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It’s not only about summer camp

When even hummus is political, inflaming passions is easy, but what we really need is education
Illustrative: Jewish summer camp at Surprise Lake Camp. (Surprise Lake Camp)
Illustrative: Jewish summer camp at Surprise Lake Camp. (Surprise Lake Camp)

As the Jewish summer camp season opens, thoughts of renewed friendships, days on the basketball courts and baseball fields, early morning swims, and late-night campfires abound. Even with the pressures of group living and adolescent expectations, camp can make for a relatively care-free existence for some.

Yet for those who work so hard year-round to plan and administer, and for those who take their summer break to serve as counselors, teachers, unit heads, kitchen staff, and overall role models, the potential to inspire and influence young people can be both burdensome and incredibly rewarding.

The responsibility is rarely taken lightly. Many of us can point to summer camp encounters which shaped our lives. The counselors and teachers we encountered at camp have made indelible imprints on our psyches, and have motivated us to lead lives full of Jewish and universal meaning.

With this understanding, it is important to take the controversy surrounding the IfNotNow initiative to “engage with the reality of the Occupation” in camps across North America this summer quite seriously.

We should both bemoan and take responsibility for the fact that even students who have had the privilege of accessing years of Jewish education (be it through synagogues, day schools, youth groups, summer camps, and more), lack nuanced understanding of modern day Israel, including multiple narratives and origins of Zionism.

It’s not difficult to see how this happened. When it comes to Israel, many Jewish educators are salespeople for what I call the three pillars of love — Ahavat Eretz Yisrael (love for the Land of Israel), Ahavat Medinat Yisrael (love for the State of Israel), and Ahavat Am Yisrael (love for the Jewish people).

As a salesperson, I want you to make an investment in my product, even if you’re not seeing it through my lenses. Sure, this car or this house doesn’t have all the features you want, but the car will get you to work and the house will provide a solid roof over your head. So if there’s a rattle in the engine or a drip in the faucet, it’s really not all that terrible (except, of course, one day that rattle in the engine could mean a dead car and that drip in the faucet could mean a flood in the kitchen).

In one way or another, these three pillars of love form the basis for pedagogy at many of our institutions. When we try to impart them, what should we disclose? Do we suggest that while observing Shabbat may enrich our lives, there are criminals who also observe the Sabbath? That while education is one of our highest ideals, there are teachers who are abusers? That tikkun olam speaks to both our particular and universal values, yet there are those who have used social service for their own personal gain at the expense of those they were supposedly serving?

The answer is a Jewish one. Yes. And no.

Let me be more direct. Do we teach an 8-year-old about the nuances of conflict in the Middle East? No — developmentally their brains literally can’t process them, and won’t be able to until late adolescence. Can we teach that there are different kinds of people who live in and around Israel? That some are Jewish and some aren’t? That some look a lot like us and others don’t? That they come from different parts of the world? That some like the same pizza you like and others don’t even know what pizza is?

Do we teach a 10-year-old that there is hate in the world (we don’t have to, she/he already knows). Do we teach that there are Jews who hate and Arabs who hate? Do we show them what some of that hate looks like?

Do we teach a 14-year-old that in 1948, both Arabs and Jews left their homes because of war? That some did so voluntarily and others not? That there were ruling powers that dictated terms that very few liked (including the rulers)? That there were other wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006, 2008, and 2014 (to name but some)? That the results in 1967 changed realities on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians? That there are competing and conflicting narratives?

Wait, wait, wait…

This is getting too complicated and too simplified. Which brings me to my point.

We need to educate first, advocate second.

It’s too easy to blame summer camps. Parents, families, clergy and other educators, Jewish institutions — we all shoulder the responsibility. It’s too simple to say we need to “engage with the Occupation.” It’s too easy to say “yes, but…” It’s too convenient to use incendiary language (on both the right and the left) in an era when even hummus is political.

If you don’t believe Israel has a right to exist, you can stop reading now. But if you do, if you value these three pillars of love, then let’s renew the conversation with each one.

  • Ahavat Eretz Yisrael (love for the Land of Israel) — How do we teach an understanding of the Jewish people’s yearning for this small piece of real estate? Its rocks and mountains, its land and its sky. Its earthly and heavenly qualities. The footsteps of Jews and Muslims and Christians and Baha’i and so many others.The Jews, the Turks, the British, and the Jews again. The modern-day Palestinians and the ancient Canaanites. Taking this in doesn’t doesn’t happen by teaching politics and policies.
  • Ahavat Medinat Yisrael (love for the State of Israel) — The country is as complex as it gets — culturally, politically, religiously, economically, creatively, linguistically — you name it. The air and soil and walls, new and old, absorb it all. The revival of an ancient language, where both the buses and the bottles of soda remind us that another Jewish holiday is approaching. There are warts and flaws and conflicts and controversy. We share both pride and shame. And we are empowered to try and fix things.
  • Ahavat Am Yisrael (love for the Jewish people) — Arguably the easiest most difficult of all. As complex as Israel Israel is as a country, the complexity of our people is even greater. The recall of history is anything but objective, yet however we choose to recall it, we share it. Against all odds, we have created and shared and built. We’ve made our mistakes and had our share of failures. Understanding Israel also means understanding who we are as Jews.

Our own teaching can only go so far. Ultimately, it’s the intangibles — the experiences which have the most impact. Many of us have our seminal camp or youth group moments, our “only in Israel” stories, our role model teachers, clergy, youth advisers, and camp counselors. That’s why this conversation is so important — and also why it’s not only about summer camps.

You can’t erect a strong building without a strong foundation. Do we want to give both young and old the tools to advocate? Then we need to educate.

About the Author
Rich Moline is a Jewish educator, non-profit executive, and volunteer leader living in Chicago.
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