Shlichim bring Israel to local day camps

Israeli Maya Kochli worked this summer as a counselor at Congregation Shaare Emeth’s Camp Emeth.

By Amanda Cohen, Special to the Light

Traveling abroad for the summer is one thing. But traveling abroad from Israel to the United States to be a camp “specialist” for the summer is an altogether different experience. Yet it’s one that several Israeli young women who served as local day camp counselors this summer say they will cherish forever.

These four women arrived in St. Louis in June as part of a Jewish Agency program that teaches them to be shlichim – emissaries – for their country, as well as how to work with American and Canadian kids and live with a new family. The program sends 1,200 participants (culled from more than 5,000 applicants) to 200 Jewish summer camps throughout North America to work as everything from waterfront specialists to arts and craft specialists, creating fun and educational Israel-related activities for the campers, mostly ranging in age from 4 to 14.

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Though schlichim can request the type of camp they would like to work, such as Reform or Orthodox, sleepover or day camp, there are no guarantees. But Efrat Tannenbaum, Stav Amdursky, Maya Kochli and Roni Bachar all say that they were thrilled with their placements at day camps in St. Louis, and have loved not only getting to know the children, but also their St. Louis families, St. Louis and one another.

Both Efrat, 21, and Stav, 20, were assigned to live in the same homes (they rotated around) and work together at the Staenberg JCC day camp. The two had never met before the summer, but now they are inseparable. They finish each other’s sentences when stumbling for correct words, and excitedly listen to each other’s stories and opinions while joking about how much time they have spent together the past few months. Both agree that their friendship has been a tremendous boost.

“It’s easier when you have someone to speak your language with and someone that’s going through the same thing as you,” said Stav, who comes from Ra’anana, a northern suburb of Tel Aviv. Efrat, who is from the city of Tel Aviv, agreed, adding, “I think it’s helping because it’s someone who understands you.”

Emily Schneider, 20, another counselor at the J camp and close friends with Stav and Efrat said, “It seems like they have known each other for years” and “been friends forever.” She explained that when the two women first arrived they were a bit introverted. But as time passed, they opened up and are now liked by everyone. “We love them being around, and they make camp a lot more fun,” she said.

Emily has had Efrat and Stav to her home for “American” meals, such as a barbecue, and hangs out with them on the weekends. Efrat and Stav also have been to the Dave Matthews Band concert, which they described as “awesome,” the Gateway Arch and the show “Wicked” at the Fox Theatre. Other local adventures include going to the Zoo, a Cardinals game and the Boat House with their host families.

“We are tourists,” Efrat said. “Everywhere they take us is fun.”

Not only do the host families take the two Israeli women to fun places in St. Louis, but they also bring them along for grocery shopping and are sure to integrate them into everyday family life. “I really like it because you feel at home,” said Efrat. “You feel connected, and you feel more comfortable.”

Another family the two feel a part of is at J camp. Every morning they are greeted by the staff and giddy campers as the latter flock around Efrat and Stav, spreading their tiny arms for hugs and waving their hands for attention. They tug at the women’s arms and plop onto their laps, glancing up with affectionate eyes. Efrat and Stav seem to adore their small admirers; however, prior to working at the J, they did not know what to expect.

“I thought it would be hard and I would not like it,” said Efrat. “But I was surprised. The J is huge and beautiful, and I like the people.”

Efrat has spent her time at the J camp as the Israel Alive specialist, where she teaches the campers about Israel by showing them pictures, reading them stories, and teaching them symbols, songs, dances and more. Stav is an arts and crafts specialist and does fun, creative activities such as making a Jewish star out of Popsicle sticks.

Both Efrat and Stav credit J Camp Director Joey Boime with making their transition easy, and getting them acclimated. He, in turn, says he is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with them. “Some of these kids will never forget Efrat and Stav, and they will always remember something positive of Israel when they think of them,” said Boime.

The two Israelis mention how impressed they are with the J facility. “It’s a great thing that everyone can come to one place, work out together, go to the pool and hang out,” Stav said. She also was thrilled with how the J welcomes diversity. “I was happy to see that if you are not Jewish and you want to come, you also can,” she said. “They accept everyone.”

Stav said in Israel there are similar summer activities for children, but they do not have anything like the J. “We don’t need a J because here the J is to be together,” she said. “All Israel is one big J.”

After J camp is finished, Stav plans on traveling throughout America and then South America. Efrat, on the other hand, will go home. Both are sad to leave the J, and would agree their summer in St. Louis has been a great experience.

Maya Kochli: Learning independence, loving St. Louis


Unlike Efrat and Stav, Maya, 21, did not work or live with another Israeli from the Shlichim program. Still, after leaving her home in Kibbutz Dalia near Yokneam-Megiddo, Maya said she has adapted very well to her new environment.

“I am happy that I am alone,” she said. “It allows me to express myself and it has given me a lot of experience. I learned that I can be OK in every place. They put me here, and I didn’t know anyone. Now, I don’t want to leave.”

Maya was a counselor at Camp Emeth, the day camp program at Congregation Shaare Emeth. When camp recently ended, Maya left for Florida and will travel there and elsewhere in the U.S. She said she loved her time at Camp Emeth, where her job was to bring Israel’s spirit and culture to the campers.

She was doing just that on a Tuesday afternoon last month with an activity that involved colorful glitter, which managed to get all over her and the kids. Maya explained that the children were making cards to wish loved ones a good year. While the kids finished decorating, staff members had a little fun of their own chatting, laughing and having flirtatious glitter wars. Maya laughed at their playful behavior while she collected the children’s art projects and re-organized the “glistening” room.

After the room was in order, the kids eagerly lined up for an end-of-the day treat of apples and honey. Maya patiently handed out the snacks and said goodbye to her campers. The next day would be a new activity and a new treat.

Evan Axelbaum, 23, a friend of Maya’s and Camp Emeth’s Judaism specialist, said Maya had “a wealth of activities” that always kept kids interested. Evan also described Maya as “happy, energetic, eager to share, easy to get a long with and quick to make friends.”

Maya was very pleased with the new relationships she formed. “I want to keep in touch with them,” she said. “I hope they come to Israel.”

Roni Bachar: From camp to combat


Roni, 21, was the educational specialist at Camp Ramot Amoona at Congregation B’nai Amoona, but returned home to Kfar-Saba last week to serve in the Israeli army where she is an educational commander.

“My part in the army is very fun,” she said. “My part is to make sure the soldiers know more about values of the army, that we believe in them and they are exposed to culture in Israel.”

At Camp Ramot Amoona she developed strong relationships with the other staff and lived with them and their families. Roni said one staff member in particular, Ellie Rosenblatt and her family, went above and beyond to make sure she felt at home. She gave special thanks for their love and hospitality.

Ellie, 18, agreed with Roni’s sentiments.

“My family has already fallen in love with her,” Ellie said. “We are so glad she stayed with us, and we will never forget her. She is part of our family.”

Ellie described her new “family member” as bubbly, funny and entertaining. She also said she was great with the campers. Another friend of Roni’s from camp, Hayley Levy, 18, said Roni always found something to laugh at and was curious and enthusiastic.

She was a big hit among her campers, especially the day she engaged in a water war. The small soldiers dressed in army gear, which included colorful swimsuits, while commander Roni sported blue jean shorts and a Minnie Mouse tank top. They all trudged to an open field and filled up balloons and buckets with water. By the end of the day, everyone was drenched. Though the activity may have just appeared as fun and games, it had a great deal of meaning.

Roni explained the purpose was to teach campers about the limited resources in Israel. Furthermore, in Israel, Roni could not play that game because of the country’s lack of water.

Another thing Roni did not take for granted was the fun, cultural places she visited. Her host families and friends took her to concerts in the Botanical Gardens, Ted Drewes, the Arch and the Zoo.

While in St. Louis, Roni said she tried to use her free time to see the city and meet a lot of people. She described St. Louis as green, beautiful, simple and quiet, and the people as friendly and the animals as exotic.

“I like the deer here and the squirrels,” she said. She explained that in Israel, there are no squirrels, and deer are very difficult to find.

Roni was so pleased with her stay in St. Louis that she said she wasn’t ready to go back home.