NEW YORK, July 24 (JTA) — Anat Radberg doesn’t mind giving up her cell phone and e-mail for the summer in exchange for a free trip to the United States, the pristine country air and the opportunity to teach.
Radberg is one of 25 shlichim, or emissaries, hired to work at Camp Ramah in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains this summer — and one of 1,000 working at 180 Jewish camps throughout the United States.
Participants in the nearly 40-year-old program include the summer camps of the Reform movement, Young Judaea, Habonim-Dror and the Jewish Community Center movement. The program has grown annually since its inception and fielded about 6,000 applications this year, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.
This summer, the Israelis face a daunting challenge to the informal education that is the hallmark of summer camp: explaining the 10-month-old Israeli-Palestinian violence. They attempt to meet that challenge by discussing the issues in small groups — while avoiding particularly touchy issues.
“Three years ago, it was different,” Radberg says. “You had left wing and right wing. Now everybody is upset with the situation so everybody’s together. Discussion is not about land; it’s about how hard this is and what we should do.”
Summer camp, of course, is about a lot more than politics — and the emissaries do their part to make sure the kids enjoy a typical camp experience.
The Israelis serve as teachers of Hebrew, sports, art and many other fields. They have also been brought in to share their firsthand experience with Zionism and Israel with the 450 campers aged 9-16, says camp director Cheryl Magen.
As Radberg, a 24-year-old from Jerusalem, puts it, “We all came here to do something, to bring Israel to the camp.”
Twice each day the campers have informal educational sessions — one a Hebrew class, the other in Jewish studies.
Now in her fourth consecutive summer at Ramah, Radberg teaches Jewish studies — for example, in kashrut.
“We teach them how they can do things at home without being fully kosher,” says Radberg.
Sitting in a circle amid lush trees, expansive fields, tiny cabins and a lake down the hill, her 9-year-old campers look to her as something of an understudy mom while they are away from home.
Radberg says she loves that intimate connection, not to mention everything else about the job.
One striking difference between Ramah and some other Jewish camps is language. At Ramah, the official language is Hebrew, meaning all classes, announcements, songs and games are in that language. But three-fourths of the campers are not day-school students, so the level of fluency ranges widely.
The camp handles this problem by giving special attention to any camper who doesn’t fully understand something. Instead of translating the Hebrew directly to English, the shlichim do all they can by other means to help the camper understand the words or phrases.
Another difference for Radberg is the way Judaism is practiced at Ramah.
Ramah allows women to say Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, which is of special importance to Radberg with the recent death of her father. She says she has never seen a female in an Israeli synagogue recite Kaddish.
On the other hand, Shabbat at Ramah — the official summer camp of the Conservative movement — is intensive, and can be overwhelming for secular shlichim. Ramah accommodates shlichim by giving them an opportunity to transfer from one of their sites — which include seven sleep-away and five day camps — to other less religious camps.
All Ramah counselors and shlichim get one day off each week. The American counselors generally catch a movie or do some shopping. The Israelis go a little further. They charter a bus almost every week to travel to places such as Niagara Falls, Dorney Park — an amusement park in Allentown, Pa. — Philadelphia and New York.
Besides these trips, the Israelis are mainly cut off from the outside world.
Distant from any large cities, the shlichim at Ramah can’t use a staple of Israeli life — cell phones. There are no computers, so there is no Internet access. For current world news, they must rely on newspapers and ground- based telephones. The Jewish Agency for Israel also sends Israeli newspapers for the emissaries.
In fact, the Hebrew-language newspapers play a vital role in the campers’ education.
On a recent day, Yaniv Toledano, 23, of Kiryat Malachi, a town west of Jerusalem, was with his class of seven 15- and 16-year-old boys. They were sitting in a circle on benches in a wide grassy field, flipping through an Israeli newspaper and analyzing the major events, most of which concerned the 10-month-old violence in the Mideast.
Toledano believes he can add to the campers’ education in a way an American counselor cannot.
“The difference in mentalities is huge,” he says. “At age 19 and 20, I dealt with the question of life and death” while in the army. Instead, “they go to college.”
One of the boy’s in Toledano’s class says, “In Hebrew school, all you get is your teacher’s point of view. He can give us exactly what happened because he was there.”
The process of becoming an emissary is intensive — especially for a free trip to America and a $400 stipend. It begins with a phone interview with a Jewish Agency official. The most important criterion for passing this stage is past experience working with kids.
At that point, the candidate sends in a resume and application.
If selected, the candidate must attend a grueling day of testing. The Jewish Agency tests the candidate’s knowledge of Israeli history and Jewish religious philosophy and practice.
The Israelis are then given a subject to discuss in a group setting, which allows testers to gauge their speaking and analytical abilities.
After being accepted, each person selected attends a three-day seminar and is assigned a camp based on individual skills and the needs of the camp.
Like many educators, the shlichim say they are learning as much as they are teaching.
“The camp isn’t only for campers,” says one emissary. “It’s also for us.”
As for the campers, one says, “It’s a cool experience that we have a chance to be one-on-one with them in class. We don’t usually have a chance to get an Israeli point of view.”