A Summer Like No Other: Israeli Teens Experience American Camping at Tamarack Camps

by Wendy Rose Bice

On August 1, 2002, the grim details of another terrorist bombing in Israel — this time on the peaceful campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem — made headlines across the world. Just two days before the start of the fall semester, the inconspicuously placed bomb killed nine people and wounded more than eighty.

Thousands of miles away, in the rustic, wooded land of Ortonville, Michigan, located some fifty miles outside of Detroit, dozens of Tamarack Camps’ second session campers gathered together and erected a Pinat Shalom, a peaceful corner where campers and staff came to share their concerns and feelings about the tragedy. They draped the area with white sheets; peace banners; slogans; and hand-made anti-war, anti-terrorism posters in Hebrew and English.

“Sitting with those kids and listening to them talk about life in Israel, their fears and feelings, was one of the most moving moments of the whole summer,” reflected Harvey Finkelberg (past executive director) of Tamarack Camps. By all accounts, the summer of 2002 stands as one of the most remarkable for this 100-year-old Jewish camping program. The camp hosted more than 300 Israeli teens, ranging in age from seventh to tenth grade, who came upon these American shores to spend a summer at camp.

“In April, we came up with the idea of bringing Israeli campers to Tamarack,” explained Finkelberg, a Montreal native who had been at the camp’s helm since 1992. “We thought this was the right time to invite Israeli kids to spend a summer far from the terrors they face at home and experience American Jewish camping. We also recognized the important opportunity to integrate American and Israeli campers into the same cabins and villages so they could live together, learn about each other’s culture and develop long-term friendships.”

Planning Commences

Finkelberg proposed the idea to Robert Aronson, Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Without hesitation, Aronson embraced the notion. “Most certainly, this was one of the best things we’ve ever done. It was a masterful collaboration between the Federation, the people of Israel, and one of our agencies,” said Aronson. “Our children connected with the Israeli children.”

Donations poured in. Within a month, the Federation raised $1.1 million dollars — enough to cover airfare and transportation and to reimburse Tamarack Camps for its per camper cost, which was approximately one-half of the normal camp fee. Campers were charged a $500 fee, and each, upon their arrival in Detroit, received a welcome package stuffed with Tamarack T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, a water bottle, and other goodies.

Communication between the Detroit contingent and the liaisons in Israel was swift. Naomi Rockowitz and Tova Dorfman, both from the Jewish Federation in Israel, took charge of the recruitment and screening process at Israeli schools while Finkelberg’s and Aronson’s teams organized efforts here. All campers came from one of two Israeli organizations — the Israeli Scouts and the Jewish Federation’s Partnership 2000 region in the Galilee.

Hundreds of prospective campers applied, making the task of narrowing the field wrenching at best. The Israeli Scouts tapered their final group to 108, along with five staff and a social worker, who came to help campers deal with any issues. This group arrived on July 8, 2002 — halfway through the first-session of camp.

Of the 800 Galilee region teens who applied, 212 came to Michigan. This contingent, traveling with three staff representatives and a social worker, arrived four days prior to the camp’s second session.

Communicating with the Israeli Families

In its usual style, Tamarack Camps left no stone unturned when it came to making these visitors feel welcome. Once campers were selected, families were sent informational brochures and packing lists. To make sure there were no misunderstandings, the materials were translated into Hebrew.

In early June, Tamarack’s assistant director, Jonah Geller, traveled to Israel to meet with staff, campers, and their families. The opportunity to hear, first hand, about the charm of Tamarack, to address questions of safety, and to participate in Israeli/American culture workshops quelled many fears. None- theless, Tamarack dedicated two of its five fax lines to the Israeli families, enabling them to communicate regularly with their children. In addition, the camp uploaded photographs of campers to its Web site daily, giving parents the opportunity to observe camp life from afar.

“Our attitude was that we would do whatever we needed to make this work,” said Finkelberg. “Our camp rests on 1,500 acres, has eleven villages, and in a typical summer accommodates over 2,000 kids. Adding an additional 300 does not strain our resources. We added trips and shifted things around. With appropriate modifications for size, this program could easily work in other camps, as well.”

Everyone Looks the Samein a Pair of Jeans

Once at the campgrounds, campers were escorted to their villages and cabins where a 50 percent American to 50 percent Israeli bunk ratio was maintained whenever possible. Tamarack also increased the number of Israeli counselors and specialists from a summer average of fifteen up to thirty. This group proved to be an essential element of the program’s success.

“Within a day, we couldn’t tell the difference between the Israeli kids and the Americans,” reflected Finkelberg. “They blended in and joined in all of the activities. They were just like every other kid.”

Serendipitously, the summer of 2002 also happened to be the camp’s 100th anniversary. Each village spent time re-enacting camp rituals of the past, and the season culminated with a grand birthday celebration — attended by both sessions’ campers and their parents and featuring the much beloved folk singer, Debbie Friedman. Israeli campers and counselors were presented with a special gift, a copy of Tamarack Camps’ own coffee table book, A Timeless Treasure: 100 Years of Fresh Air Society Camp, and a special commemorative camp musical CD.

Throughout the summer, there were moments — both planned and unplanned — when the uniqueness of this special endeavor became as obvious as the friendships that were developing among the campers — the night that campers erected the Peace Memorial, American kids offering impromptu lessons in slang, and the day, in the middle of a Tish B’Av ceremony, when one of the young Israeli men told mesmerized campers of how he sat on a bus that was bombed several months ago.

“Camp is supposed to teach values,” said Finkelberg. “This summer our American kids saw what life is like for an Israeli. They came to realize how something as insignificant as buying a pair of jeans is a big deal for one of their peers in Israel. In Israel, kids can only go to the mall when there are lock-ins, when the mall closes to the public so teens have a safe place to go.”

Family Bonds

Wanting the Israeli kids to fully participate in all of camp’s rituals, the Federation offered Detroit area families the opportunity to “Adopt an Israeli Camper.” Adoptive families simply promised to send their camper a few packages and letters and to attend one Friday night Shabbat dinner. Bonds were created, new friendships made, and most importantly, the visiting teens experienced the same joy as the American kids upon seeing that golden brown package sitting upon their bunk.

During the five-day overlap between first and second session, when all 320 Israeli campers were still at camp, a number of special events cemented the summer program’s success. After giving the newly arrived second session campers a day to acclimate, the two groups, along with the six-week American campers, boarded buses for the five-hour trip to Cedar Point, a regional amusement park. The following day, Monday, first session Israeli scouts went on a three-day canoe/hiking trip while the second session campers integrated into their villages and bunks with the American kids. Finally, on Wednesday night, both the first and second session campers joined donors, community leaders, and their adoptive families at a gala dessert reception to culminate their summer’s experiences.

Tears and Letters

If success can be measured by pounds of mail and e-mails, then surely the program exceeded expectations. The less obvious barometers include the number of applications already being received by Tamarack for next year and the number of continuing friendships between friends across the sea. Perhaps most telling though, were the tears shed as each group left. “Seeing the Israelis leave camp was quite emotional,” remembered Finkelberg. “What these teenagers experienced in just a few short weeks, coupled with the fears of returning to their war-torn country, was truly something to witness. The tears in their eyes, and in ours, showed just how significant this summer had been for all of us.”

Tamarack Camps and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit are discussing plans to repeat the program again next summer. Perhaps with fewer campers, perhaps with more. Time will tell. Finkelberg urges other camps to consider doing the same. “As Jews, there was no greater thing we could have done than to give these kids a safe and rewarding summer. As a camp, I think we achieved something fantastic. We blended two cultures together seamlessly. We made it possible, but the kids really made it happen.”

Wendy Rose Bice is a contributor to The Big Idea, a creative industry trade magazine, The Metro Times, The Observer, and Eccentric Newspapers, and numerous organizational publications. Tamarack Camps, established in 1902, is a full-service, year round outdoor education and camping agency. Its programs include summer, overnight camping and teen travel programs; special needs camping programs, and outdoor education and challenge initiatives for corporations, organizations, and schools.



Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.