When news of Israel filters through to Camp Hess Kramer, the kids do what is only natural -- they turn to the Israelis who are spending the summer with them to make sense of what they're hearing, and to bring it home in a way that is intensely personal.
"Because my campers know actual Israelis, they can make that connection in a way that they can't by just reading a news story or going through an intellectual exercise," said Doug Lynn, director of Wilshire Boulevard Camps, which includes Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop, both in Malibu.
Like most camps, Hess Kramer, has a staff of Israelis who work as counselors and educators. This summer, 1,400 Israelis, most of them between the ages of 19 and 22, are staffing 200 Jewish day and sleep-away camps, according the Jewish Agency, which coordinates the stays.
Some Counselors Return to Israel
While no Israeli staffers have been called to active duty while already here for the summer, several who were close friends or family members of bombing victims went back to Israel.
In a normal summer, the Israeli staff's mission is to bring Israel closer to the kids, and that has become more powerful this summer, as rockets rain down on Haifa in Israel's north and pound Sderot in the south.
The Jewish Agency has been offering the shlichim, or Israel emissaries, programming ideas to help the kids understand the situation, and camps have modified and developed their own programs.
At Hess Kramer, kids took the opportunity to learn about the wider conflict in Israel and engage in informal conversations with Israeli staffers. At Camp Ramah in Ojai and at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, campers recited psalms and wrote letters to Israeli children in areas that were being attacked, an effort coordinated by The Jewish Federation. Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss will deliver the letters in Israel this week.
Younger campers can use the opportunity to talk about emergency preparedness, and in that way relate to Israeli children in bomb shelters, said Ariella Feldman, who coordinates Israeli volunteers for the Jewish Agency. Older children can dissect the intricacies of conflict resolution, on a personal level and on a magnified national level.
Anxiety Affects Campers, Too
But beyond these formal opportunities, it is simply feeling the anxiety and commitment of the young Israelis in camp that is affecting the campers. At Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, the assistant director is from Haifa, and his mother flew in for the summer to be camp mom. The program director, a fighter pilot in the Israeli army, was supposed to arrive this week but was called up for duty. The camp has about 20 Israelis, including staff and some children. The camps are all focused on providing comfort and support to the Israelis who are summering with them. Many are young and fresh off -- or in the middle of -- their own military duty, and have friends and siblings being called up to fight. Most know they will likely be called up when they get back to Israel.
Camps, normally stingy on allowing phone calls and access to electronic media, have allowed Israelis constant access to news and phone calls to Israel. Some camps have purchased phone cards for their Israeli staff.
Still, the Israeli counselors feel torn about where they are.
"Their families are under house arrest, they are stocking up on food, they are under attack -- and they are here at camp," said Feldman of the Jewish Agency. Aside from the moral support they are getting from American campers, what is helping the Israelis is that this summer, the mission to educate and to personally touch American kids is even more vital.
"They are vacillating between feeling guilty about being here, and really understanding on a deep level why they are here," Lynn said. "They are making these connections with Reform Jewish kids in a way that cannot be done unless they are here, so they are recognizing that at times likes these, their job here is even more important."