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What I Learned at a Jewish Camp in France

What I Learned at a Jewish Camp in France

Campers gathered near a tree at a Jewish camp in the south of France

Riding into Paris on a bus full of Jewish preteens from all over the French-speaking world, we started singing. Well, screaming really.

Ouais! C’est super! (Yes, it is great!)
Kol Ha’olam kulo!! (WOOOO!!!) (The whole world)
Gesher tzar m’od!  (is a very narrow bridge)
Gesher tzar M’o-o-o-od! (is a very narrow bridge)
V’ha’ikar, v’ha’ikar lo lifached klal! (And the most important thing is to not be afraid)

Our unbridled enthusiasm was a scene familiar to anyone who’s seen the last day of camp elsewhere, but there’s something special at MahaNetzer, a Jewish summer camp in the south of France.

During the summer weeks I worked there, I quickly came to love French liberal Judaism for its unique melding of creativity, openness, and diversity. Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions are mixed and matched with a healthy taste of newer sensibilities from the United States and Israel. Alongside all of that is a certain je ne sais quoi typified by a wholehearted willingness to experiment and try new, homegrown ideas to see what sticks and feels relevant for the community.

Before I left for France, I told anyone I could about my exciting summer plans: “Why, yes, I am going to be leading prayer and music in southern France for three weeks this July. Thank you for asking.”

I would inevitably hear one or both of the following in response: “But isn’t that dangerous?”

“Aren’t you worried about anti-Semitism?”

In truth, this is a sincere and justifiable concern in the community. I made a mistake on my second day by referring to anti-Semitism in Paris as more of a general paranoia and was gently but firmly reminded of attacks that had occurred near the synagogue in which I was sitting. I heard, too, about the many security concerns campers’ parents had and on the day we drove back into Paris, I was struck by a counselor who turned her shirt inside out because it had a prominent Star of David design on it.

But there’s so much more here.

The visionary rabbis who founded the camp, Rabbi Pauline Bébé and Rabbi Tom Cohen, told me about the deep frustrations they felt in how anti-Semitism dominates the international conversation about French Jewry. In fact, the rapid growth of MahaNetzer is only one indicator that the community is thriving. Starting with only 30 campers five years ago, the camp has changed locations three times to accommodate its rapid change in size and now has more than 150 campers and 40 staff who celebrate their unique brand of Judaism every summer. 

I grew up in the Reform Jewish camping system at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), a Reform camp in Oconomowoc, WI. It was there that I learned what it means to live out my Judaism 24/7 and I spent 12 of the best summers of my life as a camper, counselor, songleader, and rosh eidah (unit head). I can’t imagine my life without the gift of Jewish summer camp, and MahaNetzer is similarly a beneficiary of American Jewry. Many of the current counselors and rabbis at MahaNetzer worked at OSRUI several years ago and were inspired by what they saw there to create their own camp, one that would meet their own unique needs. 

But the cultural transfer has to go more than one way.

It hurts the cause of American liberal Jewry to view France solely as a place where anti-Semitism dominates and there is little from which to learn. France is home to the third largest Jewish community in the world behind the United States and Israel and does not deserve a one-note narrative from its partners abroad.

Among other lessons, MahaNetzer taught me what it means to practice and not merely preach a multicultural Judaism. I saw the day-to-day realities of bringing together Jews with ancestry and traditions from North Africa, the United States, Canada, Eastern Europe, Israel, and elsewhere to create a community that encourages honest cultural exchange.

We would do well to begin and continue an open dialogue with our liberal Jewish peers around the world, not only to strengthen each other, but also to better our own movement. We can borrow what makes sense for us and view each other as partners in the joint cause of creating a global liberal Judaism for the 21st century and beyond. 

My experience in the south of France this past summer changed me and made me rethink what Judaism must and can look like. I met peers and rabbis who are dedicated to a Jewish future in France; I spent every morning and afternoon singing and praying with youth to expand all of our Jewish musical repertoires; and I expanded my mind enough to see beyond my comfortable paradigms of the Judaisms in North America and Israel. The more we can learn from each other and understand that we are all in this cause together, the more we can become one strong, united Jewish community with many complementary constituents. And I think we can all agree: Ouais, c’est super.

MahaNetzer in France is one of more than 30 transformative Jewish camps run by Netzer Olami, the Zionist Reform Youth Movement, as part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). With 15 branches across the world, Netzer summer camps welcomed more than 2,000 youth and young adults from Europe, the UK, Australia, Israel, South America, and South Africa, in 2019, including more than 1,500 youth from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. For more information about Netzer, including its gap year program in Israel, visit Find a Reform Jewish summer camp in North America by visiting For other international camping opportunities, contact the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Rafi Ellenson lives in Jerusalem where he is a Dorot Fellow. He has professional experience in curriculum development, translation, and music performance and teaching through work at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI); Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, NY; and 0202: Points of View from Jerusalem, among others. His writing has been published in Jewish Currents and Waging Nonviolence.

Rafi Ellenson
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