Emerging Reform Summer Camp Affirms the Jewish Future in France



By Rabbi Tom Cohen

The terrorist attacks in Paris last January suggested to some French Jews that they try to find a safer haven elsewhere. For many others, however, these traumas have only reinforced the desire to continue building a proud Liberal Jewish community in France that is faithful to the prophetic dream of being a light unto the nations.

Even before that tragedy, in 2014, my wife and I had established a Jewish summer camp. Its seeds were planted many years earlier at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), the Union for Reform Judaism’s camp in Oconomowoc, WI.

In her youth, my wife Rabbi Pauline Bebe spent a joyful and memorable summer at OSRUI. Upon her return home to Paris, she dreamt that one day she would be able to share that experience with other French teenagers.

Years later at a URJ Biennial, Pauline reconnected with OSRUI’s longtime director, Jerry Kaye. That encounter rejuvenated her dream.

For several summers thereafter, Pauline and I brought French kids to OSRUI to immerse them in the Jewish camping experience. Then, in 2014, we established MahaNetzer, a contraction of the Hebrew words mahane (camp) and netzer (sprout, shoot, or branch). The name of our camp also plays on the fact that Netzer is the name used for Reform Jewish youth groups in countries outside of North America.

The first year, our 30 campers came mainly from Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Geneva. This past summer, we had nearly 70 campers, coming not only from all over France but also from Switzerland, Belgium, and as far away as Scotland, Turkey, and the United States. It was held at a quaint little Burgundy hamlet with the most improbable of names – Baigneux-les-Juifs (“The Little Bath Houses – the Jews”) – situated just 90 kilometers South of Troyes, birthplace of, the great Talmudic and Biblical commentator Rashi.

Our staff included volunteer doctors from our congregations in Paris, as well as two counselors from Israel and Australia.

Rabbis led tefilah (prayer) every morning, and campers led evening services.

Counselors taught daily limmud (study) sessions, emphasizing Progressive Jewish values through skits, followed by informal, small-group discussions. Topics included what it means to be a French Jew.

Of course, what would be camp without a selection of sports, excursions, theater, cooking, music, and crafts? Under the hot Burgundy sun, the swimming pool was very popular, but equally enticing was learning how to make baguettes, or participating in the theater groups that created a modern version of “Cendrillon” (Cinderella) by Perrault and “The Witches” by Roald Dahl.

For many of us, the best part of MahaNetzer was having time to just hang out with old friends, make new friends, and engage in heart-to-heart conversations with bunkmates, counselors, and rabbis.

We are already planning our third summer, which includes searching for facilities large enough to add yet another 30 campers.

It is heartening to see that some of our older campers have begun studying for their Bafa (French government-required diploma for youth leaders and workers) in order to qualify as counselors next year. Others, aiming toward becoming song leaders, are working on their guitar skills.

Perhaps most heartening was seeing the happy faces of this year’s group when Pauline and I asked the group who wanted to return in summer 2016.

Every hand in the room flew up.

Sometimes all it takes to accomplish a dream is just to get started.

Rabbi Tom Cohen, founding rabbi of the French-American synagogue of Paris, Kehilat Gesher, is married to Rabbi Pauline Bebe, spiritual leader of the synagogue Communaute Juive Liberale – lle de France. Their two older children attended MahaNetzer as staffers, and the younger two attended as campers.

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