URJ Camp George in Canada doesn’t pay a water bill. This is my 4th summer as faculty at URJ Camp George, and I can’t get used to the absence of a water bill. While in Israel, the water bill is one of the biggest expenses in our movement’s summer camp (Havaya), Camp George simply pumps all the water it needs directly from nearby Maple Lake.
I came to URJ Camp George for a week to teach kids “Troublemaking 101” – social action in Israel, “from the back of the bus to the top of the agenda” – a unique curriculum for a unique summer camp. At URJ Camp George, I am part of an energetic faculty of educators, rabbis and activists who volunteer at URJ camps (there are thirteen URJ camps). As a team, we work with Rabbi Noam Katz, Camp George’s “Dean of Jewish Living,” and engage campers in Judaism, activism and Israel. It’s a challenge to teach youngsters about Israel. Some of them feel mixed emotions about the Jewish state – fear, pride, sadness, and curiosity all meshed into one. Some youth are apathetic, uninspired and bored. My aim is to wake them up to the diversity and the great potential of the only Jewish state on our planet.
I want them to be tuned on to the many ways in which Diaspora Jews can and should get involved in steering Israel in the direction envisioned by our ancient and modern-day prophets. But how much truth about Israel can these kids take? It seems that part of what they are taught to believe is fable and legend, , setting the stage for future disillusionment. One such example is the building up of Israelis as “super Jews,” – Hebrew-speaking military heroes like Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman in “Exodus”). I’m struggling with the “super Jew” notion. Many secular Israelis speak Hebrew, but they are quite ignorant of Judaism. Military service is but one of the many ways one can be a Jewish hero. In reality, 50% of Israeli youth do not serve full army service, and some of them may still be qualified as heroic. It is possible that the glorification of the Israeli military is a result of a lack of knowledge and lack of identification with Judaism in Israel.
So here I am, with Canadian Camp George campers, trying to make a case for Rabbi Miri Gold as a Jewish hero, for Women of the Wall (many of whom are Orthodox) as modern heroes – for men and women who are devoting their lives to promote equality, diversity, tolerance, pluralism, and values we share as Reform Jews around the world. To illustrate my point, I need to break some of the bad news to the campers. To explain how we stopped segregation of Israeli women on buses, I must disclose that such a phenomenon exists. To explain the great victory of Rabbi Miri Gold, I need to tell them that HUC (Hebrew Union College) and JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary) are not recognized in Israel as institutions of Jewish learning.
No wonder I run into resistance first and foremost from the Israeli staff at camp. These young Israeli youth, selected by the Jewish agency to work in a summer camp in the Diaspora, feel that the kids will be “turned off” before they get a chance to be turned onto Israel. They tell me “Give them the truth about Israel when they are older and more connected to Israel and able to digest this.” I am not sure that we can wait with introducing our youth to the real Israel. Information is available to them in multiple ways. They can access it faster and better than any generation before them. Is it possible to expose kids to the fact that Israel is a “start-up nation” in Herzelya and Kfar Vradim, without revealing it has a racist as the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat and a chauvinist as the Rabbi of The Wall?
Israel challenges us to be intelligent, to tolerate ambiguity, to walk and chew gum at the same time. When I list to the campers at URJ Camp George the remarkable achievements of the Israel Religious Action Center this past year, they witness first-hand that Israel is a thriving modern democracy. The very fact that we were able to stop the conversion law by lobbying the Knesset with representatives of all Diaspora Jews proves that Israel has a democratic parliament and that votes count.
When I describe to our youth that the Supreme Court receives our petitions against state policy, and many times rules in our favor, this means that the Israeli legal system is one to be very proud of. I tell them that Israeli Arabs save Jewish lives every day. They are fireman, judges, physicians and nurses. Jews save Arab lives every day too. Israeli society includes over one million Muslims. They are not the enemy; rather they are full citizens of our state. This is also proof that Israel is a democracy that we can be proud of.
Finally, I describe my own life as a civil activist and as executive director of the legal and political arm of our movement in Israel. We are the only religious movement in Israel with an elaborate civil rights arm involved in much more than its own immediate needs. We fight on behalf of gays and lesbians, immigrants from all nations, and people of different minority groups and religious affiliations.
I don’t only teach at URJ Camp George, I am also a student. I’ve learned here to curb my message. This is a Reform Movement camp – and I am in the family. When a 10-year-old asks me why we do not compromise at the women section of the Kotel, and pray silently so as not to disturb others, I shouldn’t pounce on him. He is a young Reform Jew, not an ultra- Orthodox member of the Knesset. He should be given the opportunity to voice his compromise and figure out its consequences for himself. He is the future of our Movement, and he can do it. My job is to provide him with an environment that is supportive and challenging, the rest he can do on his own. I saw him do this, and I have faith in the ability of Jewish summer camps to shape our youth and future Jewish leaders.
While my week at URJ Camp George has now come to a close, I cannot help but think about both the infinite differences between Israel and Canada, Jerusalem and Maple Lake, and Israelis and Canadians, but I am also drawn to their similarities. While our Jewish community up at Maple Lake does not pay a water bill, and does not speak Hebrew, they are forever intertwined and connected to Israel, because they are a Jewish Reform camp, and because of the mishlachat that they host each summer. As a faculty member and activist, I know that the lessons that I have taught our youth have been absorbed, as they wrestle with issues of Israel. Most importantly, I have learned that we must continue to educate these children about Israel, so that even though they live in the Diaspora, in communities where paying a water bill or fighting for the right of women to pray at the Wall is not a part of daily life, our future Jewish leaders feel a connection to Israel, and so that in turn they will educate the next generation.