Some of the kids have already seen the real thing; others are counting the years till they can go on a Birthright trip or perhaps a study program. For now, however, they were quite happy to have a bit of Israel brought to them — at summer camp.
Last week, at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains on Wednesday and at the YM-YWHA of Union County in Union on Friday, summer campers were treated to Israel Days by their Israeli counselors. Working together, the four from the JCC and the two from the Y, led by year-long Jewish Federation of Central NJ emissary Yisca Shalev, created a series of different “place stations” providing tastes of their home country.
Each event began with a “flight” to Israel, with counselors donning flight attendant shirts and scarfs and welcoming the campers on board. They ended with dancing. In between, the campers “landed” in places like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Eilat, Tsfat, a kibbutz, and — given the Central community’s twinned relationship with the city — Arad.
“I want to make pita bread!” declared a determined six-year-old eyeing Izik Daniel as he strove to get a coal fire burning in the Arad site, under the trees in the Y’s Levenberg Picnic Grounds. Once the heat was up, they flattened out balls of dough and baked them over a wok.
Also under those trees was a shelter concocted of blankets, to simulate a Bedouin tent. Seated in its shade, various groups got to hear a story about how the Israelites wandered in the desert — “like the sand people in Star Wars,” quipped one of their counselors.
“I’m looking forward to the water slide. That’s in Eilat,” announced another camper. At the far end of the grounds the popular beach resort was represented by a wet and slippery plastic slide.
At the JCC, Eilat and its wet delights were recreated at the outdoor pool. Led by shliha (emissary) Shani Bitkover, the campers splashed their way through a range of races and contests. Haifa was a restaurant station, with snacks of pita and falafel.
Both events featured a kibbutz site, where the kids got to try their hands, with much hilarity, at “milking” a water-filled rubber glove.
In the JCC cafe courtyard the Dead Sea station offered “mud” to smear on their faces, and a craft project with colored sand. And while the Weinberg Conference Center might have seemed an unlikely place in which to find the Kotel, attached to one wall was a big panel made of paper bags, and children were tucking notes into between them inscribed with their wishes.
Some owned up to asking for new and fancier cell phones or video game devices; others had asked that their siblings become nicer, or that friends like them.
For the American counselors, the Israel Days were a welcome break. “We helped out, but the shlihim came up with all the ideas,” one teenager at the Y said.
For the Israelis, who for each event had worked the night before and been setting up from early in the morning, it was a labor of love. “It’s tiring, but it’s a lot of fun,” said Bitkover, a 21-year-old from Kfar Saba. Like her colleagues, she said she is loving the whole experience, working with the campers and being in New Jersey, and — on those two days — giving them a broader taste of all things Israeli.
Shir Altshuler, a 21-year-old from Rishon Letzion, agreed, looked as if nothing could faze her as she faced an auditorium full of raucous campers. She has been to the United States three times before, twice with her parents and once with a high school program. “Kids are kids,” she said. “They like the same shows, and food, and music, and games. They behave the same way all over the world!”
For Noa Cohen, this has been a second camp experience, and her third trip to the United States. The (almost) 21-year-old from Mevasseret Zion, a suburb just outside of Jerusalem, worked at a camp in St. Louis, Mo., last summer. After leaving the army last September, she worked at a theater in Jerusalem; when she returns to Israel, she plans to start cooking school. For now, she declares herself very happy looking after a bunch of nine-year-old Jersey girls.
“I love them!” she exclaimed. “They are so nice and polite. It seems that they are interested in hearing about Israel and I’m really happy to have the chance to work and have a fun summer with these kids.”
As for being a shliha, she said, “I think that it’s a great experience to get to know another culture, but most important is the feeling of getting inside a community — bringing with you a view of Israeli youth, teaching and learning new things, and helping to make the connection between Jews all over the world.”