When Jamie Simon-Harris thinks about her Jewish summer camp without its yearly group of enthusiastic Israeli camp counselors, the Camp Tawonga executive director gets dismayed.
“They really are key to our program,” she said.
If rumored changes to a visa program for international camp counselors go through, those Israelis may not be allowed into the country anymore.
According to an Aug. 27 Wall Street Journal article, several categories of J-1 visas were being recommended for cuts, including two vital groups for camps: summer work travel and camp counselor.
This change would affect a lot of U.S. camps and put the pinch on counselors from around the world. But for Jewish camps in particular, the change would hit extremely close to the heart, as counselors from Israel help nurture connections to the Jewish state.
“This is a very integral and significant part of our mission,” said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.
Arquilevich said his camp’s 40 to 50 Israeli counselors that come each year play “a significant role in that love of Judaism” that the camp promotes for its attendees.
“It’s building the Jewish world, building the community,” he said.
People from more than 200 countries come to the United States on J-1 visas each year. According to State Department data, California currently has 2,615 J-1 visa holders working as camp counselors through eight sponsors.
Justification for cutting the programs revolve around the effect they have on the labor market, potentially taking away work from U.S. citizens. President Donald Trump on April 18 issued an executive order saying he would review policies in order to encourage more “buy American and hire American” practices.
Camp Tawonga, located near Yosemite National Park, brings around a dozen Israelis and five to 10 Jewish young people from places like the United Kingdom and Costa Rica to the camp each year.
“It really enhances our program,” Simon-Harris said.
Some have even attended the camp as children, then returned later as counselors. That’s what Noam Raychental did. She first came to Tawonga 11 years ago as a camper, then returned as a counselor-in-training, a counselor and eventually a supervisor. She said using Israeli counselors isn’t about getting cheap labor, but rather about creating and nurturing the children’s connection to Israel by letting them meet real people, with real stories.
“The fact that we come every summer is a way to keep the relationship between Jews in Israel and in the diaspora and it even makes it stronger,” she wrote in an e-mail from her home in Israel.
A number of Jewish camping organizations signed onto a letter to Trump asking him to keep the programs in place.
“Our camps utilize these programs to bring cultural exchange staff from Israel to summer programs, where they participate in daily camp life, sharing Jewish traditions, teaching about Jewish and Israeli culture, and serving as role models for Jewish campers.” the Sept. 6 letter said.
Spearheaded by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the letter is co-signed by the JCC Association of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, National Ramah Commission, Habonim Dror North America, Association of Independent Jewish Camps and Young Judaea Global.
Recently a letter went out to parents of Camp Newman campers, urging them to send messages of support to their elected officials and linking to a helpful page on the website of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Camps around the country have done similar.
“My understanding is that there’s been tens of thousands of letters,” said Arquilevich, who signed the letter along with camp director Rabbi Erin Mason.
In a recent blog post on Camp Newman’s website, Israeli counselor Roy Druker wrote about his desire to create bonds with young American Jewish children.
“I did this by creating activities about Israel, having conversations with the campers about my life as an Israeli, and ultimately sharing the deep feelings I have for my country,” he wrote.
And that person-to-person contact is exactly what makes the J-1 camp counselors from Israel so valuable to American Jewish camps — letting children meet a real, live Israeli and turning fun camp memories into a meaningful tie with Israel.
“Israelis working at Camp Tawonga makes camp a better place,” Simon-Harris said.
JTA contributed to this report.