By Mike Smith
This past month, I spent two weeks in Israel on a JCC Camps Birthright trip. I was fortunate enough to be able to extend my trip an extra two days to reconnect with old camp friends and tour schools in Israel. These camp friends were participants in our Partnership2Gether Program with the Yoav region in Israel. Each summer our camp hosts teenagers from Yoav who become part of our camp and our community.
The partnership has been an important part of Camp JCC since it was founded in 2003. But the program doesn’t just benefit Camp JCC, it benefits our entire Jewish community. The teens go through an intense interview process to make sure that they each have something unique to bring to our camp. There are an average of 20 applicants from Yoav to be a part of our program and only four are chosen. The teens stay with families in our community for about eight weeks during the summer and they run “Israeli Fun” at Camp JCC. At Israeli Fun, campers play traditional Israeli games, learn Hebrew words, sing songs, and share stories of life in Israel.
I was happy to share my last dinner in Israel with five former participants, Noa Peleg, Noa Slama, Itay Eshel, Or-El Marom-Shemesh and Aviv Kottler. We talked a lot about how school was, and who from camp they still keep in contact with. I was very happy to hear that many of them are still in touch with counselors and their host families. I asked each one about their camp experience and what advice they would give future participants.
It was the best experience of my life. Absolutely the best. I felt like I was home right away and that I was part of something special. It wasn’t like studying in school, I felt connected to everyone I worked with. I would tell (future participants) don’t be shy. Talk to everyone and try to meet a lot of people. Don’t be afraid to speak English!
I still talk about America every day and it helped me to speak better English. I play the games with the children (in Israel) that I learned at camp. It taught me how to meet new people and talk to them. I would say to make friends, because they will become your friends for life. Try to do something every second and don’t waste time worrying. It will feel like it wasn’t enough time.
The biggest thing that has influenced my life was camp. It showed me how much I can connect with children and adults. I have pictures of campers and staff next to pictures of my best friends. I would tell the new teens to be open to new things and never say no.
Camp was one of the greatest experiences in my life. I still talk to my friends about it and wish that I could do it again. I would tell next year’s teens to stay in touch with their host families and campers. They should never take this trip for granted and do as much as they possibly can.
Camp made me very happy. I saw everything differently when I got back (to Israel). It changed my perspective of Jewish people abroad. I miss hearing American people talk! I would tell future teens not to waste any minute no matter how tired you are because it is the best experience ever. Remember to talk to everyone. Be as creative as you can be. My new catchphrase after this trip is “make memories you won’t want to forget.”
The Partnership Program is always one of the highlights of Camp JCC for many of our campers and staff. Our campers are always enamored with the Israeli teens and end up talking about them way past their summer stay. Our camp staff immediately takes them in and shows them around the Valley and they quickly become a part of our community.
If you or anyone you know is interested in hosting teens this summer, please contact Aaron Gorodzinsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.