Canadian philanthropic activist brings overnight camp to Israel

Campers at Camp Dror in Israel

In Israel, June 30 marks the end of a challenging school year. Between Zoom schooling, shutdowns of youth groups and extracurriculars, and rocket attacks, one thing is clear: Israeli kids need a relaxing summer at camp. Unfortunately, most won’t get it.

Sleepaway camp just isn’t part of Israeli culture, says Shawna Goodman Sone, chair of the Canada-based Morris and Rosalind Goodman Foundation. As a former Camp Ramah camper and current board member, as well as a board member of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, she says Israeli children are missing out, not only on awesome activities, but also on a major catalyst for Jewish identity.

She’s founded a new organization, Summer Camps Israel, to change that. And despite running aground last summer due to COVID-19, she’s managed to lay the groundwork for a promising future, winning hearts and minds while redefining camping, Israeli-style.

The Absence of Camp

While day camps, called keytanot, are popular in Israel, few children attend overnight camp. Only about 8,000 kids participate in overnight programs out of an estimated 600,000 children of eligible age.

Why don’t more kids go to camp? According to Goodman Sone, “We’ve lived through rockets; we see the need to keep our babies close.” Plus, parents already know they’ll be sending their kids away to the army when they turn 18, so they want to be together as much as possible before that. “Also, there’s trust,” she adds. “Israelis are very suspicious and cautious.”

Another reason is financial, which is why Summer Camps Israel helps fund scholarships, inspired by the One Happy Camper program in North America, which offered discounts to let families try Jewish camps. “One Happy Camper exploded the North American camping field,” she says, “and now there are 70,000 kids in there.”

Identity Through Fun

Goodman Sone first became aware that Israeli kids were missing out after making aliyah to Raanana with her family seven years ago. When she asked her kids’ friends what they did over the summer, expecting the usual excited clamour, she heard comments like, “I spent the summer in the basement”—playing video games.

“My kids count down till summer,” she says. Whereas for Israeli children, “[Summer] was something they just wanted to pass through, rather than thrive.”

Being a Canadian in Israel means finding ways to give back. “Camp gave me so much. I was privileged; I also had Jewish day school. But when I think about stickiness, the love of being Jewish, love of community, I feel I got that from my camping experience.”

Studies have long shown that informal Jewish education creates positive associations, raises the likelihood of making strong Jewish choices later in life, and supports individuals’ pride in being Jewish as well as connectedness to the State of Israel.

It may come as a surprise that Israeli children need help in any of these areas. Goodman Sone insists they do. “The ages of 11 to 16 are so incredibly formative… they’re in such a malleable period. For chilonim [non-religious Jews] here in Israel, there’s so much baggage that comes with their Jewish identity.”

Unlike Jews in Canada, who simply might not know much about Judaism, Israelis often have negative ideas, whether based on personal experiences, headlines, or stereotypes. “I almost feel as if their Judaism has been robbed from them. Yes, I think Jewish identity is a serious piece of what we’re doing.”

Forging Collaboration

Summer Camps Israel co-director Anat Ben Dror emphasizes that the organization isn’t trying to replace Israel’s popular youth movements. “We don’t want to compete, we want to complete them.”

With a background in Israeli scouting herself, she points out that youth movements offer, at best, a six- or seven-day summer retreat. “There are still seven more weeks.”

Part of Ben Dror’s job is raising awareness among Israeli parents, and also spreading the word among camps that collaboration will help them more than competition. Rather than fighting over the 8,000 children already attending overnight camp, Summer Camps Israel is helping them share best practices and resources so they can scale up and attract even more children.

Participation is free for camps and includes a centralized listing site that lets parents search by criteria such as Shabbat observance. All camps must meet five core criteria:

  • Ten-night minimum. Though most North American overnight camps run longer, Goodman Sone sees this as a good start, given how new overnight camping is in Israel.
  • Non-homogeneous. Campers must come from a mix of backgrounds, abilities, nationalities, and cultures.
  • Volunteerism, in alignment with the content and values of the individual camps.
  • Strict device policy. Both philosophically and for psychological reasons, each camp can create its own definitions of what phone use will be acceptable.
  • Meaningful Shabbat experience. “I don’t prescribe what that should look like, even if it’s a pizza singalong and wearing white, as long as it’s different from the rest of their week.”

Making Space for Camp

Beyond bringing families and camps on board, Summer Camps Israel has a tougher agenda: connecting with government ministries and other agencies to create a space for overnight camp.

For example, they’re working with the Jewish Agency to recruit talent among young Israelis who have spent time as counsellors at Jewish camps in North America as part of their service year (shinshinim).

“They’re the best ambassadors ever,” says Goodman Sone. “The agency sends shinshinim to infuse North American camps with Israeli life. They know what summer camp is, they loved it. And now they can recreate that atmosphere here.”

Just in 2021, Summer Camps Israel has brought in at least 1,000 new campers, says Ben Dror. “Most are from the periphery, from homes without money. We have a great group of donors, both Israeli and North American, who understand the need and have responded.”

Lowering her voice, she says none of it would have been possible without the project’s founder: “So many people ask me, why is she doing it, where is it coming from? It’s just thanks to her big heart.”

“Summer camp is not just for rich kids,” says Goodman Sone. “The mission is serving all Israeli children. If anything, we’re serving the most vulnerable, the most isolated… we’re giving them a chance to be kids.”

The best is yet to come.

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