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Israel at the J, even under duress

Since the kidnapping in June of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Sha’er and Naftali Fraenkel, JCCs and their camps have been grappling with ways to handle news coming from Israel. As Hamas rockets launched toward Israeli cities increased, and Israel launched a ground war in Gaza, JCCs have come up with a variety of creative ways to both help the people of Israel and to bring the country — which can sometimes seem remote, especially to young campers — into our conversations and communities.

Efforts have included simple things such as asking children to wear blue and white to camp for a special Shabbat of singing, to which parents were invited, to more concrete measures like collecting socks or backpacks for soldiers. Many have sent cards to Israeli soldiers as suggested by Leah Garber, director of JCC Israel Center. As well, JCCs have been sharing her daily updates from Jerusalem with their staff and boards of directors.

Many JCCs and camps have direct ties – some are hosting shlichim, or Israeli emmisaries, in their Js and camps, while others have links to sister cities and matnasim, or community centers. In Orange County, the JCC held a drive for soldiers from Kfar Yona, their sister matnas. In Louisville, the shlicha (feminine singular of shlichim) recalled her summer of 2006, spent mostly in a bomb shelter in Israel with little to do until a care package arrived from America. She collected names and addresses of five children and assigned them to camp bunks, brainstorming with the campers about what they could send to cheer up someone stuck inside without electricity and little to do. Campers made decorations, board games, puppets and cards, and camp families kicked in candy and small toys. Camp Chi in Chicago has come up with emBRACE Israel , with campers making bracelets for children in shelters operated by matnasim. Another Camp Chi program includes lighting a candle for peace.

For some JCCs the issue was more immediate. Those with Israel trips in progress when the conflict escalated were faced with a dilemma: Should they stay or come home? Michael-Ann Russell JCC of North Miami Beach ended up having to shorten its visit by a few days, but JCCs were able to cope by working with our Israel Center, adjusting itineraries and remaining safe.

Other camps have sent their shlichim into the community, to rallies, or to speak throughout the camp. There are a variety of ways to make the crisis real in age-appropriate ways, and support Israel while doing so.

At a number of JCC camps, shlichim have shared with the American staff what it feels like to be here in the United States while Israel is in such turmoil. American staff got a better understanding of their Israeli counterparts and, one camp reported that it opened a conversation about Israel in which American staff were able to share their confusion and questions more openly than in many other Jewish settings. JCCs, with their understanding of Israel’s centrality and emphasis on diversity and inclusion, are the perfect places for Israel discussions, says Matt Abrams Gerber, assistant vice president, Mandel Center for Jewish Education.

“JCCs are the ideal places for these conversations to happen,” says Abrams Gerber. “It might be a scary endeavor, but the future of the Jewish community is reliant on our figuring out how we can share our different opinions, feelings, concerns and perspectives in a civil, constructive manner.

“We need to be able to talk to one another.”

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