Natan Sharansky Speaks to URJ Camp Staffers About the Conflict in Israel
by Hanoch Greenberg
The URJ’s shlichim (Israeli emissaries) were privileged last month to participate in a webinar with Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in which he discussed the ongoing Operation Protective Edge and its implications for the shlichim, who were working in the Diaspora as conflict escalated in Israel.
For me, an Israeli and a 13-year staff member at URJ Camp Coleman, this summer has been one of the most challenging I’ve ever faced – and I know many of my fellow shlichim feel the same way. Being at camp while our friends and families struggle at home is devastating. The webinar was helpful for the shlichim because it addressed the main questions and struggles that we find ourselves grappling with: how to do our daily job in camp while we worry about everything transpiring back home; how to explain and educate campers and staff about the ongoing situation in Israel; and how to cultivate a support system in and outside of camp.
Part of being a shaliach involves instilling in campers the intrinsic sense of responsibility that we, as Jews, have for one another. Sharansky touched on this unspoken universal tie to our people, when he told of attending a funeral for a fallen IDF soldier, Jordan, from France. He told us,
The funeral took place in Ashkelon, and the police asked people not to come because there were sirens all the time. With that, 6,000 people attended the funeral. The father of the soldier asked me, “Did all of these people know my son?” And I answered him, “Here, everybody knows everybody. We are all one family in Israel.”
Recently, the mischlachat (Israeli staff) at URJ Camp Coleman participated in a pro-Israel rally in Atlanta, where Barak, a Coleman shaliach, was asked to be a keynote speaker at the rally. He spoke of his time in the army and about the feelings of palpable hate he dealt with throughout his experience. We asked Mr. Sharansky what he believes to be the appropriate reaction to anti-Israel sentiment, and how to explain it to our campers. He answered,
We should remember that we have a lot of enemies and cannot be responsible for convincing our enemies. Our responsibility is to give Jews a sense of pride and not a sense of fear and embarrassment. I can say this, as a former member of the Israeli government and as a member the security cabinet: There is no other army in the world who has such high moral norms as the IDF. Today we see the terrible destruction in Gaza, but you should know that there is no other army in the world that developed a special rocket to “knock on the roof” and ask the civilians to evacuate their home because there is a military object there. No other army lets the civilian population know three days ahead. There are no other examples like that in the world. But the world does not want to listen. You should know facts like this and use them.
Sharansky advised us to draw upon personal stories, our ties to Israel, and our experience in the IDF in our efforts to educate and reassure campers. Omer Gady, Coleman’s Rosh Mishlachat, said of the experience,
The most important thing at camp this summer was that kids and staff were not just seeing Israel through the news. They saw it through us, through our personal stories and connections.
One of the challenges I had this summer was that we had a few Israelis among our campers. They kept coming to me and to other Israeli staff members to ask about what was happening back home. We wanted to provide them with a summer experience that was a balance of happy and informed – but at the same time, we wanted their parents to decide how much was appropriate to share with them. It was challenging to simultaneously keep our professionalism and our sense of being Israeli at camp.
To help our campers feel informed and connected to the events unfolding abroad in an appropriate way, we led them in prayers for Israel and for peace. This video shows a prayer service at one of our sister camps, URJ Camp Newman; similar prayers were uttered at all URJ camps.
During these difficult times, the support provided to the shlichim by the Jewish Agency and the URJ is not only significant, but also, I believe, shows the importance of the Israeli shlichim role at URJ camps. We are all thankful for and appreciate this webinar, and we all pray for better times in Israel. May we see peace and quiet speedily and in our time – for us and all inhabitants of the earth.
Hanoch Greenberg is an Israeli shaliach (emissary) at URJ Camp Coleman and the Screening and Training Coordinator at the Jewish Agency for Israel.