CIE Brings Israel’s Context to Camp

Center for Israel Education president Ken Stein uses a giant floor map of Israel to educate camp staffers about Israel’s
geography during CIE’s inaugural three-day seminar in May 2018 at Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Georgia. (Provided)

The Atlanta-based Center for Israel Education will convene its second Israel seminar this spring to deliver historical context and state-of-the-art educational and experiential methods to Jewish summer camp staffers.

The program, with collaborative direction from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, is the core of an initiative CIE launched in 2018 with a three-year grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund to enhance Israel learning at Jewish summer overnight and day camps.

The CIE summer camp initiative provides Jewish camp staffers a stronger background on Israel’s story, the tools to create meaningful programming, a connection to peers at other camps and the opportunity for follow-up work with CIE professionals, including on-site summer visits.

The benefits go beyond summer experiences. Staffers who are college students bring their enhanced Israel knowledge back to campus, where they are able to engage in discussions about Israel with context and nuance that go beyond the conflict and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). When campers go to college in the future, they also will have the knowledge to feel comfortable in discussions about contemporary Israel. Owning Israel’s story gives campers a more complete sense of their Jewish identity.

“We’re doing training in what we do best,” said Steve Kerbel, an educational consultant with a quarter- century of experience who is leading CIE’s camp initiative. That means showing how to learn about modern Israel with background and context through age-appropriate games, experiences and other activities that are fun as well as educational.

For example, CIE advocates using food as a nonthreatening, uncontroversial way to delve into Israel. Kerbel cited two lessons — one focused on hummus, the other on Israeli couscous — that bring Israel’s history, culture, diversity and innovation into the kitchen with campers.

A deeper connection to Israel can come from something as simple as announcing the weather in Tel Aviv along with the camp forecast each morning or sharing Israel’s success in European basketball competitions as part of sports programs, Kerbel said. “Those things don’t make the news, so our kids don’t know about them.”

The camp initiative is not meant to replace the work Israeli shlichim (emissaries) do in serving as the face of Israel for summer campers. Instead, the CIE program augments context and provides background for their programming, Kerbel said.

The first three-day retreat for camp staffers in May 2018 drew 35 participants from Young Judaea and Ramah camps, Camp JORI, URJ Camp Coleman, Atlanta’s In the City Camp and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s day camps.

The content included the origins of Jewish identity, peoplehood, Zionism, state- making and contemporary issues and led to discussions about how each camp could take advantage of its unique setting to implement experiential programming beyond a single Israel Day during a summer session.

“Some participants wrote feverishly, jotting down ideas from peers. Others challenged their own perceptions of Israel’s story, and still others figured out, through brisk exchanges, how to apply content to their camp’s settings,” CIE President Ken Stein said. “As a teacher, watching each of them belong to Israel’s story in their unique ways generated similar outcomes to what educators, teens and clergy have experienced in previous Israel learning sessions with us. Common to all of them is understanding content in context and Israel’s complexity.”

Kerbel said camps sent staffers because they recognized the need to improve as Israel educators, not in response to claims from organizations such as IfNotNow that summer camps hide the truth about Israel and the Palestinians. But he said CIE can help camps deal with those issues in a developmentally appropriate way that includes understanding perspective and answering tough questions with appropriate, nuanced responses.

Kerbel said he followed up on the seminar by spending a couple of days doing Israel programming with seventh- and eighth-graders at Camp Judaea, and he found they didn’t even know how to start talking about the conflict.

“After allowing myself to sit on the student side of the classroom, learning from the CIE staff and the impressive young participants, I now feel more properly positioned to encourage these exercises and conversations in camp,” said seminar participant Elana Pollack, the program director at Camp Judaea.

Helene Drobenare, the executive director of Young Judaea Sprout Camps, said participation in the May program added to the staff skill set and helped build a stronger educational team for this past summer.

Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake staffers said at the end of the seminar that they gained a better understanding of Israel’s current events, learned how to teach Israel to young children, took away programming ideas and materials on Israeli geography, and gained ways to explain the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and the issues of occupation.

“Our staff returned motivated and excited to create some new programs for our community,” Drobenare said. “They had fresh techniques that really worked at camp.”

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