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At Tucson J, Israeli Camp Counselors Keep Focus on Fun, Not War

Tucson Jewish Community Center Director of Camping Services Robin Kelley, center, with Israeli camp counselors Liron Levy, left, and Hadar Sheffer, at a Jewish Agency for Israel conference in Israel, April 2024.

At a Jewish Agency for Israel training this April for American Jewish summer camp directors and prospective Israeli counselors, also known as summer shlichim (emissaries), the slogan was “Now More Than Ever.”

JAFI staff joked that the catchphrase is used for everything, even insurance companies, says Robin Kelley, director of camping services at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, who traveled to Israel for the conference.

For Liron Levy and Hadar Sheffer, the summer shlichot at Camp J, the Tucson J’s day camp, “Now More Than Ever” rings true.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel it is important to be ambassadors and “show that Israelis are people too,” Sheffer says.

But they don’t talk about the war with campers.

“I feel like it’s not the place to open up about it and it’s more complicated to explain to kids,” Sheffer says. She appreciates the hugs and support from some campers who asked if she was OK.

Mostly, she and Levy want to concentrate on giving the campers, who range in age from 4 to 14, a fun and educational summer experience.

Levy, an athletics specialist, has taught the kids soccer, agility, and yoga bowl drumming, among other activities.

Sheffer, who teaches campers about tikkun olam, or repairing the world, uses a virtue of the week framework. For week one, which focused on welcoming others, campers were paired randomly to make friendship bracelets.

To learn about patience, younger campers made animal sock puppets and heard a story about a patient mouse.

To illustrate the virtue of respect, older campers played a game where one person tried to remember as many different words as possible. The catch was that the other campers spoke their words simultaneously.

“If we all speak at the same time, then we’re not respecting each other,” Sheffer says, adding that the campers’ reaction was “Whoa, now we get it.”

Kelley notes that all camp staff model appropriate behavior, including the right not to answer questions that make them uncomfortable.

Levy, 21, and Sheffer, 20, who have completed their Israel Defense Forces service, say the realities of Israeli life, such as rocket warning sirens, make Israeli children tougher and more resilient than American kids.

“We know how to deal with change,” says Levy.

In addition to the JAFI training, Kelley attended webinars from the Foundation for Jewish Camp that covered mental health issues and difficult conversations between staff and campers.

She is glad Israelis signed up for JAFI’s camp shlichim program this year. After Oct. 7, she wasn’t sure it would be possible.

Yuval Malka, Tucson’s first community shlicha since the COVID-19 pandemic, appreciates Tucson’s long history of working with Israeli shlichim, which dates back to 1997.

“I’m incredibly proud to be part of a community so dedicated to bringing Israel to Southern Arizona,” Malka says. “Liron and Hadar are wonderful, and I am so glad that the Tucson J continues its tradition of bringing Israeli camp shlichim. Together, as a team of shlichim, we can offer diverse perspectives on life in Israel and be an authentic living bridge to Israel.”

Before coming, the camp shlichim had worried about antisemitism in the U.S., but they have found Tucsonans to be friendly, even beyond the Jewish and Israeli communities.

When waiters in local restaurants hear them speaking Hebrew, Levy says, the reaction is always something like, “Oh, you’re from Israel? That’s cool.”

Sheffer got to chat with a former Camp J counselor from Israel who is working in another community this summer. She told Sheffer that Tucson is unusually welcoming and accepting.

“I don’t take it for granted,” Sheffer says.

The Israeli camp counselors stay with host families in Tucson and usually move every two weeks. While packing up can be tiresome, Levy and Sheffer enjoy the opportunity to get to know different local families.

“Having shlichim stay with us is a summer highlight,” says Tucson J President and CEO Todd Rockoff, who adds that he and his wife, Jenni, keep in touch with all the shlichim they’ve hosted and look forward to seeing them when they go to Israel.

“I think all the families, for me, really got into my heart,” says Sheffer. “They’re like my stepfamily.”

This closeness helped both shlichim when news from Israel hit too close to home.

Levy worked at a base on the border with Lebanon that was recently destroyed by bombs.

“There’s nothing left,” she says.

Sheffer learned of a high school classmate who was killed.

“It was so hard because it was so shocking. In those moments, you want to be there with everyone,” she says.

Levy points out that their age group is the most affected by the war. They both knew people who were killed in the Nova music festival massacre or in combat.

Although it is hard when their hearts yearn for Israel, Levy says she’s glad to be here.

“This year is much more important than every other year,” she says.