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Local camp counselors build a bridge to Israel

Local camp counselors build a bridge to Israel

Newcomers lead kids in song, dance, and lessons about IDF

Israeli emissary Yisca Shalev, left, lines up with five of her fellow Israelis, all working this summer at the Y and JCC camps, from left, Naama Shiloah, Shir Altshuler, Noa Cohen, Izik Daniel, Liraz Gross, and Shani Bitkover.
Israeli emissary Yisca Shalev, left, lines up with five of her fellow Israelis, all working this summer at the Y and JCC camps, from left, Naama Shiloah, Shir Altshuler, Noa Cohen, Izik Daniel, Liraz Gross, and Shani Bitkover.

In what has become a cherished feature of local Jewish summer camps, a group of young Israelis have joined the staff — three at the JCC of Central New Jersey’s Camp Yachad, and two at the YM-YWHA of Union County, plus an enthusiastically welcomed returnee — Sael Abecassis, who was the year-round shaliah, or emissary, with the Jewish Federation of Central NJ community last year.

The newcomers are Shani Bitkover, 21, from Kfar Saba; Naama Shiloah, 22, from Jerusalem; Noa Cohen, 20, from Mevasseret Zion; Liraz Gross, 22, from Rehovot; and Izik Daniel, 23, and Shir Altshuler, 20, both from Rishon Letzion.

This week was scheduled as their chance to showcase all things Israeli — with music, games, food, and festivities on Wednesday at the JCC and Friday, July 30, at the Y.

Selected by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the camp staffers from Israel are friendly, outgoing, and at least partially fluent in English. Working with Yisca Shalev, who took over from Abecassis last September, they are enthusiastically sharing their knowledge of their home country and its culture with local youngsters.

They teach the campers a Hebrew word each day, play map games to show them the geography of the country, tell them about their past experiences in the Israel Defense Forces, and teach them Israeli songs and dances.

Busy as they are, they say they are also taking every opportunity to explore, with trips together into Manhattan and — with the local families who are playing host to them — to all kinds of regional sights. When they finish in late August, some plan to travel on their own to other parts of the country before heading home.

“They are great,” Shalev said. “Each one contributes something different. It is so interesting to see. I hope that the community gets to know them and to see all these different faces of Israel.”

Shiloah was a crafts specialist at the JCC for the first session, and is serving as a general counselor with its travel program for the second one. “This is my first time in the United States and I love it!” she declared. Before coming to New Jersey, she worked as a substitute teacher at an elementary school, as a special needs teacher, and as a clown at birthday parties, so working with kids comes easily to her. “The campers are so cute,” she said.

Gross, who is based at the Y in Union, said she is drawing on everything she knows how to do, including games she played as a kid, and even something not so Israeli — origami. Coming to work with a Jewish community abroad had been a dream since she was in high school, and she gratefully grasped this chance before starting medical school in the fall.

“I love it,” she said. She enjoys being in New Jersey, with its “beautiful houses and peaceful backyards,” and the people — the kids who, language differences aside, are “just like those in Israel” — and the adults, especially her host family.

Daniel, who is working with her at the Y, is the only male in the group. He had considered going to South America this summer, but chose to come to the United States instead, he said, because he was intrigued by key differences he noticed in the way his American relatives react to Israel. “I was swayed by my desire to learn more,” he said.

He was prepared for the work with kids, he said, by a year as a counselor in the B’nei Akiva youth movement, and serving as a cadet school officer in the army. “These roles [taught] me how to transfer my knowledge of the Israel Defense Forces in a way to which the children can relate.” He went on to serve as an officer for four and a half years, the last one as a teacher in the officer school. When he returns to Israel, he will start his studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in a program for law and economics.

“People here are very friendly and always willing to help,” he said. “There is something special in the atmosphere — something that communities in Israel can learn from.”

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