When thousands of people voted for our Arab Jewish Summer Camp at the last URJ Biennial, as part of the Choice Grant, and when the WRJ Board approved the YES Fund grant for this year’s Arab Jewish Summer Camp, we had no idea how significant, meaningful, and important this support would be.
Why was this the case? Because just three months ago, Operation Guardian of the Walls, the war in Gaza, broke out. We experienced, for the first time ever, tensions, violence, and fear in mixed cities of Arabs and Jews in Israel, including Haifa, where I live and where the Leo Baeck Education Center is located. For the first time ever, students, teachers, and staff at our school truly felt troubled and concerned. Some even felt fear.
Our immediate response at Leo Baeck was to declare that we – Arabs and Jews in Haifa – refuse to be enemies. We believe that we can and must build lasting human connections and ongoing communication between Arabs and Jews. We must breakdown fears and stereotypes, build trust through shared experiences and teamwork, and create a generation that is less vulnerable to violent political rhetoric. We feel compelled to build a multicultural community, inspired to work for peace. We could not do this alone, and thankfully you, WRJ, were there for us.
Our Leo Baeck educational community includes families of all faiths and identities - Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Baha’i- and one of our flagship projects is our Arab Jewish Summer Camp. This summer, during the last week of July, 90 Arab and Jewish children, ages 6-11, came together at Leo Baeck Haifa to participate in our 31st Arab Jewish Summer Camp. WRJ’s support enabled us to double the number of children participating, and thus the number of families also impacted. The camp was a great success- watching the Arab and Jewish campers work together was both inspiring and hopeful.
The primary goal of the Arab Jewish Summer Camp is to create a safe environment where Arab and Jewish children (and their families) learn about each other's culture and customs, break down mutual fears, and build trust and lasting friendships. They experience a variety of shared activities, including arts and crafts, theatre, sports, music, field trips, and programs that promote cross-cultural understanding and friendship. All activities are conducted in Arabic and Hebrew.
The Arab Jewish Summer Camp co-directors were Osnat Israel (Jewish) and Areen Awad (Arab). Areen is a former camper. She said: "This camp is very significant for me as someone who came here summer after summer as a child. I was born in Haifa, in the Ein Hayam-Wadi Jamal neighborhood (where Leo Baeck Haifa also runs programs). I believe strongly in shared society in Israel between Arabs and Jews. We must learn to live together. We are first and foremost human beings, and each one of us is unique. I met my husband at this camp, we both come from different religions and believe that everything can be bridged so that love will always win."
We, and I personally, take pride in the strong women who lead our camp. They serve as role models professionally and personally to all campers and their families.
In addition to Areen, Amit, a counselor, said: “This experience really influenced me personally. It’s amazing to see how children who speak Arabic and children who speak Hebrew can connect.”
Mira, also a counselor said: "I decided to be a counselor at this camp because I think having a bilingual, Arabic/Hebrew summer camp is very important and a great way to encourage us all to live in peace. In the end, we are all human beings who want to live together and knowing each other’s languages and culture really helps.”
There is no greater satisfaction that hearing the feedback of the campers themselves, all amazing girls and young women:
“My name is Elias. I'm 10 years old. I've been at this camp since I was 6, and every year I have fun making new friends who are good friends. My sisters also grew up at this summer camp. "
8-year-old Rana said: “I had so much fun at camp and loved meeting new Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking friends."
11-year-old Gali said: “I think because of this summer camp, I believe that Arabs and Jews can have better relations than they do now.”
WRJ has been partnering with Leo Baeck Haifa for decades going back to the days of the leadership of Jane Evans, of beloved memory. You are strengthening the Reform Movement and ensuring the future of Reform Judaism by supporting us. In addition to this YES Fund Grant, WRJ is also supporting a very important project in our middle school that is furthering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
We thank you for your significant and much appreciated support. We look forward to when WRJ can visit Leo Baeck Haifa in Israel again and when we can come visit you in the States.
Rabbi Oshrat Morag, Senior Rabbi of the Leo Baeck Education Center –ordained by the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) Jerusalem campus, Oshrat also has an M.A. (cum laude) in Biblical and Gender Studies. Oshrat previously served as a Rabbi in Cincinnati, Buenos Aires and at Or Hadash (also in Haifa) and is a graduate of the prestigious Mandel Program for Social Leadership.