Saturday, September 20, 2014 Elul 25, 5774

Jewish Summer Camps Grappling With Murders of Israeli Teens

July 8, 2014 By:
Hillel Kuttler, JTA
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A memorial display at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Wash., pays tribute to the three murdered Israeli teens. Photo by Josh Niehaus.

On the morning of June 30, the children began arriving at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Wash., ready for a fun-filled summer.

But shortly before the first little feet descended the bus steps, the sleepaway camp’s Israeli counselors learned from back home about the discovery of the bodies of three teens kidnapped in the West Bank 18 days earlier.

The news about the teens’ fate challenged administrators at Jewish camps like the Conservative movement-affiliated Schechter to deal with the tragedy: what information to present, how to tailor their words to campers’ varied maturity levels and how to mourn the youthful victims while not alarming children for whom camp represents happiness and escape.

Then there was tending to Israeli campers and counselors, for whom the trauma was more personal.

At Schechter, the dilemma for administrators was compounded by the campers being so young — second- through seventh-graders. The teenage cohort wasn’t due until later in the summer.

So nothing was announced that day and no mention appeared on the camp’s website.

“It’s not really a great topic for kicking off camp and having a great summer,” said the camp’s executive director, Sam Perlin. “Getting off to a good start is extremely important.”

Only at the next morning’s daily assembly at the flagpole to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, did Perlin tell campers that the three missing yeshiva students had lost their lives.

“I didn’t say ‘murdered’ or ‘killed,’ ” he related. “I didn’t say how or why.”

Across the country, Camp Moshava, a Modern Orthodox overnight camp in Honesdale, Pa., took a different approach.

Campers arriving on June 24 were greeted at the front gate with placards hung by Israeli counselors featuring the faces of the kidnapped boys and a message in Hebrew praying for their safe return.

The news of their deaths broke nearly a week later at lunchtime, when each shift of children finishing the meal headed to another building for the daily afternoon prayers, youngest group to oldest. At the Mincha service, the fact of the boys’ death was conveyed at an age-appropriate level.

Moshava’s website the next morning showed images of three Israeli flags arrayed horizontally across the screen above the words “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet,” the traditional utterance upon learning of a Jewish person’s death. The left column presented news of the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach.

“We’re a religious Zionist camp. This is what we’re all about,” the camp’s director, Alan Silverman, said when asked about his guiding principles for handling the situation.

Upon hearing the news, he said, “we and the camp psychologists made a plan for each group” that included telling Israeli staffers and campers first. Others were dispatched to share the news with two groups of adolescent campers off site on organized hikes.

Moshava campers of all ages are learning sections of Mishnah in memory of the slain teens. Three eighth-grade girls initiated a project to collect campers’ letters, poems and drawings for albums to be sent to the grieving parents.

“They should feel we are connected, even though we are thousands of miles away,” said Davida Krauss, one of the girls, who is from the Bronx, N.Y. “We wanted to do something for them.”

Krauss said she and two friends came up with the idea because “we saw everyone so sad that they can’t do something — but we really can do something.”

The campers were offered the opportunity during their mid-afternoon free period to gather on the grass outside the dining hall to speak with mental health professionals or with each other, which some did.

Otherwise, swimming, ballgames and the rest of the recreational schedule carried on normally, Silverman said.

After hearing of the deaths of the Jewish teens, several former staff members drove to Moshava in solidarity.

“In a sense, [the camp] is the best place you could possibly be,” said Silverman, who lives most of the year just a few miles from where the Israeli boys were kidnapped in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion settlement bloc and has run the camp for 29 years. “Here you’re with a large community that is grieving together.”

At Camp Galil, a sleepaway camp in the Poconos affiliated with the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement, Israeli counselors joined forces with their American colleagues to run a dialogue program for campers on the news and hold a memorial service for the slain teens.

“The younger kids asked lots of question because they didn’t really understand what was happening, but the older campers had very thoughtful responses,” said Noa Swisa, 28, an Israeli Shlicha from Jerusalem. “The camp places a strong focus on Zionist and Israeli education and it’s something we deal with on a daily basis — as objectively as possible.”

Camp Galil hosts campers between the ages of 8-16.

At the memorial service, campers lit candles and placed flowers beside pictures of the murdered teens.

“It was a beautiful service and the campers were very engaged,” Swisa said.

Like Moshava, Israeli staffers at the Schechter camp expressed feeling conflicting emotions of learning about the news in Israel.

Bar Bamani, a counselor who had flown in recently from his Tel Aviv-area hometown of Tel Mond to work at the camp, said his mother texted him the news just as some of the other Israeli staffers were hearing what had happened.

One of the Israelis began crying, “so we sat together and talked a bit about it, to make sure everything was OK,” said Bamani, 21. “Campers were coming, so there wasn’t much time to sit and breathe and digest the situation.”

During crises, “we feel united and close to Israel,” he said. “That’s the safe place, the family. You can feel the mourning of everyone.”

Bamani expected campers to raise the subject of the tragedy, but said he won’t initiate such conversations.

The camp’s rabbi, Yohanna Kinberg, is helping to launch conversation on the topic. She laminated a photograph of the Israeli victims for display in the synagogue alongside battery-operated memorial candles.

Someone moved the photo to a central walkway outside, where it has prompted discussions among campers and staff, she said.

“This is real, and it’s important to talk about if it’s framed in a thoughtful way,” she said, “not a terrifying way.”

Days after the discovery of the Israeli teens’ bodies came news of the murder of a Palestinian teenager from eastern Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and later of Israel’s arrest of six Jewish suspects in connection with his slaying.

The killing of Khdeir came up at Moshava in discussions among the high school-age campers, Silverman said. At the Schechter camp, staff members spoke about it informally over Shabbat, Perlin said.

Referring to the aftermath of the killings, along with the rocket attacks launched on Israel from the Gaza Strip, Kinberg said the situation is “spiraling and it’s scary, and it’s very upsetting.”

“I think we’ll have a lot of discussions with the teens on what’s happening in Israel,” the rabbi said. “Since we have so many Israelis here, it’ll be a much richer conversation.”

Camp Galil organized discussion groups for the older campers regarding the alleged revenge murder and how all of the recent events are affecting the situation in the Middle East.

Swisa explained that similar discussion groups are in the works for the younger campers.

“The reason we haven’t done it yet is because we feel it would be irresponsible to have an activity on the subject without providing them with a background on everything that is happening in Israel,” Swisa said. “We are working on the programming slowly, because it’s an educational process.”

JE staff writer Amishai Gottlieb contributed to this report.

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