Camp J, Tucson relatives give French teen taste of American summer

Avi Szychter rallies campers during the Camp J Maccabiah games in July. (Julie Zorn/TJCC)
Avi Szychter rallies campers during the Camp J Maccabiah games in July. (Julie Zorn/TJCC)

Sitting in the Tucson Jewish Community Center, surrounded by Jewish children and adolescents, French teenager Avi Szychter feels right at home. For the 18-year-old, spending the summer in the Camp J Bonim Leaders-in-Training program has been the perfect opportunity to escape the growing anti-Semitism in France and relax before taking classes to prepare for engineering school when he returns to his hometown of Fontenay-aux-Roses, five miles outside of Paris. “Coming to Tucson was an easy choice. I can stay with my aunt and uncle [Renee and Jacques Sebag], so I don’t have to pay for food or a place to stay,” says Szychter.

Relating to other campers in Tucson came easily, he says. “I spent the last six years going to Jewish Scout camp in France. It’s really not that different, except that the people I’ve met here are so much nicer. The guys I’ve become friends with are really great guys and we have lots of fun,” says Szychter.

Growing up, Szychter had few Jewish friends in school. On a few occasions, classmates made anti-Semitic comments, although only once was he specifically targeted. “The children didn’t know they were being anti-Semitic, since it is what they heard at home from their parents,” he explains, “but that doesn’t make it okay, either.”

While Szychter is not afraid of France’s rising anti-Semitism, he does think it will lead to political fallout. “Personally, I think there will be a civil war in France in the next three years. I know it’s not a popular theory, but it’s what I think.”

He believes that the current conflict in Israel will only exacerbate the anti-Semitism in France. “Being anti-Israel is the same as being anti-Semitic in many ways,” he says. “Israel is the Jewish state, and it is very hard to separate Israel and Jewishness.”

As Szychter returns to Fontenay-aux-Roses, he looks forward to the ease of transportation that living near Paris affords. “Everything is so spread out in Tucson. You have to drive everywhere,” says Szychter. “At home, I can get on the subway and go to bars or go to the movies or bowling.”

There is one thing Szychter wasn’t able to accomplish while in Tucson. “I really wanted to go to a University of Arizona basketball game,” he says, “but I guess it is the wrong time of year for that.”

Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.