It’s the end of May and registration for Israeli day camps is just beginning. Parents are weighing their local options between drama, karate, sports, cooking and art. Ask older children and teens what they are doing this summer and you will often hear many “dunnos” or “nothing” (or the Hebrew equivalent). While the heat has long been in the air, the anticipation and planning of summer is just not an Israeli phenomenon.
The Israeli term for summer is officially “kayitz”, but it is called “hachofesh hagadol”, the big vacation, the big break from school. That is what defines summer for Israeli children—the lack of school. It is not sleep away camp, a different set of friends and activities or a major family vacation. It is life at home, without those few hours of school defining their day. Children love the break, parents enjoy and suffer from their children’s freedoms and there is something truly relaxing and refreshing about the vacuum and “nothingness” that the chofesh hagadol brings.
And then there are the olim, particularly the Americans. They define summer as an activity, replete with swimming pool memberships, planned activities, unique experiences and often time, sleep-away camp with its packing lists, registration forms, special friendships, songs, trips and memories. And because many parents define childhood by their own personal experiences and memories, many olim seek to recreate that for their children.
To fill the summer vacuum, olim and the capitalist market have converged to create sleep-away options for children of olim. Modern Orthodox olim generally choose from three “Israeli” summer camp programs in Israel. They cost around 6,000 shekel for three weeks, putting them on the expensive end for an Israeli summer, but cheaper than sending their children to America to visit or to go to camp there.
Critics of these programs abound as well. They claim they worry about the isolation and elitism these camps are creating, further separating children from their Israeli peers. “Americans speaking English to other rich Americans—why did we move to Israel for that?” a parent sneers. So they live and let live and continue to allow olim to define for themselves how integrated they choose to be within Israeli society—in camp and beyond.
So let’s concentrate on those olim who want their kids to have fun and are entitled to a parenting break, regardless of the sneering critics.
“Kayitz b’Kibbutz” has been situated on Kibbutz Shluchot in the Beit Shean region for the past 17 years. Run by kibbutznikim who made aliyah, Kenny Goldman and Dvora Liss, Shluchot has 250 campers in two sessions, each three weeks long. The daily schedule veers slightly from an American sleep-away camp because of the intense summer heat. Sports are more limited and the tiyulim and programs are more Israeli in their form and content.
“We are proud to be the ‘landing pad’ or the preparation for aliyah. We love having families who are considering aliyah and this wonderful summer experience often is the decisor, especially for families with teens, in making the aliyah happen,” Dvora Liss said.
Shluchot has “Bnei Meshek,” children of the kibbutz, as half of their staff, providing them with a nice balance of the city and country folk. In increasing numbers, Americans have found it advantageous to send their kids to Shluchot, to live an Israeli summer with Israeli kids and staff, while saving some money. Liss welcomes “any children” and notes that she loves seeing those same “Americans” living in Israel, as olim, years later.
The OU Israel Office has been running Camp Dror for the past 18 years. Dror’s programs are single sexed, housed at two different sites in the north, and cater to a more Torani community. Every other day is spent off campus, touring and learning around the country. Most of the madrichim are alumni of the program and help to create the fun, educational atmosphere that the camp prides itself on. Daniella Avraham, camp administrator who spent many summers there, notes the importance of the camp in having children grow and develop midot, independence and self awareness in ways that living at home during the summer cannot.
Relatively new to the sleep away scene is Camp Amichai, run by World Bnei Akiva since 2009. Ilan Oz, the director of the camp describes the uniqueness of the camp as a “youth movement camp—in that it is connected to the values of the youth movement and is a self- sufficient community creating its own summer culture.” Oz is proud of the way the Bnei Akiva madrichim grow in the leadership process and lead the campers to a personal love of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torah in an accessible and joyful way. “We want to help the kids fall in love with Israel on their own—they are here because their parents love it but we want them to come to that on their own too.”
Amichai is based on a campsite in Nahariya and is most similar to Shluchot in its programming and schedule. In its third year, Amichai redefined itself as a camp for Israelis and “olim”; to maintain Hebrew as the language of the camp, it limits the number of overseas campers.
Let it be noted—as much as the camps model themselves on American sleep away models like Moshava, real differences abound. The camps are at most three weeks long; the campsites are very primitive with no perks like go carts, bungee jumping, rock climbing or even an onsite pool. The staff is limited and young. And due to budgetary and staff constraints, the educational programming is not as rich and diversified. But the kids have a great time, learn, connect to the land in a way American camps never can, bond, grow and keep coming back!
Like many phenomena among olim, there is an unspoken debate about transferring American values and habits into Israeli society, and summer sleep-away camp falls into that same divide. Many parents love the American experience of sending their kids to camp—to experience independence in a supervised setting, for the fun and special bonding with friends from all over the country, and for the counselors and programming that they hope will enhance their love of Torah and Eretz Yisrael. And there is nothing wrong with that at all.
By Jordana Schoor