How do kids create an emotional link with a place as far away as Israel? Stacy Deems, assistant director of J Camps at the Jewish Community Center, said the JCC helps kids “fall in love” with Israel by bringing Israel to Baltimore. The JCC, with support from The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, has hosted Israeli shlichim – a term that roughly translates to “emissaries” in English – at J Camps annually for over 15 years. “So,” Deems reasoned, “the campers fall in love first with them – and then, through them, with the country. They personify Israel to a lot of campers.”
Since this group works in the camp as counselors and instructors, shlichim must bring more skills and qualities than their Israeli citizenship. Deems said she chose this year’s five shlichim because they are “outgoing,” adaptable, and “excited about not only coming to America but coming to a camp that believes in community and culture.”
Whittling the candidates down to five began in February. The Jewish Agency for Israel conducted the initial interviews in Israel, then a group of regional JCCs sent one representative who “interviews on our behalf,” said Deems. In April, after Deems interviewed the candidates via Skype or FaceTime, she traveled to Israel for four days of training outside Tel Aviv. “All the shlichim are there,” said Deems. “with a whole big group.” Deems and her selected group kept in touch until the Israelis arrived in June.
Sophomore schlicha Liem Zaada, who is staying with the family that hosted her last year, arrived June 2 and accompanied Deems to pick up her four fellow shlichim at Dulles International Airport on June 8. Sightseeing began immediately “after they got in the van,” Deems said. “We hit Starbucks, then the [National] Zoo.”
“We landed at 5 a.m.,” Neta Zeevi said. “And by 10 a.m. we were seeing pandas.” The jumpstart helped them stave off jet lag. “We stayed awake,” Rotem Gabai laughed. “It was hard but we did it!”
The pace hasn’t slowed for the 20 and 21-year-olds. For three shlichim, it’s their first trip to America. Zaada worked at J Camps last year and Maya Shami has visited New York City twice with her dance troupe.
Zeevi said he didn’t realize how large and involved Jewish culture was in America and was surprised to learn Americans “are really into Judaism. Their knowledge of Jewish culture, I wasn’t expecting that. It was very surprising, for the good.”
And although Gabai calls the food “kinda weird from what I’m used to,” all the shlichim agreed with Adi Michael’s assessment of the Baltimore Jewish community: “Super big, and super warm and welcoming.”
“The first time we came here to the JCC,” Shami said, “I expected to see a small place, nothing too special, but I was like: ‘Oh my gosh it looks like a camp I see in movies!’ It’s so cool.”
Shami’s summer goals are trifold. First, she wants to be the “best I can” at her job, then, she said she wants to “learn what the life is here for American Jews. Here, it’s something special and different. Each family way has their own way to show it.” Shami wants to “hear their story and how they see themselves as Jews.”
Deems said she understands Shami’s perspective. “One of the other camp directors put it really well,” she said. “To be Jewish in Israel is expected, it’s natural, it’s a part of your daily life. To be Jewish in America it’s something you have to put effort into. You have to want to do it and really seek it out.”
Shami said her final goal is to “eat the best mac and cheese here.”
When Michael marveled over how “safe” she felt to “be a Jew here,” Gabai agreed. “I was surprised about it too,” Gabai said. “I’m used to hiding my Israeli and Jewish [heritage.] But here I feel very safe to walk around. When you go abroad in Israel, everyone will tell you: ‘Don’t go with Jewish stuff and Hebrew words on your shirt.’” Gabai recalled a trip to London where her group’s “hotel didn’t know we were the Israeli delegation.” But, “here I feel like I can yell: ‘I’m Jewish!’”
Zeevi added he sees the JCC “is about accepting everybody, even non-Jewish too.” Gabai agreed. “It’s very diverse.” Campers “really ask questions and want to know about our lives.”
Some of the first questions campers asked Gabai about her life in Israel were: “‘Are you scared?’ ‘Have you been in a battle?’” She laughed. “No.”
Zeevi, who lives just eight kilometers from the Gaza border, said: “People assume it’s very dangerous to live here. It’s not that dangerous. I was born and raised there and I’m completely fine.”
“We have regular lives,” Zaada said. And, despite encouragement in Zeevi’s online bio to “ask about my camels,” Michael remarked: “We don’t have only camels!”
After they’re done sharing their Israeli experience with campers here, the shlichim hope to bring American culture back to Israel.
“I wish we would have a JCC in Israel,” said Shami. “But we don’t, because most of us are Jews. It feels like home and this is your family. It’s very nice here, a safe place to relax. Every time I come in here, I think: ‘I wish we had something like this in Israel, so we can gather and do activities and talk about Jewish life.’”
The shlichim stay with host families, said Deems, and more hosts are needed this summer. “We ask families through the JCC and J Camps, and we have staff members host” for a three-week session. Deems said the JCC is looking for one additional host family for the July 7-26 session, and two families for the July 8-August 18 session.
Although host families don’t have to be formally involved with J Camps or a JCC member, Deems said they seek “host families who are not only willing to open up their homes but also their hearts, families and lives to our Israeli friends.”
For more information about becoming a host family, please contact Stacy Deems at [email protected] or 410-559-3513.
Erica Rimlinger is a Towson-based freelance writer.