By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, NFTY in Israel, Director
Every year NFTY in Israel repeats the process of recruiting summer staff to lead our teens through their incredible summer experience. Many of our staff are in fact returnees; these veterans come back year after year and simply cannot imagine a summer unless they are hiking all around Israel with hundreds of teens in tow. But there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make sure our staff are ready to greet their participants with huge smiles the moment the planes touch down.
Each of our groups is led by a staff team comprised of a combination of Americans and Israelis; women and men. Assigning 40 or more staff among 10 teams is like playing sudoku! We have to make sure to match strengths and weaknesses, personality types and other qualities. One staff member might be a great educator, but logistics are better left to someone else. Another might have a ton of exposure to Israeli culture, but has better one-on-one conversations than speaking in front of the whole group. There are limitless combinations of experiences, personalities, and skills that each staff member uniquely brings to the table. Our responsibility is to make sure every group has inspiring educators, compassionate counselors, firm boundary-setters, flexible organizers, and so much more.
All of our Israeli staff applicants are young adults who have finished the army, and most have worked at a URJ summer camp as part of the Mishalachat (a program that brings recently discharged Israeli soldiers to Jewish summer camps). These Israelis have such an eye-opening experience learning about Reform Judaism at URJ camp, they want to join these same teens in Israel to continue exploring their shared Jewish story. Just as URJ camps act as amazing incubators for teaching about Reform Jewish life, NFTY in Israel acts as a one-of-a-kind environment for teaching about Jewish peoplehood and modern Israel. Moreover, for many of our participants, reuniting in Israel with the Israeli counselor they knew at camp is the beautiful closing of a circle.
In addition to our Israeli staff, our American staff mainly comes from leaders who have grown up and worked at our URJ summer camps, where they develop a deep sense of responsibility for the care of other people’s children far from home. These counselors have spent significant time in Israel as well, across a range of programs including NFTY in Israel, Heller High School, Birthright, gap year, and study abroad. We also have the privilege of bringing on rabbinical, cantorial or educational students studying at the Hebrew Union College. Our American counselors have a firm understanding of Israel and Israeli culture, but they also serve as an important bridge to American culture, guiding our participants through experiencing Israel as an American.
It’s no easy task to create several small staff teams who will work cohesively for 3 to 5 weeks with almost no breaks from each other! But over nearly 60 summers, we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. The staff within each team bring out the best in each other and constantly challenge their partners to raise the bar further. It’s the only way our teens could ever have the summer of a lifetime!