When campers speak about their favorite parts of camp, Shabbat song session often tops the list. The unbridled ruach that we experience at GUCI week after week, year after year, is evidence of a pure joy unique to this community. As a longtime camper and now as a staff member, I have experienced many Shabbat song sessions. For me, the most memorable part is when the music slows, we take our seats, the lights dim and, our arms linked around one another, and we quietly sing the last few songs.
Although this is my 18th year at camp (I started very young; my mom was on Faculty) and I know a lot of Hebrew songs, I seldom took the time to learn what the Hebrew meant. This summer, however, two songs, Im Tirtzu and Shir HaMa’alot, assumed special meaning for me. Im Tirtzu, based on a quote by the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl means: “If you will it, it is not a dream, to be a free people in our land, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” Shir HaMa’alot (Psalm 126), which we add to Birkat HaMazon as an introduction on Shabbat, begins: “When Adonai returned the exiled of Zion, we were like dreamers.” Both Im Tirtzu and Shir HaMa’alot are songs of the Diaspora. They reflect the outlook of people living outside the land of Israel hoping to return.
GUCI is fortunate to have eight Israeli counselors this summer. For some campers, this is their first interaction with Israelis. For others, these weeks of Kallah Aleph have been their most consistent interaction with Israelis. Obviously, each of us has our own connection to the people and to the land of Israel. I am fortunate to have been to Israeli eight times (I highly recommend that GUCI campers go on NFTY In Israel!), to have close Israeli friends and, later this summer, to play Ultimate Frisbee with the Israel National Ultimate Frisbee team.
Despite my strong connection to Israel, I am a Diaspora Jew. I have grown up with Israel as a strong, independent country, and in my lifetime Jerusalem always has been the undivided capital of the State of Israel. The dreams expressed in Im Tirtzu and Shir HaMa’alot never have been impossible for me because Israel is as close as flight away (although a long, expensive flight from Denver) and my Israeli friends are merely a phone call away. That being said, the concepts expressed in these two songs inspire and motivate my connection the Jewish homeland.
I imagine that the Israeli counselors at GUCI have a different perspective on the Zionist songs we sing at camp, as well as on Jewish life at GUCI in particular and on Jewish life in the Diaspora in general. In Israel, religion is intertwined with daily life. In the US, we make a concerted effort to separate religion and government affairs. I honestly do not know what the Israelis make of us Diaspora Jews or what they think of the songs we sing extolling the land of Israel and expressing a yearning to return. For them, Israel is home; the dream of Zion and Jerusalem is reality.
As a counselor at a Jewish summer camp, my goal is to create meaningful Jewish experiences for the campers. GUCI offers Jewish education programs every day; we participate in T’filot (worship services), recite blessings before and after meals, and begin and end each day with the Sh’ma. Since Israel is an integral part of being Jewish, Israel education should assume equal importance in our daily schedule.
Connecting the campers to Israel through GUCI’s Israeli staff is a great way to bridge people to people. It’s fabulous that the campers get to know and interact with the Israelis, to spend a month living and eating and playing and learning together and becoming friends. I think we can do more, however, to connect campers to the Jewish homeland. Yes, we sing our lungs out belting Zionist songs about returning to the land of Zion, but don’t do enough to teach the campers how truly special Israel is. GUCI’s Israeli counselors are the ones who live there. They are the ones who protect the country, who ensure its continued existence as the Jewish homeland. The Israeli staff are Israel experts. My dream is for GUCI is to enable them to do even more Israel programming, allowing them to share with us their profound love for and knowledge of Israel so that we can be inspired by their dreams.
By Jakob Rhines: