In Rustic Cabins, ‘Safe Space’ To Critique Israel


Ottsville, Pa. — During the school year Molly Wernick — who just graduated from Ithaca College — says she is “perceived as being blindly right wing” because she opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and disagrees with pro-Palestinian activists’ claims that the Jewish state is perpetrating “genocide.”

But at Camp Galil, about an hour north of Philadelphia, she gets to relax and be a left-winger again.

“This is a safe space to critique what goes on in Israel, without this conflict-based binary,” says Wernick, a longtime camper and counselor who served as Galil’s “rosh mechaneh” (camp head) this summer. “You can be honest and real and talk about the great things Israel has to offer … but also understand that Israel is not perfect.”

Last year Peter Beinart drew considerable attention with a New York Review of Books piece lamenting that, while Zionism remains strong among right-wingers and the Orthodox, the American Jewish liberal Zionist is a dying breed — in part because the “Jewish establishment” has asked people to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.”

A year later, with no progress on the peace front and a relentless international movement to stigmatize and boycott all things Israeli (provoking the Knesset to pass a much-criticized anti-boycott law), you would think that American liberal Zionists — and their summer camps — would be edging ever closer to extinction.

This summer even saw the publication of “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” an online magazine essay in which writer Alison Benedikt, the film editor at The Village Voice, implied that her Young Judaea camps brainwashed her into being unthinkingly pro-Israel and concluded with the words: “I will never, ever send my kids” to a Zionist camp.

And yet, left-wing Zionist camps like Galil — while serving a tiny niche of the more than 70,000 kids in North American Jewish summer camps — are actually enjoying modest growth.

Enrollment is up slightly this year at Galil and its six sister camps throughout North America, all of them part of the progressive Zionist Habonim Dror movement; together they enrolled approximately 1,200 campers this summer. In the Catskills, Camp Shomria, the U.S. outpost of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, is growing modestly as well, with 120 campers this summer, along with 40 Jewish and Arab Israeli teens who come for a program called “Through Others’ Eyes.”

Both Habonim and Hashomer started out as socialist youth movements tied to Israel’s kibbutzim, and both offer year-round programming also. However — as with most Jewish youth groups, which have deferred to shifting schedules and interests of modern teens — year-round chapters are far less active than in the past.

Young Judaea camps, which are “pluralistic” Zionist, are also faring well and remain relatively unaffected by Jewish distancing from Israel, even as the movement spins off from its longtime sponsor Hadassah to become an independent organization.

Untapped Potential?

To be sure, none of the camps is seeing a population explosion, and most could accommodate more campers. However, with so much talk about American Jews’ distancing from Israel, just the fact that Israel-focused camps (other than Modern Orthodox ones or ones appealing to a more right-wing crowd) are holding steady is significant.

Advocates for Habonim and Hashomer camps say they fill an important niche and that — while enrollment is made up largely of alumni kids, the children of Israeli Americans, and friends who hear about it through word of mouth — they actually have an untapped potential to draw in greater numbers of unaffiliated liberal Jews, and could perhaps benefit from the rise of J Street, the three-year-old left-wing Israel lobby.

Attending a progressive Zionist camp is “an opportunity for Jews who want to look at things in a critical way, but who don’t want to cut themselves off from Israel,” says Angel Shaked, director of Camp Shomria. “We understand that a lot of things need to be changed to make Israel a better place, but it’s also very clear that we love Israel.”

Efrat Levy, a Shomria board member (and onetime camper) who sent her three daughters there, notes that Habonim and Hashomer camps are a good option for lefty families who “face the dilemma of either being told by their Jewish friends that they’re too critical of Israel or being told by their progressive friends that Israel is a pariah.”

For Fay Levy, whose two children go to Camp Shomria, the “pariah” issue has been brought to the fore recently, as Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Co-op, of which she’s a member, has become embroiled in a debate over whether or not to boycott Israeli products.

A Hashomer Hatzair alum and board member who lived in Israel for many years, Levy says the education her kids are getting at camp will empower them to respond intelligently to BDS activists. “I want our kids to have a very positive feeling toward Israel, but also to understand the complexity of the situation.”

Although she believes that with more “getting the word out,” the camp could appeal to many more families, she thinks the biggest recruitment challenge is not families’ discomfort with Israel. Rather, it’s that most parents seem to be interested in “bells and whistles” like horseback riding and water skiing, luxuries not offered at Shomria.

Professionalism Vs. Youth Leadership

For many parents, campers and staff at Habonim and Hashomer camps, the no-frills facilities (many cabins lack indoor plumbing) are a point of pride. When Camp Galil unveiled plans for a new building (completed this year), which houses offices and indoor activity space, some of the alumni and campers complained that it was “too fancy” says Sharon Waimberg, Galil’s executive director.

“We’re not a fancy camp,” she adds. “You don’t come here for the facilities.”

Another point of pride is the camps’ emphasis on peer leadership, whereby young counselors and just-out-of-college directors who have grown up in the movement plan activities and make many of the day-to-day decisions.

Nonetheless, many observers say the recent enrollment gains at these camps (which shrunk in the 1980s and ‘90s, in part due to financial troubles of their movements in Israel) stems from moves to professionalize somewhat, making improvements in management, facilities, fundraising, recruiting and outreach to alumni — often with assistance and training from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy.

The camps have had to balance the youth-led traditions with the need to win the confidence of today’s parents.

“In Habonim camps, for many years you couldn’t know until close to starting day what sports they’d have, because they’d have to wait until they knew what the counselors wanted,” says Maggie Bar-Tura, who served as chief operating officer of the FJC for five years, before moving to Israel this spring. “That’s not an answer you can give parents anymore — they want to know what they’re getting for their money.”

Another shift: while the camps insist that Israel and Zionism remain central to their mission, their websites and promotional videos are increasingly emphasizing other aspects of camp life as well, like their “youth-leading-youth” approach, communal atmosphere and a stepped-up focus on environmentalism and agriculture. Shomria and several Habonim camps recently started organic gardens/farms, even bringing in some livestock; at Shomria, about 40 percent of the dining hall’s produce and 90 percent of its eggs are now homegrown.

“The camp has been really changing its program to a more ecological education program,” says Shomria’s Angel.

In addition to the environmental changes, Angel says that over the past three years the camp has stepped up outreach to alumni (who are increasingly sending their children to the camp), made its board “stronger” and revived Hashomer Hatzair’s year-round chapters in the New York area.

Leadership training is another selling point for Habonim and Hashomer.

Bart Davis, assistant director of Camp Galil says, “I like to tell parents we’re a leadership training facility masquerading as a summer camp.”

Progressive Zionist camps are “repositioning themselves, and what they’re selling is resilience and character building,” observes Bar-Tura. “The fact that they’re rustic and bare-bones — they’re turning that into an advantage, as the opportunity to spend summer unplugged.”

Not Pushing Israel Aside

But does the focus on organic gardening and leadership development mean a de-emphasis on Israel?

“It’s not that we had to push Israel aside,” Shomria’s Angel says. “Israel is a very strong part of the camp: we use a lot of Hebrew in day-to-day life, sing a lot of Israeli songs and always, Israel and Hebrew are in the background.”

Shomria campers interact not only with Israeli counselors, but Jewish and Arab Israeli teens, who come each year for a coexistence program called “Through Other’s Eyes.”

At both Hashomer and Habonim, campers who continue through high school and want to become counselors are expected to spend a summer in Israel. And both programs run gap-year programs in Israel; participants used to spend most of the year volunteering on kibbutz, but now they instead volunteer in low-income communities.

At Habonim camps, in addition to daily Hebrew lessons (lunchtime announcements are supposed to take place in Hebrew, and key Hebrew phrases, with translations and transliterations, are posted on the walls), campers each year re-enact “Aliyah Bet,” the illegal immigration of Jews to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Established in 1946, Galil — whose motto is “the spirit of kibbutz close to home” — actually played its own part in Israel’s creation. The camp served as a training ground for Americans preparing to establish kibbutzim in Israel, and its barn once stored weapons before they were smuggled out to fighters in Israel’s 1948 War for Independence.

On a recent Thursday afternoon the focus at Galil is less on Israel’s history than its current events, as counselors run around with paintbrushes and props preparing for a program about life in Tel Aviv and the “tent city” demonstrations protesting the increased inequalities in wealth.

Outside their cabins, the “Bogrim” (the group name for the campers going into 10th grade) are relaxing on a hammock and resting from a community service trip to Philadelphia — but many are eager to tell a reporter how much they like the camp, particularly its emphasis on community and leadership.

“When I first came here I was a little, annoying kid,” says a boy named Danny. “Camp made me more mature. The environment here makes you mature.”

Dana, who discovered Galil a few years ago while doing a Google search for Jewish camps, says, “We learn to work as a kvutsa [group] and how to run our own peulot [activities]. I’m comfortable leading a group discussion now.”

Samantha, a third-generation camper at Galil says, “I used to be really shy, but coming here has made me more outgoing.”

What about the Zionist education? “No one forces you to believe anything,” Samantha says. “It helps educate us so we can make our own decisions.”