With the coronavirus still looming, and most Israelis having spent much of the last few months at home, parents are nervously anticipating the arrival of summer vacation.
Summertime has always been a complicated season for Israeli kids. There are few sleepaway camps, and most kids age out of day camps by 11 or 12 and spend much of the hot season in front of screens, or if they’re lucky, at the local pool.
If there was ever a summer where kids could use some time away from their parents (and vice versa), it’s this one.
This summer, the hope is that several thousand kids will attend one of 30 different Summer Camps Israel sleepaway camps, ranging from five-days to 14-days. Some of the camps have existed for years while others are completely new, with others adding extra days and campers to their usual summertime camping trips.
“Camp is more important than ever this summer, because kids already had their summer vacation during the coronavirus,” said Anat Ben Dror, one of two directors of the Summer Camps Israel forum. “They’ve already been bored.”
The forum was created by philanthropist Shawna Goodman Sone, a Canadian immigrant to Israel who has spent much of her childhood and adult life experiencing and appreciating overnight summer camps.
Goodman Sone was a camper at Camp Ramah in Canada, and her three sons followed her through the camp experience, even after she and her family moved to Israel’s Ra’anana five years ago.
When Goodman Sone, the chair of the board of the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Foundation, moved to Israel, she wanted to bring a concept that would help strengthen the Israeli informal education system.
“I wanted to bring something that I believe works really well,” said Goodman Sone. “I feel that I’m a product of it and it’s part of why I’m here.”
In Israel, the majority of summer programs are day camps or keytanot, where kids come in the morning, and leave in the afternoon.
“Summer for kids in Israel is day camps, where they eat rolls with chocolate spread, and from fourth and fifth grades, it’s friends and boredom, the pool, the same routine over two months,” said Ben Dror. “They live in the mall and the pool.”
The concept of packing duffel bags, living in a bunk or tent and having teenage counselors guide campers’ days for several weeks during the summer is an unusual concept for most Israeli kids.
In order to see if sleepaway camp could be broadened in Israel, Goodman Sone brought in two informal education professionals, Dani Rozner and Anat Ben Dror, a former administrator in the Israeli Scouting Association, as co-directors in the forum. She wanted the project guided by Israelis who believe in the concept of summer camp and could translate it for the local culture.
“They know how to interpret the camping values to Israeli society,” said Goodman Sone. “I was not going to come in as a missionary. I needed stakeholders and if I was able to convince Anat and Dani about the power of summer camp, then I had a chance.”
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Ben Dror first experienced summer camp during her years working with the annual Scouts summer camping trips, which lasted four to five days for younger kids and eight or nine days for the teens.
“Parents would call me six months before the summer to ask when the Scouts summer camp would be, because their child didn’t want to miss it because of a family vacation,” she said.
When Ben Dror and Rozner joined Goodman Sone, the two Israeli forum directors began mapping what sleepaway camps did exist in Israel, getting a sense of what worked and what they looked like.
“We didn’t want to open something competitive, we wanted to see what there was and help those that existed to make them better,” she said.
That was about two years ago. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the plan was to have 30 camps as part of the forum, with 14% new campers, or some 1,000 youths, in addition to the 8,000 that attend some form of a sleepaway experience in Israel each summer.
The pandemic has made things much harder for this first summer of the forum, and there still isn’t an official go-ahead from government ministries for holding camp this summer. For now, the organizers are double-checking insurance and refund policies, given the unknowns due to the coronavirus.
“We’re definitely gunning for kids to get to camp this summer,” said Goodman Sone. “Every day we’re not canceled is an opportunity to strengthen the network.”
For now, however, all the directors in this forum of summer camps are moving ahead with their plans. The forum includes veteran summer camps like Kimama, held at the beach in Michmoret or Kayitz BaKibbutz at Kibbutz Shluchot, a co-ed Orthodox camp, that have held overnight summer camp in Israel for years. In addition, there are other camps, many of them built out of non-profit organizations that have never before organized an overnight summer experience, or are creating longer camping experiences for larger groups of campers.
Some of the camps are holding only ten days of camp, others are doing as many as 20 days. There are several that are doing multiple sessions this summer.
The process to get Israelis to consider sleepaway camp wasn’t easy, said Ben Dror.
“It was easier with the English-speaking Israelis, they understood what we wanted to create,” said Ben Dror, referring to children of immigrants from English-speaking countries. Israel-born people “were harder, but we see this as a lengthy process. We know that Israeli kids are just bored in the summer.”
There was also the financial aspect, given that some camps are non-profits and others are profit-making businesses. The forum has raised around NIS 2 million from Israeli and US donors, which goes to support the camps, scholarships and the forum itself.
“The big challenge is to introduce the concept,” said Ben Dror, “so that Israeli parents know there’s this option. [Sleepaway] Summer camps are seen only as for youth movements, or for learning English or for the Anglos. This is a change of attitude.”
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The Israel Summer Camp forum website has drop-down menus for kids and parents to choose a camp based on their child’s age, interests and the weeks of the summer that work best for them. Based on those guidelines, fifth graders through high school kids can hope to find a summer camp experience, whether it focuses on sports, arts, technology, volunteering, nature or hiking.
This will be the 20th summer in which Esther Einstein runs the Hineni Camp, a leadership and social awareness camp for religiously observant girls finishing eighth and ninth grades. The camp normally hosts some 120 campers, who spend 14 days in the southern town of Arad, volunteering with various populations and taking part in fun, summertime activities each afternoon and evening.
This year, the camp was scheduled to take place in the southern town of Yeruham, and while the coronavirus has scuttled some of Einstein’s plans, she’s hoping for more Israeli kids to attend, and to double the number of campers for the 14-day experience that costs NIS 2,250 ($650) per camper.
“I’ve been able to advertise more widely and to have a better plan,” said Einstein, an immigrant from England. “The forum made us feel that running camp is actually a profession, not just because you love kids, camp and programming.”
This will be the first summer that Noar Latet, the youth division of the organization that works to reduce poverty and assist needy populations in Israel, will hold a summer camp for kids in seventh and eighth grades, said Adi Egozi, the camp director.
The organization usually holds meetings for its participants twice a week during the year, and initially held summer programs for counselor training for ninth, tenth and eleventh graders.
“We realized it’s something very meaningful for them,” said Egozi, whose teen division aims to reach youth from outside the social and geographical center in Israel, which can include Jerusalem, as well as the beachside town of Netanya and the more peripheral town of Kiryat Gat.
For now, their camp, costing NIS 550 ($160) per camper, will be six days long, from August 9-14 at Kfar Galim, a hostel near Haifa, located on the water. The aim is to have 70 campers. Their usual participants are turning to their own circles — their friends and relatives — in order to increase attendance numbers.
“Everything we do will be limited by coronavirus, and we really hope we’ll be able to do this,” said Egozi. “The forum’s advice really helped us. They guided us all the way to the whole world of summer camp. Most of us were never in real camps, and this tied us to that world.”