'Not being able to hire Israeli staff would be devastating'

Executive order may keep Israeli counselors from Jewish US summer camps

Annual cultural exchange, along with summer staffing quotas, jeopardized by Trump’s proposed sharp reduction of J-1 visas

Israeli Staff serve pita and hummus to campers on Israel Day at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire. (Amy Blotner/Camp Tevya)
Israeli Staff serve pita and hummus to campers on Israel Day at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire. (Amy Blotner/Camp Tevya)

NEW YORK — Every summer Israeli camp counselors take on the role of shlichim, or ambassadors, as they visit Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire, to help campers connect with Israel.

One way they do this is through Israel Day. Once each summer Lake Potanipo becomes the Sea of Galilee and campers are invited to walk through a shuk replica, eat falafel and make freshly squeezed orange juice.

Even if it’s a bit tongue in cheek – running over and under an obstacle course that sometimes involves dining hall benches isn’t exactly part of the IDF’s basic training – it’s a tradition Tevya’s 350 campers cherish.

“The Israeli counselors bring Israel to camp in two different ways. As bunk counselors they share their stories and connect campers with Israel in an informal way. Formally, we have a Discover Israel period once a week. Then there is Army Day and Israel Day. All of this helps our kids feel connected to Israel,” Mindee Gerstein-Greenberg, Camp Tevya’s director, said.

Now all this might be in jeopardy.

President Donald Trump is considering eliminating or drastically curbing J-1 visas for US cultural work exchange programs. These are the programs that bring Israeli and other international camp counselors and support staff to camps across America each summer.

If implemented, the policy would affect 23,000 international participants who come to the US through the Camp Counselor program. It would also affect more than 5,000 who work in support positions such as kitchen staff and maintenance.

And for Jewish summer camps that have a long tradition of hiring Israeli counselors, this executive order is considered especially hurtful.

Campers learn about the map of Israel on Israel Day at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire. (Amy Blotner/Camp Tevya)

“Not being able to hire Israeli staff would be devastating. For Jewish camps it would totally impact the way we do things,” Gerstein-Greenberg said.

It’s a broadening of the “Presidential Executive Order on Buy American and Hire American” that Trump signed in April. The president himself relies on foreign seasonal workers at his hotels and resorts, though as the seasonal workers enter the country on a different type of visa, they would not be affected by the new policy.

Jewish senior advisor to Trump Stephen Miller chaired the White House committee that will oversee implementation of the order, which referred to US Department of State cultural exchange programs that the White House said takes jobs from Americans.

Most camp directors interviewed said they have trouble hiring enough American youth to fill these positions.

Of the 160 staff working at Camp Tevya last year, 100 were bunk counselors. Of the 100 bunk counselors 34 are international; 14 from Israel and 20 from other countries including England, Italy, Scotland and Spain. There are 30 international support staff as well who are part of the summer work travel program. They came from Mexico, Columbia, Hungary and Poland.

Israeli Staff address campers on Israel Day at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire. (Amy Blotner/Camp Tevya)

Most Americans don’t want to do seasonal work and by law only 20 percent of camp staff can be under the age of 18, she said.

I couldn’t find 56 Americans to fill those positions

“In truth I couldn’t find 56 Americans to fill those positions. I want to believe we’d make it but in truth I don’t know,” Gerstein-Greenberg said.

American students are in short supply because camps must compete with local businesses, internships, and summer educational programs in order to find staff willing to work during the short camp season, according to the American Camp Association (ACA).

Without the positions filled by international staff, camps would be forced to close or downsize, as they would not be able to maintain safe staff-to-camper ratios or fill roles vital to their programming, said the ACA.

We need to encourage more of these programs not less

“It has been said that these cultural exchange programs take jobs away from Americans. Youth camps provide critical educational and development opportunities for America’s youth and we need to encourage more of these programs not less,” according to statement from the ACA.

But it’s about more than meeting staffing requirements.

Serving up pita and hummus at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire. (Amy Blotner/Camp Tevya)

“One of the things we teach is the value of inclusion. The reliance we all have on each other and the celebration of other values. It’s important to have a diverse group of staff at camp,” said Gerstein-Greenberg.

Earlier this spring Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, visited Capitol Hill to advocate the importance of these programs on behalf of Jewish camp. FJC is working closely with American Camp Association, JFNA’s Washington office, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), and other organizations that are affected by this potential administrative order.

One of the things we teach is the value of inclusion

“International staff is integral to the culture of Jewish camp. These wonderful team members make an impact on our campers — broadening horizons, sharing cultures, and adding new energy, languages and perspectives to our community. We encourage camp supporters to join us in taking action to make sure this program continues,” Fingerman said in a statement

Since news of the proposal started circulating, testimonials from campers and staff have started to fill the Facebook page of Foundation for Jewish Camps.

A staffer from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Aaron Fineberg, wrote how he was placed in a cabin with an Israeli counselor.

“He was a great guy and became a great friend over the course of the summer. We always used to sit on the grass drinking a can of pop as we watched our campers,” wrote Fineberg.

Israel Day at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire. (Amy Blotner/Camp Tevya)

“When I lived in Israel over the next year, I visited him a few times and stayed over at his house for Shabbat and hung out on the beach. Without the J-1Visa, I would not have had this experience with Naor. Hopefully The White House knows what [sic] best and will not get rid of the J-1Visa,” he wrote.

JCC Association of North America president and CEO Doron Krakow said eliminating camp counselor and camp summer work travel categories of the J-1 Visa program would alter the landscape of its 130 JCC day camps and 24 overnight camps.

“Our camps rely on international staff members who come to us from around the world to help instill in our children an appreciation and respect for diverse cultures, and a sense of wonder and curiosity about the wider world around them,” Krakow said in a statement.

“These camp staff members, including the incredible shlichim, or Israeli emissaries who come to us through The Jewish Agency for Israel, infuse our programs with invaluable experiences that help our campers, and counselors, see themselves and see the world in a different way,” the statement said.

One 21-year-old shaliach who worked at Camp Surprise Lake in Cold Harbor, New York, couldn’t imagine being anywhere else this summer. While she enjoyed seeing the way American campers celebrate Shabbat or Tisha B’Av, what she most relished was hanging out and talking about Israel.

Israeli Staff help campers make fresh orange juice on Israel Day at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire. (Amy Blotner/Camp Tevya)

“I came straight from the army and I love seeing the cultural differences and the way the kids have such open minds. The kids ask me a lot about Israel. They want to know where I live, what I did in the army,” said Shani, who didn’t want to use her last name.

It’s not only Jewish summer camps that are concerned. The ACA said it’s hearing a similar message from all kinds of camps: protect and keep the J-1 Camp Counselor and SWT Program because participants are placed in all kinds of camps reflecting a cross section of America.

“Raised as a Catholic boy in the heart of a tough, working-class district, being placed at a Jewish summer camp, high up in the Pocono Mountains, was as culturally-unique and educational as anything I had previously experienced in life,” wrote Alan, no last name given, on the ACA website.

“The truly international community at summer camp introduced me to people with ideas, beliefs and behaviours [sic] that enhanced and improved my own principles — and I’d love to think they learned from me as well,” he wrote.

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