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What's It Like to Be an Israeli Soldier at an American Summer Camp?

What's It Like to Be an Israeli Soldier at an American Summer Camp?

The backs of two teen boys facing away from the camera with their arms around one another as in friendship

Summers at URJ Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, WI, bring experiences that last a lifetime. Among the most unique opportunities is the program called חלוצים, Halutzim.

Halutzim means “pioneers” and is different than any other session in camp: It is a completely immersive Hebrew environment. From sunup to sundown, חלוצים campers speak Hebrew with the staff and with each other.

If this sounds impressive, that’s because it is!

Before breakfast, an animated staff member – frequently the exceptional Rosh Eidah (unit head) Rafi Ellenson – runs through (literally) the Hebrew names of all the food and utensils. Hanichim (campers) spend two hours a day learning Hebrew through songs, poetry, and day-to-day scenarios. Their educational programs often focus on Israel and its people, history and culture. And they enjoy all the other aspects of camp, including the agam (lake), the breicha (pool), sports, and more.

The most important element of Halutzim are the מדריכים madrichim (counselors), who historically have been mostly Israeli; this summer, nearly 100% of them are. Most of them have served in the Israel Defense Forces as commanders and/or officers, often in very sensitive intelligence positions. All in all, they’re a pretty responsible bunch.

As a faculty member attached to Halutzim, I’ve been wondering what happens when an Israeli soldier comes to a North American Reform Jewish summer camp, even one as Israeli-centric as OSRUI. How do Israeli madrichim acclimate (or as the modern Hebrew word says, l’hitaklem) to camp culture, which, at one and the same time, is both quite similar to and very different than the Israel army?

I’ve noticed a number of things: For starters, while there is a hierarchy of authority among staff, it’s not nearly as formal as in the army. I jokingly said to one of the madrichim, “Ken, hamefaked,” which means “Yes, officer.” He smiled wistfully and told me, “It’s been awhile since I’ve heard that!” The madrichim are authority figures, to be sure, but their task pales in comparison to the army. It’s a huge cultural shift.

In addition, the Israelis have a keen sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their campers. If someone is late to a program, they notice. If someone seems out of sorts, they respond. They identify and try to solve issues before they even become problems. They like things to be organized but are always ready to improvise creatively.

Most impressive, the Israeli מדריכים are strong and capable on the outside yet sensitive and empathetic on the inside. The have levavot shomot – listening hearts – and they excel at being able to transmit a love of Israel to the chanichim. The magic of Chalutzim begins with the מדריכים – and it’s been a joy and a privilege to work with them this summer.

Rabbi David B. Cohen has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, since 1996 and was named a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in 2013. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where he received awards for academic distinction, sermon quality, and service to small congregations. An honors graduate of Brandeis University, he also holds a masters degree in education from Stanford University. Before coming to Congregation Sinai, Rabbi Cohen served as associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Palo Alto, CA. Prior to entering rabbinical school, Rabbi Cohen coordinated youth programs for the Reform movement in Jerusalem.

Rabbi David B. Cohen
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