“They hike all over the Galilee, they explore the whole north of Israel, the kids are so nice…”
I was listening to my good friend Chani and, as usual, envying her lifestyle. Since making aliyah a few years ago, Chani’s regaled me with tales of her family’s life in Israel that make my life in the US seem stale in comparison: While I was trudging to Costco, she was nipping down to the Dead Sea for a swim, or hiking with her kids through 3,000-year-old ruins. Now, she was telling me about the awesome Israeli summer camp her kids attended.
“They help out on a kibbutz and learn about the animals and farming close up…”
My mind drifted to the Jewish summer camp my own kids attended: Campers pretended to be on a kibbutz, pretended to live in Israel. How amazing it must be to actually have the experiences for real.
Suddenly, my friend burst out, “Would your kids want to go to camp along with mine?” I came out of my reverie with a start. The expense, the distance, the difficulty—surely there was no way it would work. “No thank you,” I told her.
That’s what I relayed to my husband and daughter later that night: What a nice pipe dream, I explained, to go to an Israeli summer camp. “Why not?” my husband asked. “Why not?” my daughter asked. Instead of answering, watching their expectant faces, I turned on my computer instead and typed in “summer camp in Israel.” Dozens of entries popped up. Camps in English, camps in Hebrew. Science camps and sports camps and engineering camps and art programs. I was amazed: Were American kids really traveling to the Jewish state each year for these camps?
“You might be homesick,” I warned my daughter. “You wouldn’t be able to come home early.” She’d have to fly by herself; she’d be alone in a foreign country… but none of those concerns deterred her. She was so fired up at the thought of experiencing Israel for a whole summer, I signed her up.
Thirteen years old, my daughter had travelled abroad before, though never solo. While a foreign summer camp might not be for everyone, my daughter always had an independent streak: She enjoyed meeting new people and thrived on adventure. Maybe she can actually do this, I slowly concluded. Seeing her excitement helped calm my fears, too: As she eagerly read up on the camp, I too began to get excited by the tiyulim (hikes), full program, and wealth of classes detailed on the website.
The camp registration was very much like an American camp’s. What was more complicated was the transportation. We had to find an airline that offered a program for unaccompanied minors to fly and then pay a premium for the airline’s escort. (Though even with this more expensive airline ticket, the lower costs of Israeli summer camps meant that, overall, we still paid less than we would have for camp in the US.) Finally, off to O’Hare we went to drop our daughter off.
That whole first week our daughter was away, my husband and I scanned the daily photos the summer camp posted on their website, looking for a glimpse of our daughter. Phones weren’t allowed during the week, and we desperately hoped she was having a good time. We sifted through photos of kids swimming, kids eating the huge breakfasts Israel is known for, kids on hikes through undulating green hills in the Galilee. Finally, I saw a photo of my daughter: playing basketball with a group of other girls, grinning. Green hills rose in the distance, palm trees lined the basketball court; the whole scene was beautiful.
Friday afternoon, our daughter Skyped us. She proudly showed off her bunk and the girls crowding in it, all getting ready for Shabbat together. “Here’s my friend from Jerusalem,” my daughter introduced, before moving on to friends from England, America, and throughout Israel. As smiling girls waved to us, they all intoned, “Shabbat shalom.” Later that day, I imagined my daughter, surrounded by girls from all over the world, enjoying the special atmosphere of Shabbat in Israel.
That summer seemed to fly by; when my daughter returned, tan and muscular and with a great Hebrew accent, she asked if she could please go back the following year. A friend asked what made the summer so great, and my daughter thought for a minute. Finally, she gave a big smile. “In America, I learned about famous places in Israel, places like Mt. Gilboa, where King Saul was killed, and the town of Beit Shean, where his body was taken after his death,” my daughter said. “Well, in camp, I hiked in those places; I saw them close up. Instead of just learning about Israel, I was actually there!”
My daughter still keeps up with her friends from Israeli summer camp, texting them “Good Shabbos” each Friday and remembering the good times they had together. I love that when we hear about places in Israel on the news now, my daughter often knows them and has friends there. I love the fact that she’s seen another way of life and got to know girls from different backgrounds, nationalities, and circumstances.
Most of all, I love the way her eyes light up when she talks about Israel now, how instead of only learning about the Jewish state, she’s lived in it and made it, in some small way, her own. She can’t wait to go back, and we plan to send her again–when it comes to instilling Jewish pride and a love of Israel, nothing beats summer camp in Israel.