From tragedy to transformation — Jewish camps’ summer of responsibility 

From tragedy to transformation — Jewish camps’ summer of responsibility 

This summer, Jewish camps face one of the most daunting tasks since their inception, more than 100 years ago. As spaces intended to model an ideal archetype of Jewish community, we also must navigate what that looks like in a world that is still processing the events of October 7, and the torrent of antisemitism across North America and Europe that has followed those attacks.

Each summer, camps play host to a broad and diverse constituency. This summer will be no different. We will welcome children and staff from Israel as they continue to grieve and mourn the atrocities of October 7. We will welcome Jewish students from the United States and beyond. Some have witnessed acts of allyship in their schools and on campus, while others have experienced heightened antisemitism. We will welcome staff and young people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, whose support for Israel and understanding of its complex challenges exist on a continuum.

Each person arriving at our camps this summer will do so under vastly different conditions than last year. Each one is informed by the media they consume, the information they have access to, and the people they are surrounded by. This summer we have a number of responsibilities to our camp communities. We have a responsibility to create a safe and secure environment. We have a responsibility to bring Israel and the stories of its people to camp. We have a responsibility to honor memory and spread positivity. We have a responsibility to facilitate bridge building. We have a responsibility to do all of these things, and more, in tandem. Gam ve gam.

Both of us have had the opportunity to visit Israel over the past few months, through trips organized by the JCC Association of North America, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and the Jewish Education Project, as well as in one case, accompanying senior members of our team. Our visits were part of an ongoing effort to bear witness, stand in solidarity, and synthesize the experiences of meeting people and hearing their stories to derive meaning and inform our work before this summer.

We visited the Nova music festival site and heard the testimonies from concertgoers who miraculously escaped on that horrific day and now are living with the trauma of being survivors. We stood in a muddy field, a place that felt much like camp, which at one time hosted a few thousand young people for a celebration of music, dance, and community, but now is a memorial honoring the lives of those who were killed.

We visited the surrounding kibbutzim and saw the utter devastation that was brought to these beautiful, idyllic, and peaceful communities. In Kfar Azza, we visited the home of Sivan Elkabets and Naor Hasidim (z’l), a young couple who were planning to enjoy Kfar Azza’s annual kite festival for peace on October 7 when 300 terrorists entered their community and took their lives. The Elkabets family hold particular significance in our community; both of Sivan’s older siblings were campers and staff at NJY Camps for many summers. Graciously, the family toured us through their daughter’s home, which they chose to preserve so that visitors could witness the place where Sivan and Naor lived their final moments and retell their story.

We spent time with the people leading diplomatic efforts to bring the hatufim (hostages) home. We spoke with their families, some of whom we know personally. They include Omer Neutra, who grew up in Plainview, on Long Island, as well as Liri Albag and Sagui Dekel Chen, who attended and worked at NJY Camps. It makes the pain that much more palpable, because it’s our pain too. We visited the now famous Kikar Hatufim, “Hostage Square,” a place filled with powerful symbols and imagery that makes it look like an expertly curated memorial, until you realize that it is not a memorial. Instead, it is a depiction of a present and ongoing nightmare. We heard and saw firsthand how critical the support of the American community has been and will continue to need to be, including at our summer camps.

We saw the inspiring work of social service agencies and community-led initiatives to address the immediate and ongoing needs of displaced residents and trauma-affected people. We saw this in hotels, youth villages, counseling centers, and farms. We even saw examples of summer camp programs that are bringing children from impacted communities to a safe and happy place, so that for a few days they can just be kids and have fun.

We had conversations with members of the Arab community. According to a survey by an independent, nonpartisan research center, 70% of Arabs in Israel report that October 7 has strengthened their Israeli identity. We learned about some of the current and emerging efforts taking place to move coexistence work forward and strengthen ties between Jewish and Arab communities.

We met with active members of the military, including some older reservists who spoke of their fear that the “TikTok generation” would not answer the call to defend Israel at a time of crisis the same way their forebearers had done throughout history. Admittedly, they were wrong. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, young and old, came when called to serve their country, doing so under the most horrific conditions. Israel is still a nation at war, and the brunt of that life-and-death responsibility falls on the shoulders of the remarkable men and women of the IDF.

Every encounter and connection was a reminder that our work is not confined to the lakes and cabins of our camp properties. We are an important and necessary part of this conversation. This summer the questions that will be asked of camps will likely feel different and unfamiliar, but in our opinion, the knowledge and expertise required to answer these questions are ever-present within our institutions already.

These are some of the principles that we intend to use in guiding our work this summer:

Setting clear boundaries: It starts with some basic premises. In our organization, we believe Israel has a right to exist and is the homeland for the Jewish people. But rather than viewing that as an end point, we see it as a place to start from. Our goal is to build a community that is welcoming and open to diverse perspectives, but we cannot in good faith facilitate discussion about Israel’s fundamental existence. That would be antithetical to our camps’ founding. Beginning with these basic parameters helps communicate who we are and why we exist, and allows others to determine whether this is the right community for them to be a part of.

Values over ideology: Should differences of opinion within our community arise, we may not achieve progress by searching for common ground around ideology, politics, or world views. However, we should be able to find common ground around values. Our agency recently went through a process of establishing a new set of core values, and we intend to use them to guide moments of conflict and uncertainty. We expect to have much better success in bringing people together when we ground ourselves in foundations of kindness, belonging, and respect.

Humanizing events: One of the most powerful tools that we have for communicating across differences is storytelling. Personal narratives help move us beyond abstract discussions to instead focus on human stories of loss, resilience, and hope. Throughout the diaspora we have an obligation to tell the stories of those affected by October 7, and of course doing so both responsibly and in the appropriate settings. When we do this effectively, we have the ability to bring people together and create shared understanding.

Communicate clear expectations: We have a responsibility to frame expectations for those joining our communities this summer. This includes communicating the values and ideals that matter in our camps and outlining behavior expectations, the importance of respectful dialogue, and the mechanisms in place for people to voice concerns or seek support. In building places that are happy, safe, and inclusive, we have to plan in advance so that everyone who is joining us this summer recognizes the role that they will need to play in contributing to this environment.

Let camp do the work: This summer we will welcome people into our camps who have been affected by this past year in a variety of ways. We have to care for them, but we should not assume that we know what they need from us. We must ask that question and be prepared for a multitude of answers. Israel is not October 7 and Israeli and Jewish people around the world should not be defined by it. We should still find reasons to celebrate Israel, to experience a carefree summer, and to enjoy lightheartedness. Camp is a powerful setting for impactful learning, self-discovery, and personal growth. It has a unique and natural ability to give people a lot of what they need: community, joy, safety, purpose, and an escape. For most, that will probably be enough.

The job of Jewish camps this summer is to build a community, in which Jewish peoplehood is celebrated, mesorah (tradition) is promulgated, and connection to Israel and Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) is propagated. Undoubtedly, that will look and feel different in every camp. While our Shabbat customs might differ and the educational content and programming might vary, one thing that will remain the same is our sacred responsibility and commitment to supporting a thriving, safe, and enduring land of Israel and its people.

Sam Aboudara is the chief operating officer and executive director of NJY Camps. He has dedicated his career to Jewish communal service as an educator, camp director, and executive. Having spent time in both the U.K. and the U.S., his work focuses on building Jewish community and strengthening Jewish identity in all shapes and sizes.

Michael Schlank is a Jewish communal professional who has been the CEO of NJY Camps since 2020. He is a former president of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset and a member of the board of trustees of the Mercaz Academy in Plainview. Michael previously worked in the for-profit, education, and public policy sectors.

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