Counselors bring Israeli culture to Camp J

Israel Biton and Danit Yona, camp counselors from Israel, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center (Courtesy Weintraub Israel Center0

Danit Yona, 22, one of two Israelis working as counselors at the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s Camp J this summer, says she learned her nearly flawless, American-accented English from watching TV shows like “Full House,” “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” after school. “I also had a babushka, my Russian grandma,” she says, who showered her with books in a quest for excellence. “It was really important to her that I be [equipped] with a ‘toolbox.’”

But her linguistic skills don’t stop there. Growing up in Jerusalem, she studied French in school but learned enough Spanish from watching telenovelas to join a Birthright Israel tour from Argentina while she was serving in the IDF.  That experience, she says, gave her the chance to show the Argentine students that IDF soldiers are not so different from themselves; “they are my friends, 18-year-olds; they want to do good things and to protect, more than anything.”

Yona, who was an officer in the rehabilitation department at an IDF military prison, says the lesson planning skills she developed there have come in handy at Camp J, where she’s been the Israeli culture specialist for the past three weeks. She’s been teaching campers of all ages, using hands-on activities such as a Shabbat archaeology “dig” where the kids searched for items connected to Shabbat, and a Shavuot celebration that included singing and making chocolate balls (it’s traditional to eat dairy products on Shavuot).

When she heads back to Israel — after a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York with a friend from Israel, and a trip a few months later to South America — she plans to study biopsychology, preferably at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.

Israel Biton, 21, the other Israeli counselor here this summer under the aegis of the Weintraub Israel Center and the Jewish Agency for Israel, acknowledges that he didn’t arrive here with English skills to match Yona’s, making his first few days at camp a bit challenging. But he makes up for that with his musical talent on drums, guitar, keyboard and other instruments, and has been playing music at Camp J with Julie Zorn, the J’s Jewish living and learning specialist.

“Do you know a producer who wants someone really talented?” Yona asks. “He can make it in America.”

At Camp J, Israel has been a general counselor for ages 8-10 for the past three weeks; he and Yona will be switching roles soon.

Tucson is very different from the big city atmosphere of tall buildings, traffic and lots of public transportation that Yona is used to; even Biton, who comes from a moshav (cooperative farming village) near Kiryat Malachi, Tucson’s Partnership2Gether sister city, is impressed by the wide open spaces —and even more by the unhurried pace of life here.

“People are more calm — they’re doing everything relaxed,” he says, including driving – Israeli drivers are notoriously impatient.

“I love the place; I love what we’re doing [at Camp J],” says Biton, who explains the Jewish Agency’s program gives him a chance to travel and to share his values as a Jewish Israeli.

In the army, he was a combat engineer, “which means dealing with bombs and mines in addition to being a combat soldier,” he says.   He was a commander with 15 soldiers under him for a year and a half, and in the summer of 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, spent a month helping to clear tunnels inside Gaza.

But he’d rather talk about his love of music. “This is more, like, my life,” he says. His favorite styles are fusion jazz and rock, and his favorite band is he Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’s been giving private music lessons for five years, and when he returns to Israel this August, he’ll be a music teacher in a middle school. He’s also been a camp counselor in Israel, so Camp J is “a familiar environment,” he says.

Both counselors are grateful for the warm reception Tucsonans have given them.

“I feel really blessed to come to such a welcoming community. Everyone wants to make you feel at home,” says Yona. “Everyone wants to make you feel welcome and appreciated, and it’s something that I don’t take for granted.”

The pair have enjoyed Shabbat dinners with several families, including the Shahars (their son, Noam, is a fellow counselor), which was “so much fun — and really tasty,” says Yona, as well as with Jenni and Todd Rockoff,  president of the Tucson J, and a visit to Tucson’s Jewish History Museum with Ken and Ronit Miller — “very interesting people.”

Yona says she’s surprised at how eager their fellow counselors are to hear about their lives in Israel and serving in the army. “Young people are usually into their own little world, so knowing that they care about our world as well, I think it’s unique.”

Interested in hosting the Israeli counselors for a Shabbat dinner or overnight? Contact the Weintraub Israel Center at 577-9393 or israelcenter@jfsa.org.