From pluralism to uniting after wildfires, an Israeli emissary’s reflections

To be a Shlicha (Israeli emissary) is…

To fly 15 hours to a place you couldn’t begin to imagine, and then land and find out you didn’t bring enough jackets.

To be asked, “Can you do an American accent?”

To break common beliefs about the IDF, form new opinions about the IDF, and talk only about the IDF.

To have bat mitzvah when you are 20 years old, make new friends, and know that we have so much in common even though we come from different places.

To explain that Noa is a girl’s name.

To love the mac ‘n’ cheese and hate the falafel in the dining hall.

To tell my family what I do here and know they will never understand.

To be an ambassador in everything you do.

To scream for the first time, “I LOVE BEING JEWISH!”

To be the best version of yourself just because you can.

And to be a Shlicha is to miss home while feeling at home.

For the past two years, I served as a Summer Camp Shlicha at URJ Camp Newman in Northern California, last year as a dance specialist and this year as a general counselor. I was part of The Jewish Agency’s North American Summer Camp Shlichim program, which sends Israeli emissaries to Jewish summer camps across the continent to represent Israel as a living, thriving Jewish state. Shlichim participate in, and are integrated into, all aspects of programming in their assigned camp settings. This past summer, I was one of the 1,360 Israeli specialists, counselors, and educators dispatched to North America summer camps, where we collectively reached more than 10,000 American-Jewish camp counselors and tens of thousands of campers. At Camp Newman, I was part of this year’s Mishlachat (emissary delegation) of 19 Shlichim.

I initially wasn’t sure if I’d return to Camp Newman in 2018. But I received messages from three different campers who said they needed me there. Camp Newman’s facility in Santa Rosa was devastated by wildfires last October, and this summer, camp was held in a temporary location: Cal Maritime in Vallejo nicknamed, “Newman by the Bay.” Although I had only been at Camp Newman for one summer, while many of the campers and counselors had been there for a decade or more, the camp community felt like family to me. I decided to return this past summer so I could be there for them.

Although camp took place in a different venue this year, the prevailing sentiment—as one of my campers put it—was that, “It’s about the people, not the facility.” The camp did an amazing job of making the children feel at home in a new environment, including by organizing the same schedule of activities and using the same names for specific locations throughout the campsite.

Both summers, helping campers forge new, deeper, more authentic connections with Israel and Israelis was one of the most gratifying parts of my experience. In the eyes of American campers and counselors, you are Israel. I had campers who’d never thought about traveling to Israel, but by the end of the summer, they were begging to visit me there. One of my campers learned about a high school semester program in Israel, and is now enrolling in that program.

For Israeli Shlichim and North American camp communities, this is a two-way, symbiotic relationship. We speak each other’s languages. We delve into our cultures. We laugh together.

We also learn from each other about the diversity of the Jewish community. I grew up in a strictly Orthodox home in Israel, and to see girls at Camp Newman wearing a tallit or going up to the Torah for an aliyah was at first disorienting for me.

But after these two summers, I’ve learned to embrace Jewish pluralism and appreciate Reform traditions, especially how the prayers are fun, energetic, and full of singing. I wasn’t previously enthusiastic about prayer, and the Camp Newman community helped me connect with Judaism in a new way. Nobody at camp forced me to do this. My colleagues said, “It’s okay, take your time.” And that’s exactly what I did.

As I return to Israel, the American-Jewish summer camp community will always have a special place in my heart. And I’m confident that after spending these summers with me and the rest of Camp Newman’s Mishlachat, my campers and fellow counselors feel the same about Israel, the Israeli people, and Israeli culture.

The poem that opens this column was originally published on the URJ Camp Newman website.

About the Author
Noa Kazaz, 21, was a Shlicha (Israeli emissary) representing The Jewish Agency for Israel at URJ Camp Newman in California during the summers of 2017 and 2018. She studies dance therapy and lives in the central Israeli city of Holon.
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