Am Yisrael Chai! by Rabbi Ed Gelb
A highlight of my job is to journey to Israel every year to hire a new batch of shlichim (Israeli emissaries) to bring to camp. We believe the personal connections our campers forge with our Israeli staff help them to understand Israel on a much more intimate level. It is the personal narratives of the wide variety of Israelis who come to camp that so powerfully effect our campers. Israel is so much more than the political debates we hear about in the news. The Israelis who come to us are from many walks of Israeli life: they are secular and religious, Sabras and recent olim (someone who makes Aliyah) from many countries, Kibbutzniks and city dwellers. Almost every bunk in camp has an Israeli staff member who lives with the campers and shares his or her life story. Often, as is the case with my family, former shlichim and campers later meet up in Israel.
This year, Josh Edelglass, our Assistant Director, and I had the opportunity to tour the Old City with Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, the director of the Ramah Israel Seminar Program. Rabbi Snitkoff’s knowledge of the Old City and the enthusiastic way he shares stories made me envious of our Seminar campers who will be going to Israel this summer. He is a true gem. On this tour, we spent time in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was amazing to see devout Christians worshiping on their pilgrimage. It was also fascinating to note that the different sects of Christianity each had their own areas and that they – like us – are challenged by differences over theology and control.
In all the years that I have been coming to Israel, I have never had the opportunity to go to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat. This year I decided to go. As we approached the Wall, it initially sounded like a cacophony of noise with many different minyanim going on simultaneously. There were Streimal wearers, black hatters, Israeli soldiers, young American yeshiva students and tourists. While there were many groups, people moved between groups and no one seemed concerned about others. When I took a step back, the discordant tones blended and I felt that a single huge Shabbat celebration was underway.
I know things are far from perfect between the many different types of Jews, both here and in Israel. Yet on Friday night, I was able to focus more on what brings us together than on what drives us apart. At camp, I see secular Jews finding a Judaism they didn’t know existed. I also see our campers engage with Israelis who defy stereotypes. We need to continue to engage with and learn about each other so that the soldiers’ words at the Kotel – “Am Yisrael Chai!” – continue to ring true.