It’s a steamy Shabbat morning at Camp Tamarack in Ortonville, Michigan. With temperatures rising to 100 degrees in the shade, the heat index over the past several days has kept the community of 700 campers, counselors and professional staff busy moving from their usual activities to cool-down respite in air conditioned quarters. All going strong, doing well.
In spite of the unseasonal heat, spirits are high as some 200 campers, ages 12-15, gather for a joy-filled mash-up of song and prayer in a Shabbat service led by Rabbi Dana Bensen and Judaic Programming Director Eli Rockowitz.
Making the point
Eli, a gifted educator based in Jerusalem, has been a part of the Tamarack family for many seasons. On this particular morning, Eli brings Torah study to life – literally — calling upon the counselors to come forth to assist in unfurling a model Torah scroll to its full length.
As the miniature Torah is passed from hand to hand, unrolling from first word to last, the campers sit in rapt attention. No one misses Eli’s point. “We never finish our reading,” he says, “From the last word, we jump back to the first word. Our story is never ending.”
From the rabbinic “teaching moment,” Camp Director Lee Trepeck follows the service with a “family moment” where he gathers Tamarack’s 48 Israeli campers for an update from home. “Mishpacha! That’s who we are! A family,” Lee affirms. Encouraging campers to take special care in the Michigan heat, he stresses, “Carry a water bottle, go down to the beach, stay cool. If you need a rest, a quiet place to cool down, let us know. We’re here to help. We’re your home.”
Just like home
Now in its 11th season, Federation’s Israeli Camper Program is a unique partnership of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Tamarack Camps and the Detroit Partnership 2GETHER Region of the Central Galilee in Israel with the purpose of building Jewish identity and creating person-to-person connections that foster lasting friendships in the Detroit-Israel community. The program started as a “mission in reverse” in 2002, the year of the Second Intifada. With virtually every normal family activity in Israel severely restricted, security impossible to guarantee, and Israeli camps and school programs closed, Detroit community leaders had no choice but to cancel the Teen Mission set to leave in June. Instead they devised a plan to bring Israel home to Michigan by providing 320 Israeli teens a camping experience at Tamarack.
Born of necessity, the Israeli Camper Program was an overnight success
What happened that summer was a dream come true, a defining moment that demonstrated to what measures the Jewish community would go to support summer camping experiences and cultural exchange for its children. To date, more than 1,000 Israeli campers have come to Tamarack to share a transforming Jewish experience with their Michigan brothers and sisters and their host families. What started as a community outreach initiative has blossomed into a full-fledged leadership training program for youth, supported by a growing circle of family and friends from Jewish Detroit and the Israeli Partnership Region.
A model for success
The key to the program is the learning curve from year to year. Israeli campers now compete for the opportunity to come to Tamarack and are selected based on their social, language and leadership skills. For instance, the 84 campers attending the two sessions this summer were recruited from a pool of nearly 400 students; the twelve 16-year-olds who comprise the Israeli “TSS” Teen Service Staff were selected from a pool of 40.
Upon their return to the region, these young people continue on their journey to enroll in community service projects in preparation to serve on the Israeli staff of Federation’s Teen Missions or to return to Tamarack as “TSS” counselors in training on the Teen Service Staff.
Or Klein from Nazareth Illit in the Central Galilee, and Naama Beeri, from the Jezerel Valley, are two among the TSS who have returned to camp this year under the supervision of TSS Director Tomer Moked. Tomer can be strict, they say, but the relationship they share with him is built on trust and confidence. “He’s our go-to guy.”
Poised and outgoing, speaking in English with only a hint of their Israeli accents, Or and Naama observe how life has changed for them since entering the program. “Spending a month away from home has helped me become more mature, independent, responsible and able to cope with problems,” says Or. Naama agrees, “I knew about the program from my sister, Noga, and just knew I had to be a part of it as well. This summer I am working with Avodah campers — a program for adults with special needs. The lessons I have learned will not fade away. They have inspired me to do more.”
A family-to-family affair
Through the program, parents of campers also step up to become leaders in the community, as well as members of Jewish Detroit’s extended family in Israel. The Findling family are an example: Darren and Alyson, Darren’s brother, Daniel and wife Lisa – all of Huntington Woods, and Darren’s and Daniel’s parents, Fred and Luba of Farmington Hills – together have hosted more than 30 Israeli campers and scouts over five summers of the program. Recently, in celebration of their daughter Emily’s bat mitzvah, Darren and Alyson took their family to Israel where they were able to reunite with their extended Israeli “camper family” for a Seder supper. Like so many families here in Jewish Detroit, the Findlings continue to open their homes to welcome Israeli campers and staff members as family.
The touch points go both ways
In visits to Israel, the connections between hosting families and Israelis can manifest themselves in surprising and touching ways. Darren recalls a mission to Israel, several years ago, when by coincidence he ran into a group of Israeli officers on Ammunition Hill. Suddenly he heard a young woman call out to him, “Darren?” He turned to find a former camper whom his parents had hosted – standing before him, a grown woman, now a soldier and officer in training. “I will never forget my experience at Tamarack,” she told him. “In fact, that experience made me an officer and the leader I am today.”
“It was just amazing,” Darren recalls, “When I first met her she was a kid away from home for the first time. To see her in Israel – transformed to a confident young adult — was so gratifying, and more thanks than I could ever ask for.”
“Our connection to Israel is very special,” concludes Trepeck, “and the wonderful spirit of our Israeli campers is felt throughout camp. For sure, our Israeli Camper Program, in its 11th summer, is one of the hallmarks of a Tamarack experience — and the meaningful relationships, which begin over a 24 day period, last forever.”
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