(June 13, 2018 / JNS) It has become clear in recent months that the goal posts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement have spread from college campuses to the younger worlds of high schools. Now, it’s taking aim at summer camps.
Jewish summer camp has long been viewed as a formative cornerstone of American Jewish identity. The Foundation for Jewish Camp, in addition to many Jewish federations, funds scholarships for thousands of Jewish kids to attend sleepaway camps every year because they know that encouraging transformational, positive Jewish experiences build a stronger and more vibrant Jewish community. More than 1,000 shlichim (“emissaries”) employed by the Jewish Agency work in Jewish camps each summer. Providing such an experience that teaches Israeli history in an inclusive, entertaining way is one of proven value to the future of American Jewry.
Julie Eisen, a past president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, told JNS that the effects of sleepaway camp are unique and hard to duplicate. “The retention rate for those who go to Jewish overnight camp is 90 percent. There’s something so special about that immersive Jewish camp experience.” North Jersey’s federation raised $190,000 for this program in 2017 alone and sent 152 kids last summer to Jewish sleepaway camp for the first time. This year, the federation is expected to surpass those numbers.
This past winter, as part of a concerted campaign to Jewish camp movements, including Young Judea and Union for Reform Judaism, representatives of the organization IfNotNow, which favors the Palestinian narrative of Jewish “occupied” land, approached Camp Ramah with an idea. One of the largest of American Jewish summer-camp movements with 10 sleepaway locations in the United States and Canada—and the official camping arm of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—Ramah was asked by the group to “commit to including Palestinian narratives, the realities of occupation, and the Jewish values of justice, dignity, and love for all people in their Israel curriculum this summer.”
When reached by JNS, Ramah national director Rabbi Mitchell Cohen noted that he listened to IfNotNow’s perspective because some of its members were Ramah alumni. “Their biggest concern is that Israeli education at Ramah have some nuance to it, and be balanced, and on that point, we didn’t disagree.
“But what we will not accept at camp is this anti-Israel rhetoric that more radical organizations profess, particularly on university campuses,” he said. “There is a significant difference between being supportive of Israel yet critical of some of its policies on one hand, and on the other, denying its right to exist as a Jewish state. The latter we do not and would never permit at camp.”
‘Differ on the amount of focus it should get’
IfNotNow’s campaign was widely reported in Jewish media, and its social-media presence has been accompanied with the hashtag of #younevertoldme—insinuating that generations of Jewish camps have somehow failed them by promoting a pro-Zionist stance over the story of Palestinian hardship. “We are grounded in knowing that the education we are asking for is both possible and necessary, not just for our campers but for everyone who seeks an end to the 51-year-long occupation,” IfNotNow said on a statement on its Facebook page.
In a statement made on Monday and circulated via email to its institutional partners, with many social media comments and shares by the approximately 150,000 former campers in its alumni ranks, Cohen stated unequivocally that Ramah camps have not changed their pro-Zionist, pro-Israel policies for summer 2018, and that it has not and will not be utilizing IfNotNow’s suggestions. “Ramah camps have not engaged—and will not engage—in any way with IfNotNow as an organization,” he wrote.
Cohen’s statement is consistent with another made to Haaretz last year—that Ramah does teach about the occupation, but that IfNotNow wants something more. “We don’t differ on the importance of teaching our teens and staff about the difficulties of the occupation,” he told Haaretz. “We do differ on the amount of focus it should get,” he told Haaretz.
The statement to alumni also follows an IfNotNow protest held outside the Ramah offices at the Jewish Theological Seminary last November, and more recently, at a May 27 “training session” put on by IfNotNow in Boston, which reportedly attracted about a dozen counselors from eight Reform, Conservative and liberal Zionist camps, including at least one from Ramah.
College students attending the training session were treated to “educational sessions” by millennials, who feel that earlier generations of Jews have willfully not told them the truth about the Palestinians.
Writes IfNotNow on its web page: “We are the generation that feels increasingly betrayed by a community that doesn’t reflect our values, and the generation that the out-of-touch establishment is desperately trying to engage.”