TEL AVIV (JTA) — After serving three years of mandatory army service, Guy Eisenberg felt like many Israeli military veterans: He wanted to get away and have some fun.
Thailand or India would have been a natural choice. The countries are something of a rite of passage for Israelis seeking to blow off post-army steam.
But instead of going east, Eisenberg went west and became a swim counselor at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. He would return for six more summers to his wooded getaway, where he made lasting connections and discovered something even more fascinating than fun and new friends: Conservative Judaism.
“I had no idea about Conservative Judaism or anything different from Judaism in Israel,” Eisenberg said. “I grew up religious. I studied in a religious high school with a religious family. It opened a world I didn’t know.”
Other Israelis tell a similar story. Summers at American Jewish camps have opened their eyes to a much broader range of Jewish life.
While small Reform and Conservative communities exist in Israel, most Israelis are either secular or Orthodox. Most secular Israelis have never attended daily prayers and don’t observe Shabbat, while most Orthodox Israelis have had little if any exposure to egalitarian Judaism.
“It was weird and hard at first, but I got used to it and liked it,” said Dror Morag, a secular Israeli who worked with Eisenberg at Ramah Wisconsin. “It was a spiritual and cultural experience.”
Every year, approximately 1,500 young Israelis fan out to Jewish camps across the United States as emissaries, or shlichim, sent by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Their main task is to bring a taste of Hebrew and the Jewish state to American Jewish youth, but many come away with a deeper appreciation for different streams of Judaism and for American Jewish pluralism.
“Many of our shlichim talk about the Jewish experience that they have in camp,” said Eran Berkovich, the Jewish Agency’s director of short-term emissary programs. “It’s a Jewish setting that allows them to evaluate their Judaism in a positive way. Many of the shlichim come back more pluralist.”
The emissaries say the immersive experience of camp gives them an intense introduction to American Judaism.
“You take your Judaism as a given” in Israel, said Omer Givati, a secular Israeli who worked at North Carolina’s Camp Judaea in 2005. “When you see that people choose to be Jewish, you can choose to connect to religion from another place.”
Although emissaries who go to Orthodox Jewish summer camps don’t get the same exposure to liberal Jewish movements as some of their peers, they still encounter differences between American and Israeli Orthodoxy.
American Orthodox girls “have a lot more knowledge of Torah, the weekly portion,” said Adi Hershkovitz, an Israeli Orthodox woman who worked at Camp Nesher in Pennsylvania from 2006 to 2008. “They wore shorts, which we wouldn’t wear. There’s more emphasis on learning and less on how people look.”
The experience at camp doesn’t necessarily change anyone’s personal practice. Eisenberg didn’t return to Israel and seek out the nearest Conservative synagogue.
"I appreciate it, but I’m a lawyer," he said. "I don’t spend time reading Jewish legal rulings.”
Some emissaries, though, said they came away from camp feeling more comfortable with and connected to their Judaism.
"I respect the religion more and I’m more proud of Judaism because I can connect to it," said Givati. "Now I know the prayers, know what they say. I respect it because I understand it.”
Experiencing American Jewish pluralism has influenced the careers of several emissaries. Berkovich, Givati and Hershkovitz all worked for the Jewish Agency for a time in part because of their time at camp. Morag is the secretary-general of Meretz, a left-wing Israeli political party that advocates religious pluralism.
Shai Bracha, who worked at Young Judaea Texas from 2007 to 2009, said the experience helped him find work as a staff member at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where Jewish students can spend a semester studying abroad.
“A lot of people that age work being waiters or security guards or [other] easy jobs,” Bracha said. “This one helps you advance your career.”
Givati said that working at a camp has helped him be a better Israeli.
“Israel needs these shlichim like the U.S. needs them,” said Givati, who now works as the Jewish Agency’s partnership director. “Shlicihm that return to Israel are better Israeli citizens. It opens up your world to Jewish education.”