Jewish summer camp directors across Canada get ready to wrestle with hard conversations about the war in Israel and antisemitism at home

Clockwise: Alexandria Fanjoy Silver, in charge of Israel programming at Camp Ramah in Canada; Sarah Atkins, director of Camp Kadimah in Nova Scotia; Shaked Zipori and Stacy Shaikin, directors at Camp B’nai Brith Riback

As camps across Canada prepare for another summer, the leadership at Jewish operations know they can’t treat this year like any other.

Most years, the young campers are escaping the stress caused by disagreements with parents or boring schoolwork. But this year, coming up on nine months of ongoing conflict in Israel and rising antisemitism at home in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks, their retreats are an escape from much more than the usual domestic concerns.

But what, exactly, does it mean to be an escape this summer? Does that mean putting all the intense issues on the backburner and creating more space to avoid them? Or, does it mean spending more time delving into the issues, but providing a safe space to do so?

“We’re dealing with this tension that we don’t yet officially know how to navigate, which is that you want to both be able to talk about what is happening and for students to have an opportunity to debrief,” said Alexandria Fanjoy Silver, a Jewish History teacher at Toronto’s TanenbaumCHAT high school who’s also running Israel programming at Camp Ramah in Canada.

“At the same time, there is a concern about overwhelming them or emotionally traumatizing them without parents, right? Because you’re living in a community. So it’s trying to figure out how to navigate that temperature.”

Although it can be tempting to prescribe a solution ahead of time, Fanjoy Silver said it’s important to maintain flexibility depending on what the campers seem to want.

Ramah, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, is prepared to go in different directions as needed—but completely avoiding the topic is not one of the options. By contrast, she knows some Jewish camps in the United States will not mention anything about the conflict because camp is supposed to be a refuge.

Fanjoy Silver strongly believes camps like Ramah need to lean into the state of the world to better prepare their campers for it, rather than leaving those concerns back in the city.

“I think that that is a missed opportunity because what is happening is inescapable… the beauty of camp is that you are together and you are in a community. It’s these very tight emotional bonds. And I think that camp is a really amazing opportunity to debrief and to reflect and to talk, and to be able to have different conversations with different people who don’t necessarily all go to your same school and don’t live in the same city as you,” she said.

Alexandria Fanjoy Silver, who leads Israel programming at Camp Ramah in Canada

Camp Ramah’s programming varies by age groups. For younger ones, the focus is on providing a sense of connection to Israel, which includes learning about its history all the way back to the time of Judea, and about the different cultures in Israel today. Considering that so much of Jewish history is Ashkenazi-centric—including in Toronto where many campers live—Fanjoy Silver says it is important to introduce them to other Jewish voices.

This type of programming is not new to the camp, but this particular framing is. Part of her motivation is to counter the notion that Israel is a white nationalist state, an idea that she calls “complete garbage.” 

“We have to deal with certain realities this year, particularly the reality of social media and how quickly this narrative of Israel as a white, colonialist power has become popularized. I think it’s very important that we really drill down on that, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And the only thing that you can really do is try to give correct information,” she said.

For older campers, the programming is more specific. Fanjoy Silver wants to give them tools to meet the current moment, which means engaging more directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and how we got here. There’s an option that delves into the history for those inclined, as well as programs that use culinary or artistic approaches.

Another motivation for this programming is to combat the anger and hatred that tends to emerge in times of grief and fear. It’s important that the campers learn to have difficult conversations with people they don’t agree with, while still understanding the core of the argument—and maintaining empathy.

For example, Ramah is offering a program on the settlements in the West Bank and four different moral impulses that can lead to four different stances on them, from extremely supportive to extremely opposed. Fanjoy Silver is also using art, music and poetry in the programming, including Israeli music created since Oct. 7 and, for the first time, some Palestinian poetry as well.

She considers it important to include diverse perspectives. As a Jewish educator, she has seen firsthand the pitfalls of framing the conflict too simplistically.

“If we treat it in a very black-and-white way, then our students will maintain that black-and-white perspective, but they will often not necessarily go to the places we want them to go.”

“What we are creating is students who are then going to go out into the world and hear a different opinion, hear a different idea, and feel like they have potentially been lied to… to me, that’s where you get a lot of these really intense anti-Zionist Jews who came up through the Jewish day school system to feel that they were brainwashed.”

In a time when it seems like nobody is capable of holding multiple perspectives, it is more important than ever to increase the level of understanding in the world, she says.

“One of the cool things about poetry as a way of doing that is to see that a lot of people’s emotions are very similar on different sides of the conflict, right? A lot of the feelings and emotions and anxieties are very similar. And if nothing else, I think it’s important to humanize the other because it’s through dehumanization that we get to these problems, and Oct. 7 was a result of massive dehumanization.”

Sarah Atkins, director of Camp Kadimah, a Young Judaea camp in Nova Scotia, report they are also taking great pains to make staff and campers feel safe after a troubling year.

In partnership with the iCenter for Israel Education, they are adding a new element to their staff training this year on listening with compassion and navigating complex conversations. The training is rooted in seven guiding values, but they all revolve around the goal of creating an environment of empathy and understanding.

Atkins knows conversation about Oct. 7 and its aftermath is inevitable, and that people are likely to disagree with each other. Kadimah does not want to shut those conversations down. It wants to foster a community in which Jewish people can feel safe to engage in those difficult conversations with each other, when for so many people that option was not available to them during the school year.

“We recognize that everyone has their own perspective and we also recognize that those perspectives are valid. If a staff is engaged in a conversation with a camper or another staff member… even if they don’t agree with the perspective, we encourage our staff to listen to try to understand,” she said. “It’s not coming from a news source, it’s coming from a person, who has these perspectives for a reason. We are trying to lay down these broad stroke values to guide conversations in case they get into opposing views,” she said.

“We are trying to create an environment where people feel that they are able to express themselves and that they will be at least respected, even if they’re not fully understood or fully agreed with.”

Sarah Atkins, director of Camp Kadimah in Nova Scotia

That matter is even more pressing for Jewish summer camps that round out their staff with international hires—who are usually not Jewish. In years past, Camp B’nai Brith Montreal would always make clear to those staff members that they would be working at a Zionist camp. But this year, they went much further to stress that to potential hires, says Josh Pepin, the camp’s director.

“You’re bringing a lot of staff in who may not be Jewish, who are coming from different places in the world who may not be, I wouldn’t say antisemitic or anti-Zionist, but just have never had any interaction with anything Jewish. So really they’re coming with what they’ve seen on the news… and social media. It’s not really reflective of what is going on in Israel.”

In the past, there have been international staffers who were uncomfortable at first or even ended up leaving, said Pepin. However, because of the heightened tension this year, the camp added multiple benchmarks to determine the people they were hiring would be a good fit, including adding a question on their registration asking if they would be open and willing to attend a Jewish camp, an interview with staff members reiterating the camp’s culture, and a letter that incoming staff have to sign that explains the camp’s identity.

Pepin also compared the impact of Oct. 7 on camp this summer to another recent situation.

“I think we are going to see a lot of what we saw post-COVID coming back to camp. I think there is going to be a relief for kids, for parents. I think there is going to be a sense of excitement that maybe hasn’t been there the last couple of years because of the heaviness that we have all been through this year,” he said.

Stacy Shaikin, director of Camp B’nai Brith Riback in Calgary also compared this summer to the first post-COVID summer. Like that summer, Shaikin is expecting kids to come into camp anxious and emotional, and is prepared to keep a closer eye on them. 

Camp director Stacy Shaikin playing hockey at Camp B’nai Brith Riback

However, he also sees similarities between the political situation of the past year and the polarization around the pandemic in Alberta, which was very intense. That intensity carried over to the camp as well, which had to revise its original reopening plan, which was restricted to vaccinated campers, because of backlash from parents of unvaccinated campers.

“So we were dealing with politics. We were dealing with the spectrum of belief. And I do believe that this is similar. You’ve got your far left, and you’ve got your far right, and then you’ve got the rest of us in the middle, right? The world is grey. That’s where I think the similarities stand,” he said. But he also sees ways in which the situations are different. 

“I think the virus that is racism is a lot more destructive than the virus of COVID, now that we know what COVID is… You don’t want to get it, but if you’re a reasonably healthy person you’re not going to die,” he said. “Racism could kill your spirit and emotionally cripple you.”

For that reason, it’s important that Camp Riback provides a space for campers to feel safe and secure in their Jewish identity, as well as offers programming to prepare them for the realities of the world. This year, the camp will also be bringing in nine staff from Israel, triple the amount of last summer. They will play a large role in organizing the programs, including one that involves making a mural for the hostages.

One of those Israeli staff members is Shaked Zipori, the camp’s assistant director. Last year, after finishing her service for the Israel Defense Forces as part of the navy’s intelligence unit, she spent a summer as a coordinator at Camp Riback. She loved her summer so much that as soon as it ended she had already decided she would return.

And then Oct. 7 happened. Zipori was called back to service, and didn’t think she’d be able to return. But she found a way, and is back at Camp Riback for the summer, where she hopes to have even more of an impact on campers. It was very meaningful for her to connect with them last year, for her to feel at home in a place that was so far away from home.

This year, she wants to help return the favour, especially because she knows how isolated many Jewish people have felt in Canada since Oct. 7.

Shaked Zipori, assistant director at Camp B’nai Brith Riback

“I live in a place where everyone’s Jewish and everyone has the same opinion about what’s going on. Obviously, we all support Israel when we live in Israel. But out here it feels way more difficult,” she said. “I feel like camp is a safe space for the kids, for the campers. And I want them to feel safe and I want them to feel at home and I want them to feel like they have someone to listen to them without judgment or without having different opinions about the situation.”

Zipori will make use of her perspective in other ways. Camp Riback also has many international staff coming, so during staff training the camp will brief them about the situation in Israel and Gaza, and prepare them for conversations with campers that might arise.

Zipori is also working on programming for the older campers to teach them about the situation in Israel, answer questions, and give them advice on how they can support Israel from a distance. Many campers have reached out to her over the past year, to check on her and share their support, which only reinforced her connection with the camp .

“I don’t take it for granted because you can’t just go anywhere in the world and feel loved and feel at home and feel safe like it happened to me here, and like I hope it will happen to the new Israeli staff that are coming here,” she said.

“It’s a big privilege for me to be here in general, to be alive. So coming here and having fun during the summer and being able to bring everything I have to bring from home, it means a lot. I am so thankful and grateful for this opportunity and for being able to be here and do all of these things and then go back and help my country again. I just hope I can help my country from afar even when I’m here.”