Jewish Life Guarding – Mission Possible!
by Nava Isseroff, Waterfront Director
It is said in the Talmud that a father must teach his child to swim. In Judaism, life is believed to be sacred. Many Jewish camps in North America incorporate some form of swimming in their camp program; some of them make instructional swimming a mandatory part of the camp’s program. At various Ramah camps (belonging to the Conservative movement) instructional swimming according to the American Red Cross Learn-to-Swim aquatic program is mandatory on a daily basis for all young age groups. The importance of being safe in and around the water along with learning different aquatic skills, staying healthy and fit, enjoying a leisure activity etc. is clear to parents as well as campers. Generally speaking, the waterfront at any camp, whether it is a pool (with or without additions such as slides, diving board etc.) and/or a lake (with or without different kinds of boats, inflatables, slides, etc.), is a very popular, if not the most popular site in any summer camp.
The lifeguards, who often times are also the swimming instructors, are looked upon like stars by campers and staff. They are skilled, trained for their highly responsible job, interact with many of the campers and staff as part of their job, and they gain the desired amount of perfect summer tan…
Each summer over a 1,000 Shlichim from Israel come to work in Jewish summer camps in North America through the Jewish Agency for Israel. The age range of these Shlichim varies – most of them between the ages of 20-23 years (soldiers of IDF or recently released from the IDF) but there are also the “vatikim” – those who fell in love with a certain camp and keep returning year after year. The expectations of camp directors in bringing Shlichim from Israel are two fold – bringing the taste and spirit of modern Israel to camp (from Zionism to Hebrew) along with an expertise/skills in a certain area such as arts, sports, swimming, camping, Israeli dancing, Hebrew teaching etc. Thus the challenge of the Israeli Shlichim is double – not only perform as well as their American counterparts professionally – but also bring and use their added value at camp as emissaries of the State of Israel.
Jewish camps such as Ramah camps are much more than just a “fun” place for Jewish kids to spend the summer. It is an experiential setting where each activity may also include one or more “teachable moments”. Where educational content such as Ivrit (Hebrew), Jewish values and Tefillah (prayer) are stressed, it is only natural that they will be somehow incorporated in all areas of camp – from the dining hall to the sports fields to the waterfront. Any well trained, knowledgeable counselor or instructor can contribute to the growth and development of each individual camper and thus in the long run – create a better society. The mission statement of Camp Ramah in the Poconos clearly reflects the above values: “Creating life-long Jewish connections, one happy camper at a time.”
Everyone who deals with waterfronts knows well that safety is the number one concern in all aquatic activities. Without overlooking safety, any aquatic program can be “upgraded” and adapted to the spirit of a Jewish camp. Rules of the pool can be posted in Hebrew in the form of the “Asseret Hadibrot” (the Ten Commandments) and other signs around the pool as well. Jewish values or quotes from the bible can be posted around the pool. Posting is not enough! Campers should understand and absorb the meaning through explanations by the instructors. Swimming instructors can incorporate Hebrew into their teaching – body parts, numbers, swimming strokes – all can be demonstrated and taught with gestures to enhance understanding of the spoken language. Compliments in Hebrew are quickly understood by any camper… Israeli dances learned in dance session can be performed at the pool, Shacharit (morning prayer) can be a true spiritual experience at the lake. At Camp Ramah in the Poconos, campers learn about the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) and then simulate “Tzlichat Hakineret” (an annual sports event in Israel of swimming across the Kineret) by swimming from the neighboring camp across the lake and then back to Ramah – a truly memorable and meaningful experience.
Israeli and American Jewish staff working together at the waterfront not only contribute immensely to campers, but enrich each other. The close proximity of the staff for many hours of work and the need for collaboration in the different tasks enhance interaction, learning and understanding the different cultures. By employing ” International staff” (Non Jewish staff) who may be somewhat more available and at times more professional, Jewish camps miss the unique and wonderful opportunity in further strengthening the Jewish identity of their campers as well as their staff. The experiences of a Jewish summer camp, the significant bond created between a camper and a counselor, the admiration of a child to his/her swimming instructor are all remembered and cherished throughout life. And it is definitely not a one way investment – most of those Shlichim return to Israel with a sense of accomplishment combined with a better understating of North American Jewry. Jewish Lifeguarding is not just about saving lives – it is a form of guarding our Jewish Identity!
Nava Isseroff is a Physical Education teacher in a Special Education school in Israel. Nava has over 24 summers of experience at Ramah camps. She is a Shlicha of the Jewish Agency for Israel as the head of waterfront (Rosh Mayim) at Camp Ramah in the Poconos for 13 years now.