Summer camps worldwide offer a wonderful opportunity for children to build lifelong friendships and strengthen their cultural identity. American Jewish children and teens have a long history of spending their summer in sleepaway and day camps. In Israel, several charitable organizations sponsor camps that bring together Palestinian and Israeli youth to encourage a future generation that values understanding, empathy and peace – transcending barriers of conflict and fostering hope for a harmonious future.
U.S. Jewish Summer Camps
American Jewish kids have long flocked to summer camps in the mountains of upstate NY, near the lakes and hills of the Midwest and in many popular outdoor settings across the country. There are also Jewish camps in other nations, including the first of its kind in Brazil for descendants of forcibly converted Jews. About 40% of American Jews attended a Jewish summer camp, a number far greater than those who attended a full-time Jewish school.
The history of Jewish summer camps pre-dated World War II. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, however, Jewish communal leaders saw camps as opportunities for cultural enrichment and foster Jewish unity. The author of a book on American Jewish summer camps commented that “American Jews were incredibly anxious about the future of Jewish culture and Judaism as a religion.”
Flip Frisch attended Wisconsin’s Camp Herzl in the 1980s and “credits the camp with my entire Jewish identity. The whole reason I stuck with Judaism was camp and the connections I made.” Frisch returned to Camp Herzl as a camp counselor, later became a program director and today works at her synagogue.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff is planning to visit a Pennsylvania Jewish summer camp that he attended as a teen. He will be speaking to campers about Jewish life and anti-Jewish hatred. Emhoff is not the only adult returning to his roots. Many camps have alumni networks and reunions. Dozens of Camp Ramah alumni have been married since the 1950s. Young Judea’s Camp Tel Yehudah is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Seeds of Peace is a U.S.-based summer camp that brings together kids and educators from both sides of conflicts. The peacebuilding charity was founded by an American Jew, and was originally focused on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The first summer camp in Maine in 1993 included 46 Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and American teens.
Haifa Staiti, a Palestinian from Jenin, described how it was hard “talking with Israelis I had up until now only thought of as enemies.” As a 14-year-old attending Seeds of Peace, she became friends with an Israeli; their friendship continues more than 20 years later. Canada’s Heart to Heart and MIT’s MEET are similar camp programs.
There also are organizations connecting Palestinian and Israeli youth in Israel with peers in the Palestinian territories. The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation is a leader in promoting coexistence. Through the Peres Center, founded by the former Israeli prime minister and president, young Palestinians and Israelis team up in the Twinned Peace Sports Schools program. Arabs and Jews play together on the same teams in soccer, basketball and other sports. One Voice and The Jerusalem Youth Chorus also bring Israelis and Palestinians together throughout the year to build common bonds.
Palestinian Summer Camps Promote Hate
In stark contrast, some leaders within Palestinian society – who have a history of naming schools and sports stadiums memorializing terrorists – have chosen summer camps as opportunities to undermine peace and promote violence. The Palestinian Authority operates summer camps in the West Bank. This year’s camps openly taught that a Palestinian state will replace Israel. Children were taught to paint maps of Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, reinforcing the often-heard chant: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.”
A record 650 PA camps are educating 65,000 West Bank Palestinian youth in 2023. A senior PA leader last year described the importance of these camps: “The goal of these camps is to serve as a melting pot and formulate the consciousness of these children according to the Palestinian national ideology.” He highlighted the “national action” undertaken by a terrorist who murdered 10 Israelis, honoring him as “deserving blessings” for his “milestone” sniper attack.
Iranian-backed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists run their own camps in Gaza. They serve as a tool for indoctrinating the younger generation with radical ideologies and training them to become future operatives in their terrorist organizations. A PIJ leader explained to the campers that it is their responsibility to keep the “flame of jihad” until the “liberation of Palestine,” meaning the destruction of Israel.