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Counselors bring a taste of Israel to Camp J

On August 2, Noa Berman and Ella Vaturi wrapped up two months as shlichot (Israeli emissaries) with the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s day camp. Every year, the Jewish Agency for Israel sends two Israelis in their early 20s to share knowledge and love for Israel and Jewish culture with camp­ers at Camp J.

Ella Vaturi and Noa Berman
Ella Vaturi and Noa Berman

“It’s been an amazing summer,” said Berman, 20, from Ra’anana. Berman received special permission for an early release from the Israeli Defense Forces so that she could work as a shlicha this summer. Technically, her last day of army service was during the last week of camp. Her commanding officer nominated her to be a shlicha because she communicated well with visitors from abroad who wanted to learn more about the army’s program for at-risk youth, where she served as a basic training officer and developed training programs for other officers working with this population. With family in the United States, she had a good command of the English language. She had been to the States before, but not to Tucson.

During her IDF service as a social worker for new immigrants and at-risk youth, Vaturi met a former shaliach who inspired her to sign up for the program. This was her first visit to the United States and she was excited about the challenge of going somewhere new on her own and teaching in English.

Berman and Vaturi took turns as Israeli culture specialists and as counselors with specific age groups. “I liked the variety — having my own group, teaching culture, substituting for other counselors,” said Vaturi, 21, who especially enjoyed working with younger campers. As culture specialists, they taught about Israel and Jewish holidays through food, arts and crafts, and other special activities. “It’s important to teach kids about Israel, to share the positive things like unique places, traditions and Israeli food,” Vaturi said.

“I was impressed with the way that special needs campers are integrated into Camp J,” said Berman, who volunteered with a youth group for children with special needs during high school. “The counselors are great. Integration makes it more normative — for all of the campers and counselors. It’s a fantastic program.”

While in Tucson, the women stayed with host families who took turns providing food, lodging and transportation to camp, along with a warm, hospitable home. They included Tamar Kugler and Eran Gisches, Bruce and Suzanne Helming, and Arthur and Robin Cohen.

“Our daughter Mika (a second grader at Camp J) fell in love with Noa and insisted that she stay with us,” said Kugler. As an Israeli family living in Tucson, they also saw it as an opportunity for their children to practice speaking Hebrew. Mika and her siblings grew very close to Berman. “I already told Noa’s mother that I’m not returning her,” Kugler said.

This is the sixth year that the Helming family has hosted camp shlichim, said Suzanne Baron Helming. “Ella and Noa are ‘summer daughters’ eight and nine. We love hosting. It’s a good way for us to get a taste of what life will be like with teenagers. The girls are great and I’m still in touch with all of them. I expect a very large welcoming committee when our family goes to Israel.”

After camp, both women will travel around the United States, part of that time with other shlichim. Vaturi plans to continue to South America before heading back to Israel for the college entrance exams. Although she hasn’t settled on a major yet, she is thinking about psychology. Berman hopes to volunteer or work abroad for a few months before starting her college education. With her background in special education and at-risk youth, she sees herself pursuing a career in one of those directions.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a local writer and editor. She can be reached at [email protected] com.