Young Israeli emissaries enrich the lives of Colorado campers

Jul 28, 2023 | Article, Newsletter, Shinshinim

Young Israeli emissaries enrich the lives of Colorado campers

Jul 28, 2023

Tamara Horvitz laughs when she says that growing up on Kibbutz Magal in Israel was like “living in a big summer camp your whole life.”

“It’s a very small place, there is a dining hall for everyone, there is a pool, and there are shared activities,” she says. “I think it was the very best place you could grow up.”

Given her background, it won’t come as a surprise that Horvitz has found a second home at the JCC Ranch Camp, where she is in her third year on the staff. She is one of 29 shlichim (Israeli emissaries) working on the staff of Ranch Camp.

JCC Camp

With support from 146 Jewish Federations in North America, the Jewish Agency sent 1,500 shlichim between the ages of 19-25 to work at 158 camps across North America this summer. In Colorado, shlichim can also be found at Shwayder Camp and Ramah in the Rockies. These adventurous and accomplished young people come from a variety of backgrounds and regions and serve as camp counselors, specialists, and educators. The shlichim join JEWISHcolorado’s shinshinim, the team of four young Israeli ambassadors who spend a year in the Colorado Jewish community sharing their culture and acting as a living bridge to Israel.

Katelyn Skeen, Assistant Director of Ranch Camp, still remembers shlichim she met when she attended camp as a youngster because they were some of her favorite counselors.

“I had never been to Israel at the time so my only ideas about the country came from the news or online,” she says. “But having Israeli staff gave me an outlook I would not otherwise have had. It’s a new perspective on what it means to be a Jewish human, and it gives you connections to Israel before you even visit the country.”

Horvitz believes this is a symbiotic relationship. For everything that shlichim bring to the summer campers, there is also much they carry with them when they return to Israel.

JCC Ranch Camp

“Coming to the U.S. to work at camp, I discovered a new way of connecting to my Judaism,” Horvitz says. “Camp is the closest I have ever felt to Judaism, and that is really important and significant to me.”

Shlichim and the campers who learn from them

In 2021, when Horvitz arrived at JCC Ranch Camp for her first year, the world was just emerging from COVID lockdowns and, with no frame of reference, she did not realize what an unusual camp year it was, with fewer campers and a smaller staff.

“For the shlichim, it was amazing,” she says. “We did not know anything different.”

What she did know was that Colorado made her happy.

“I loved the mountains,” she says. “I loved the physical space of our camp, the people who work here, and I love the beautiful state of Colorado where there are so many things to do.”

After camp, she took a long road trip with other Israeli friends, exploring California, New York City, and national parks in the Southwest. When she returned to Israel, she worked as a youth counselor for students in a robust after-school program. She was not thinking about returning to Colorado until Katelyn Skeen recruited her with an offer of new responsibilities. In her second year at camp, Horvitz took on programming duties, handling logistics for camp activities, and running Maccabiah Games, the camp version of a Jewish Olympics. Now, in her third year, she is a unit head responsible for around 40-50 campers in grades seven and eight.

JCC Ranch Camp

Horvitz believes the shlichim bring unique skills to their roles as summer counselors, starting with their broad experience with young people. She participated in the youth movement in Israel and by the tenth grade she was acting in a supervisory role, counseling younger students. She also points out that shlichim bring their language with them.

“When some parents drop their children off at camp, they find the Israeli counselors and say, “I would like my child to learn more Hebrew,” she says. “For us, it is fun and easy to talk Hebrew, and all the kids learn from us.”

Campers ask about her family, her life growing up on a kibbutz, and about her army experience. She willingly offers information, expanding impressions of Israel that may have been formed only through news reports.

“I have met people in the U.S. who were sure that Israel is all desert and camels,” she says with a laugh. “When the campers meet Israeli people at such a young age, they get a better picture of what Israel is and what life is like there.”

JCC Ranch Camp and the lives it changes

Katelyn Skeen was ten years old when she first came to JCC Ranch Camp and, she likes to say, she has never been able to leave. She looks back today and realizes that even as a young camper, she had a strong sense of the camp’s mission.

“We build better humans through a Jewish lens,” she says. “We weave Judaism into every activity and talk about Jewish values, helping kids find and become their best selves. When they leave, they take what they learn at camp with them.”

The shlichim who serve at the JCC Camp are instrumental in supporting the camp’s core Jewish values: showing kindness and respect, repairing the world (tikkun olam), contributing to the community, and welcoming everyone so they feel included and embraced. In small but important interactions every day, the shlichim humanize the culture of Israel and personalize the meaning of being Jewish for campers.

“Being Jewish and living in Israel are big ideas,” Skeen says. “By bringing in Israeli staff, we learn about daily life in their country, we find what we have in common, and we teach concrete ideas of what Israel is and why it is important for Jewish people.”

When Skeen travels to Israel, she often reconnects with shlichim who have worked in the camp in the past, some of whom now are married with children of their own.

“When they first arrived here, they may have felt anxious or nervous, but they learned our traditions, rituals, and routines,” she says. “Now, years later, we feel we have a family in Israel because of them, and they feel they have family in the U.S. because of camp.”

It seems that when Skeen talks about the JCC Ranch Camp’s overarching goal for the summer, that goal reflects equally on both the young campers and the mature shlichim who lead them: “You will learn so much about who you are as a person, build self-confidence, and leave unafraid to be your whole self.”