Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.
This week, we’re taking a brief break from the headlines and turning to a topic we covered last summer: what it’s like being a young Israeli staff member at a Jewish summer camp.
This week’s What Matters Now guest, Yishai Mogilner, is royalty of a sort at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where his late grandfather, Rabbi David Mogilner, was a revered director who helped shape the camp, and who tragically died of a heart attack, at the age of 42, while at camp one summer.
Yishai Mogilner’s father, the late Eitan Mogilner, also worked at Ramah Poconos, and Yishai, 19, has just spent the summer at the same Camp Ramah, ahead of being drafted into the Israeli army and following a year spent in a mechina army preparatory program.
He speaks about being in the place that was shaped by his grandfather, which then shaped his own father’s life and that, in turn, has been formative for Yishai and his siblings back home in Israel, where they were raised.
Mogilner also talks about being an Israeli in such an American Jewish space, and what that’s been like this summer.
The following podcast interview transcript has been very lightly edited.
The Times of Israel: Yishai, I would love to first hear from you what made you want to come to a Jewish summer camp in the United States and what made you want to come to Ramah Poconos?
Yishai Mogilner: Okay, so as you can probably hear by my accent, I’m American. I have a connection to camp, as my last name, Mogilner, is known around camp. I guess my grandfather, David Mogilner, used to run the camp, as director, and he passed away tragically. And then he was very revered around the camp for years to come. It’s almost 50 years and the staff lounge here in camp is called Beit Mogilner in his name. I remember visiting here about 11 years ago, it was 2012. And there’s a bunch of photos of me running around. We are right now in one of the guest houses, which is one of the places where I stayed. And it’s a very, very surreal experience to just be in one of them right now, which is really cool. So I’m 19. I came through the Jewish Agency and through a gap year program that I was taking in Israel through the Hartman Institute that includes Jewish Americans and Israelis living together in Jerusalem and learning together. And through that we have connections with the Jewish Agency to be an Israeli working in summer camps.
And right away, my mom told me, my grandma told me, you should really go to Poconos. There hasn’t been a Mogilner there in around 20 years, working or being there the entire summer. So I decided to go. I told them how much I wanted to be in the Poconos, and I got in. That’s how I got here.
So just to clarify, when a young Israeli, either before the army, like Ishai, or after the army, like many of the other staff members, wants to come and work at a Ramah summer camp, there’s usually a choice. They can also ask, like Yishai did, to come to a particular one where they might have a connection, just to broaden that connection.
My sister was a young staff member the summer that your grandfather very tragically had a heart attack at camp. And it was a very difficult moment for camp, because he was such a beloved director and had really given direction for the camp for many years, which is why there is still this very deep connection to the Mogilner family. There is Beit Mogilner, a staff building; there is the Mogilner softball game that is played every year. And these are things that really carry on the Mogilner name.
What were you looking for out of this summer besides reconnecting to this camp that has meant so much to your family? What did you want out of the summer?
I think one thing is to have some sort of a deeper connection with Conservative Judaism. I grew up on varying pillars of Conservative Judaism, but in Israel, you don’t have a lot of that. There’s very specific places, specific towns known for having Conservative Judaism [synagogues]. But in general, throughout the entirety of Israel, it’s not that very apparent. I grew up Modern Orthodox. My dad used to make kiddush, every time I went to sleep hearing the Shma, always incorporating stuff [tunes] from camp, so it is very, very interesting to come to camp and hear all these melodies that I grew up with and I didn’t have anybody around me to have the same experience as me except my family. So that is one of them. And I’ve been very much enjoying praying here in the Conservative Movement way.
How Jewish does it feel here at Camp Ramah?
It feels very Jewish being here. I remember getting here with the van, with the other Israelis and getting to camp and you sort of enter this bubble and you start seeing Hebrew all around and I don’t know, it felt very surreal. It’s not my first time experiencing being around American Jews. It’s a very different experience having people that for them being Jewish is not, muvan me’alav is what we say in Hebrew. It’s, I guess, ‘[as] obvious,’ would be the best way to say it in [English]. In Israel, you don’t have to be an observant Jew completely. You’re still in a Jewish state [t]here. I applaud the people that come here and some of my campers, when I’m with them in services and praying and they’re fully in it and they want to lead and we’re all singing together. I applaud them so much for their hard work here just in general, keeping their identity so strong.
You are also part of the mishlachat, the 40-member group of Israeli staff members who come from Israel to the States, most of whom have never been to this camp. Some of them have never been to the United States before and many of them do not come from observant backgrounds. They’re Israeli, as you say, they’re Jewish, but they are not familiar with American Jewry like you might be. So what’s it been like for you to be part of that group and to have this Mogilner name?
This experience has been one of the most interesting, amazing experiences of my life. And a part of it is the fact that I’m Israeli. But I’m so familiar with being around Americans, Conservative Judaism and so on. It made me feel very in the middle and very connected to both sides. And that was very interesting to see that I can fully understand both sides of the equation completely. At the start I was not very loud about being a Mogilner. I think the Americans knew. Some Americans. There’s still [older] staff who remember or their parents remember my family. And they tell me these really cool and fascinating stories about my family. And that has been an amazing experience. With [the Israeli staff] I didn’t want to say it because I felt embarrassed a bit to come up and say it feels like, ‘I have a leg up on you, or I’m somehow better.’ And it made me feel awkward because I don’t feel that way. And it feels like bragging, saying, ‘oh, I know much more about this camp and I will be much better and I won’t struggle.’
There is a culture shock coming here and being around Americans. We’re very different people in the way we act to one another, the way we speak, the way we handle problems and situations in general. And I think I didn’t realize how, first of all, how Israeli I am, which was very, very fascinating to me how much I feel the most Israeli I have ever been while being in a Jewish summer camp. My connection to Israel is stronger than ever from being here. Also, mastering both languages is another thing that, again, I’m a bit iffy about and I feel a bit weird about because I see my friends struggling with it and I can’t feel their struggle and I feel I don’t want to say anything bad about it because then it just makes me feel worse. But I like to help them out. I guess I sound cocky.
I get it. The struggle is real. Talk to me a little bit about some of the moments where you have felt more Israeli than ever, or what makes your identity feel even more pertinent here, in this Jewish American summer camp.
While working here, a specific struggle I was dealing with a lot was handling critique. In Israel, critiques are very straightforward. If you’re doing something wrong or if you’re doing something in a certain way that is not highly favored, you will be noted [for that] right away. And it’s less like that here. Sometimes you need to ask around. I remember asking my counselors one night and I felt weird about it, coming up to them and saying, “Hey, I’m doing a good job, right? Do you have any pointers for me?” Because I’m so [used to] people noting if I’m doing something in a wrong way. That has been the main difficulty. Also, Israelis are less cautious with kids…
So I think it’s interesting what you’re saying. There’s a very high value placed on security and kids’ welfare here at camp because we are all about the campers. And yet there’s a different way that Americans and Israelis talk to think about children. Is that what you mean?
When I’m saying Israelis are less cautious, of course, it’s not in reality, I think it’s more about how we view sheltering kids from the outside world. I would prefer to talk with my kids [campers] and explain to them if they are wondering [about something.] I will explain the situation fully so they can understand what they’re doing instead of just hearing a ‘no’ in front of them. If my kid [camper] is asking questions, I want to explain to them. I don’t want to give them a straight answer of just saying that’s the difference between Americans and Israelis.
Do you ever find yourself interpreting situations for your fellow Israeli staff members and friends, given that you do have something of an American background? You never lived in the States, but you had an American parent. So do you ever find that you’re sort of the translator, in a sense for a situation or a scenario in camp?
Yes, it’s happened multiple times. Sometimes it’s basic stuff of just language. If a person talks in English very fast, people are directing their heads towards me and trying to get an explanation out of me. Very basic stuff like that. If it’s something that’s going on with a kid [camper] and they maybe don’t understand, I can possibly give a better response by being more fluent in the language.
What about your counterparts, the other American staff members? Do you have any real conversations about real topics? And is there anything that struck you as really unusual or interesting that you wouldn’t have expected in those relationships?
Not necessarily. It’s not my first time being around American Jews my age. So for me, it didn’t strike me as any sort of weirdness in my conversations with them. There are some that I fully connected with and I’m good friends with. I find myself, I guess, a bit more connecting with the older workers [staffers], maybe, because of the connection of my family, but I find myself most of the time talking to them. If it’s in Arts and Crafts, the staff there are amazing, and I love talking to them.
As we head toward wrapping this up and going back to where we started, this particular Camp Ramah, which draws from the Philadelphia and southern New Jersey area, is very generational. You often have third and fourth generations of families who send their kids here. You’ll often have campers whose parents and grandparents were campers here. There’s a Couples Gazebo that has plaques of couples who met here. As we said, you have your own deep connections here. Sometimes campers here say that the two months they spend at Camp Ramah are their best months in the year, and they come back summer after summer for that reason. And they think of this place as the place where their best life happens. What do you think about that?
For me, it is kind of weird to think of the way the system, the school system, works here and how you just have ten months of school and two months of camp. I think in Israel, maybe we have more time to just sit and do nothing, maybe, which, of course, is not nothing. It’s also different with Israel having Sundays as the first workday, which makes it a huge change because Shabbat, especially religious people, they don’t have time to go theme parks, stuff like that. We have holidays for that, maybe. It helps out to have more family time or connections or time to sit around and be lazy. I like being lazy. For me, it’s a bit frantic. It’s a lot in my head, but it’s very cool to see how much the kids love camp and they just can’t wait for it every time and to see kids in their happiest place. There’s nothing better though, than this.
Do you think though, that it’s a particularly American experience? Do you feel there’s a big disconnect here? Or do you feel like ultimately not that far apart?
In general, kids are kids, so I don’t see much of a difference. I told my brother who’s twelve, I told him I’m just in the bunk with a bunch of you.
Regarding differences between Israel and United States, again, we don’t have this experience at all. [If] there are camps, they’re very different in the way they’re built. They’re usually a max two weeks. That’s pretty much it. I remember going to a summer camp. It was in a boarding school, it was actually eventually my boarding school, but it was in a boarding school and we studied all day, most of the camps also don’t have a lot of space. We don’t have a lot of space to have camps. The fact that you can just drive three hours from major cities [in the US] and just be in huge forests and just get a place to have a camp, that’s not a possible thing in Israel. And summer camps in general in Israel are usually led by youth groups. There’s the camp of this youth group and the camp of that youth group, and it’s a very different experience.
Camps here are more established. They have their buildings, they are very stationary, they stay the entire year and then you come back and they’re kept well. And I feel like camps in Israel are not built like that. There’s not a very specific permanent place or a very specific organization that runs summer camps. There are no [over]night camps, usually only day camps.
So would you come back? I know you’re going into the army, and you’re starting a very different new chapter of your life for a few years, but I guess my question is, would you come back? Do you feel the connection that initially brought you here? Do you think it’s the kind of thing that will last and will possibly draw you back here at another time in your life?
Yes, for sure. I have a lot of new friends. Like I said, I really love the staff here, the faculty, the people here that come back here every year. I enjoy talking to them. I enjoyed being with them. Even small stuff. I play mahjong every Shabbat. It’s one of my favorite things now. I really, really enjoyed being here. I really enjoy being in Omanut (arts and crafts), it is a great space. I work in origami and I teach the kids, and we go step by step altogether. And the amount of dedication that the kids put into it, it’s incredible. And it’s such an amazing sight to see how much kids put dedication to something that they like or something that they love. And to see that in Omanut, it’s beautiful. And I would love to come back just because of that.
Thank you very much, Yishai Mogilner. It’s always good for us to hear the thoughts of someone in a different place, and it makes us look at it differently and evaluate it and think about it. So thank you for being with us.
Thank you so much. I had a great time.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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