How Jewish Summer Camp Prepared Me for the Israeli Army
Going into summer 2013, I knew that it would be my last summer at URJ Camp George, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Ontario, Canada - at least for a little while. That May, I had taken the steps to make aliyah (move to Israel) and join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). What would make a born-and-raised Canadian decide to leave the comfort of his home, friends, and family to go it alone in Israel - and in the army, no less? Actually, my time at Jewish summer camp prepared me well for this journey.
Two significant factors prompted my decision to draft into the IDF. The first is family. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Hungary who immigrated to Israel after the Second World War as refugees. Israel was their safe haven - the place where they could live Jewish lives freely, a place where Jews have liberty and self rule, where Jews define their own future and, too often, pay the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the same future for their children.
My grandfather served in the Golani infantry brigade in the War of Independence in 1948, where he was injured twice. After the war when the government wanted to pay him for his injuries, he refused and stated that the nascent state needed the money more than him. He went on to serve during the 1956 Sinai Campaign as well as the 1967 Six Day War. That was the type of man he was - an ardent Zionist and a fighter, selfless and strong. That is what he passed down to me: work hard, fight for what you believe in, and be brave, take chances. He told me, "You can only be brave when you are afraid. It is those who have the courage to continue that succeed." My grandmother, father, and brother all served in the IDF, too, in the same unit in which I currently serve.
The second major influence in my decision to join the IDF was my experience at URJ Camp George. I had a Reform Jewish upbringing and was very fortunate to have the experience of being a camper, staff, member, and hanhallah (leadership team) member during the course of my 12 years at camp. So how, exactly, did camp help shape my decision to join the IDF and how did my experiences there prepare me for some of the challenges have experienced in the army?
Believe it or not, in some ways, my past camp experiences and my current experience in the IDF are similar.
I was truly fortunate that as I was growing up at camp, I was also exposed to great Israeli role models every summer. For more than 10 years, my family hosted the camp's Israeli mishlachat (delegation), who stayed at my house before and after camp season. As I grew older, I formed strong friendships with many of the mishlachat members, some of whom I now consider family. Having the opportunity to connect with them and hear their stories strengthened my decision to make the journey to defend the way of life they so passionately expressed to us. In secondary school and university, I learned about the moral and existential realities for the creation and continued existence of Israel - ut without the personal connections, I don’t know if my decision would have been the same.
The mission of Reform Jewish summer camps and the IDF are not dissimilar. In fact, the similarities are many. Both organizations are dedictaed to ensuring that Jewish youth are exposed to Jewish life, make Jewish friends, and generally have the opportunity to experience Jewish moments. URJ Camp George, of course, does it through immersive camping excperiences, while the IDF does it by training and educating youth to defend their homeland, guided by Jewish values and traditions. The camp experience shapes the youth of the Diaspora and can be seen as the defining years in the development of a Jewish youth’s upbringing; camp makes the young Jew more likely to lead a Jewish life, which thus ensures a Jewish future. The IDF is without a doubt the defining factor in the Israeli youth’s development; they experience and endure the most grueling period of their life and make lifelong friends, all while defending Israel and her citizens.
As of this moment, I am six months into my army service and am currently in combat training in the Nachal Infantry Brigade, and I've noticed that there are also more “nuts and bolts” similarities between the camp experience and the army experience, too: eating in a communal dining hall, sleeping in tents, living 24/7 with the same people, building new relationships, managing various personalities/conflicts, learning time management, and managing and leading people. In the last six months, I've come to appreciate my 12 years at camp on a whole new level. The lessons and challenges I learned there softened the blow of this huge journey that I have embarked on, for which I'm truly appreciative.
Leor Mann is a 23-year-old private in the Israeli Defence Forces' Nahal Infantry Brigade. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Leor is currently living in Tel Aviv. He has his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Jewish Studies from Western University. Leor is current raising funds for his battalion to purchase winter clothing for the remainder of their advanced combat training, which takes place outdoors in the desert, where nights are very cold and the equipment is not sufficiently warm. Learn more about his efforts.