Seattle’s Jewish youth are getting a taste of Israel this summer, thanks to visiting Israeli teenage camp counselors.
Six Israeli teens from Kiryat Malachi, Seattle’s sister city in the Hof Ashkelon region, are teaching kids at the Sephardic Day Camp about Israel and integrating with the American teens who staff the camp at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. The result has been a cultural education for all and a greater closeness to Israel for the 50 day campers.
In addition to a short visit to the JCC day camp on Mercer Island, this program at the Sephardic Day Camp was made possible by a program called Partnership 2000, which links communities in America with those in Israel as a way of building connections through the Jewish Federation system. The Partnership 2000 program is administered through the community development office of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. The counselor exchange program was designed and developed by the Jewish Education Council and the development office in association with Israelis from Kiryat Malachi.
Partnership 2000 is co-chaired by Rachely Hemmat, director of the day camp and her husband, Steve. During a visit to Kiryat Malachi to see what youth programs were there, they realized there were no Israeli counselors coming to any camps in Seattle.
“We wanted to make the connection and enhance our program,” said Hemmat. “Since I have the Sephardic Day Camp, it was so easy to incorporate them into the program. There are four girls and two boys from Israel and they speak very good English. In the camp, we have a preschool, first through the fifth grade and fifth through seventh grade. I think it’s something we really need here.”
The goal of the program is to create a curiosity about Israel and a desire in the campers to know more about the land and the people. The counselors provide Israeli arts and crafts and games and teach campers about the region they come from. They even brought Israeli prizes for the kids. But, because living in Israel also has its challenges, they could not avoid having to explain their sadness during the most recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem.
“We teach the kids a lot of Hebrew words and we teach them about Israel,” said Yael Moskovitch, 23, head counselor with the visiting teens, “and you have to tell them this is part of us. They are very curious. We tell them we have family all over Israel and we’re sad. We all went to call our families. The fact that we talked about it did something. The reality in Israel is much different. We stop studying for an hour and have a moment of silence. You need to talk about it slowly and go on. The kids in Israel are involved in everything.”
While the Seattle campers become more aware of Israeli life, the guest counselors are making friends everywhere they go and are finding summer in Seattle to be quite amusing and beautiful. Sometimes funny and always different, the weather is the first topic of conversation.
In Israel, the teens are not used to being treated like royalty and fed all of the food they could possibly want to eat and chauffeured on trips to local tourist attractions. Host families from Ezra Bessaroth have opened their homes to the Israeli visitors while they are in the United States working at the day camp.
“It’s so beautiful here and everything’s so green but it’s so strange to have a couple of days of hot weather and then cool,” said Hagit Levy, 18.
“We went sailing [during Seafair] and saw the Blue Angels,” said Inbal Attal, 17. “In Israel you hear those planes all the time. There it’s for a war and here it’s for a show.”
In addition to sailing and Seafair, the group has been to the Space Needle and even went to Costco.
“Everything is so cheap there,” said Moskovitch. “I could take a bunch of things and I could sell it in Israel.”
While the host families are taking them around and introducing them to their friends, they still have evenings to go out on the town.
“It’s big here but you don’t have a lot to do here,” said Or Shkolnik, 17. “Everything is 21, the parties and the clubs. In Israel, you can be 16 and go to the parties but you won’t be served alcohol. Here, 15-year-old kids have nothing to do. In Israel, in Tel Aviv, the parties and clubs are open to 4 a.m.”
The nightlife may be lacking but the Ezra Bessaroth community has showered them with hospitality and kindness and hosted an after-Shabbat kiddush to welcome and thank the counselors.
“They’re proud of us and they introduce us everywhere we go,” said Shiran Abutbul, 17. “It’s a long day till 4:30 but every day we go somewhere and we do something.”
And there is no bigger compliment from a traveler than to feel comfortable and accepted while they are away from home.
“The families are so kind I feel like I’m at home here,” said Moshe Hayun, 18. “They have kids my age and I go out with them.”
So far, the program is meeting with great success and Hemmat sees a bright future for the counselor exchange.
“The program is really working out and our kids are really being influenced by them,” said Hemmat. “We want to continue this program by sending American youth to Kiryat Malachi.”
The Israeli teens are spending a month at the Sephardic Day Camp and will be spending a week at the Mercer Island Jewish Community Center’s Camp Chai before returning home to Israel.