JUF's Kefiada camp builds lifelong transcontinental friendships

For 23 years and counting, Israeli campers experience the American-style day camp in Kiryat Gat

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Rachel (Kesner) Katz, a Kefiada counselor, teachers her campers about the Windy City and, simultaneously, makes practicing English fun.

One of Israel native Batel Weiss' favorite memories as a camper was exchanging pen pal-style letters -- in the pre-internet days -- with her Chicago-based counselor, even after her time as a camper had ended. She treasures those letters to this day, which symbolize for her a personal and deep connection to an American friend. "All a child needs," she said, "is one adult who believes in them."

The camp Weiss attended is JUF's Kefiada, a full-immersion English-speaking day camp for fourth through sixth graders from JUF's Partnership Together Region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir.

For three weeks each summer, since 1998, Israeli campers experience the American-style day camp, located in Kiryat Gat. Kefiada -- which is a play on the name "Kef," which means fun in Hebrew -- helps campers improve their English proficiency in a fun camp setting. The program fosters strong bonds between the counselors, both Chicago college students and their Israeli peers -- usually in their last summer vacation before starting their military service in the IDF.

Attending Kefiada as a camper boosted Weiss' self-confidence, she said, and reinforced her love of the English language and American culture. The Director of Kefiada last summer, Weiss bolstered her connection to Chicago even further when she and her husband served for a year as emissaries ( shlichim ) in the Windy City.

When asked why she wanted to spend a month out of her summer vacation as a Kefiada counselor, Deerfield native Rachel (Kesner) Katz said she was intrigued by the opportunity to immerse herself in Israeli society and stay with a local host family.

Katz -- who has served as both counselor and assistant director for the program -- also relished the idea of teaching Israeli children English in a variety of engaging ways. For example, she taught the kids through song, including a camp song she knew from home called "Bulldog," with both English and Hebrew lyrics, making it easy for the young Israelis to learn and sing. "It was really rewarding to see them build confidence through this silly camp song, and just have fun with it," said Katz, who now lives in Indianapolis, where she serves as Assistant Director of the Indianapolis Federation's Jewish Family Services.

She said that working and socializing alongside her Israeli counterparts has helped her forge long-lasting friendships with them and "develop a deeper and more authentic relationship with Israel."

Unfortunately, because of the COVID pandemic, the American counselors have not been able to visit Kiryat Gat for the past two summers. Weiss said she hopes the Chicagoans will be able to return as soon as possible because it's just not the same without them.

Co-counseling "made it crystal clear to me that we Israelis are not the center of the universe," she said. "The connection with the Chicago counselors exposed me to a vibrant Jewish world." The bond with the Chicago community, and Diaspora Jewry in general, "is critical to the survival of the Jewish people and one of the marks of our redemption, our geulah, " Weiss said.

Through Kefiada, she added, "dreams are woven and are fulfilled on both sides of the ocean every day in wonderful and blessed ways."

If travel from Chicago to Israel reopens next summer, JUF's Kefiada program will run from June 23-July 24, 2022. College students who are interested in applying to be a counselor -- and are either from the Chicago area or attend school in Illinois -- can visit juf.org/kefiada or email Kefiada@juf.org. 

Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.

JUF's Partnership Together (P2G) is a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel that links communities in the diaspora with communities in Israel. Chicago's P2G region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir is located in Israel's northern Negev. Through P2G, nearly $1 million of funding from JUF's annual campaign supports projects that promote the region's development, improve the quality of life for its residents, and connects them with Chicago Jewry through "people-to-people" programs. This story is one of a series titled "25 stories," celebrating 25 years of partnership between JUF and Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir.


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