israeli children attending our camps through a partnership with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), and many more efforts combine to create a tapestry of Israel-North American connections for our Jewish families, campers and staff. As a new leader in the URJ system of resident camps, I can attest to the exceptional connections that are made and leveraged to develop such an amazing experience for our camps in all the corners of the Jewish community that we fall within.
I explained to my new Israeli staff that they, too, would come to understand how their own ability to connect personally to their campers, fellow staff and faculty at Harlam this summer would make all the difference. Of course, they should feel empowered to share the nuances of Israeli society, talk proudly of their IDF service, and regale in the cultural similarities and differences that exist between North America and their homeland. But I challenged them to focus – at all times – on the people and the relationship, themselves; to drive towards building bridges and making real interactions with their peers at camp in any way at all rather than to stand idly by and rely only on the sometimes contrived programming and formal opportunities to teach and learn. I pushed them to aspire to have an important impact on those people that they would soon meet…some of them, like me, ready to fall in love with Israel just as soon as someone properly introduced them to each other.
For those of you that will have the good fortune to spend some time in Kunkletown, PA with me and my fellow Harlamites this summer, I hope you’re prepared for the amazing opportunities for us to continue to create stronger and more real connections. I hope that you appreciate the special chance that we have to make that happen with respect to our home in Israel, and I wish you all a wonderful summer.