Israeli summer camp counselors bridge the gap between two lands

Lior Levi, a twentysomething Israeli, will spend the summer at Camp Tawonga near Yosemite, teaching campers about Israel. But first he'll spend a week in the Bay Area — just to get to know the local Jewish community. As part of this introduction, he will participate in "Israel in the Gardens," celebrating Israel's 55th anniversary and leading activities for children and teens.

Part of a contingent of 2,000 young Israelis traveling to Jewish camps across the United States this summer, Levi is one of 40 who will spend this summer at Jewish day and overnight camps in Northern California.

"The goal of the shaliach (Hebrew for "emissary") program is to infuse the summer camp experience with the flavor of Israel — sharing Israeli culture and history with campers in a variety of formal and informal ways, including music, dance and art," said Caron Tabb, director of Living Bridge programs for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Israel Center.

This year, the Israel Center is bringing 10 shlichim to San Francisco a week before they begin work at Camp Tawonga, to familiarize them with the Bay Area Jewish community. And their first exposure to communal life will be at "Israel in the Gardens," where they will lead kids' activities.

"We've had shlichim at Tawonga since at least 1985, but a few years ago we increased the number of Israelis at camp from two to five, and now 10 this year," explained Deborah Newbrun, director of Camp Tawonga. "With fewer teens going on summer trips to Israel, we felt it was extremely important for our campers to be exposed to Hebrew and to Israeli culture."

By the time they reach Tawonga, a resident not-for-profit Jewish camp near Yosemite serving 1,000 youngsters every summer, the Israelis will have met camp senior staff and should be familiar with local Jewish organizations, schools and cultural institutions. Organizers believe this will aid the emissaries' ability to relate to and interact with campers.

"This is an opportunity to elevate the level and quality of Israel content in our summer camps," said Tabb.

The San Francisco Israel Center will work closely with the Israelis to develop programs specifically requested by Tawonga staff and tailored toward the camp's needs.

At Tawonga, the 10 shlichim will have specific responsibilities, including serving as song leaders, unit heads and wilderness trip leaders, according to Newbrun.

"The shlichim create a bridge between the United States and Israel," Newbrun added. "The shlichim, who have all completed their military service, help to humanize the concept of Israel and put a face on the military activities the campers see on television."