Ties that bind: The Jewish camp in Georgia that grieved with Parkland

    For the past 17 years, Israeli Hanoch Greenberg has spent his summers in the American south, where he serves as a Specialist Supervisor and self-proclaimed “ambassador of fun” at URJ Camp Coleman in Georgia. Greenberg is the Director of Operations for The Jewish Agency’s Summer Camp Shlichim — Shlichim are young Israeli emissaries who volunteer in Jewish communities around the world to connect Jews to one another and to Israel.

    Every summer, the program sends volunteers like Greenberg to Jewish summer camps across the country to foster a connection with the American Jewish community. These Shlichim participate in all aspects of programming at their assigned camps and collectively touch 12,000 American-Jewish camp counselors and tens of thousands of campers.

    Campers at URJ Camp Coleman

    Facing Loss Together

    This year, the Camp Coleman community was hit hard as a national tragedy became shared grief. A former camper, 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, was among the 17 students murdered in February’s Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

    “Camp Coleman has been my home during the summer for the last 17 years, and when something happens that affects the community in the camp, it affects me as if I were there,” says Greenberg. “My relationship with the Shlichim in the U.S. led us to act, and to think about how to immediately connect with the camp community after the tragedy, and to take care of them.”

    Summer Camp Shlichim

    The Power of Connection

    Connection and compassion are at the root of Jewish life; bringing these values to life is the job of emissaries like Greenberg, who brings young Jews from all backgrounds together even when circumstances are hard. Programs like the Summer Camp Shlichim remind us how much more we have in common than we realize.

    Greenberg gets as much from these experiences as they people he connects with. Each summer at Camp Coleman has been a formative experience that he does not forget. He credits his time at Coleman with broadening his view of Judaism, though it wasn’t always easy for him.

    Campers at Camp Coleman

    “I came from a religious Orthodox family and joining a Reform camp seemed like the most distant thing to do as an Orthodox Jew,” he says. “I initially did not want to work at a Reform camp because it was something that was not done in my family, it was not acceptable. I grew up in a home that was totally unfamiliar with the world of Reform Judaism.”

    New Perspectives

    At Camp Coleman, Greenberg says he “discovered a facet of Judaism that I was not exposed to, such as egalitarian prayer for men and women, pluralistic prayers and cultural aspects of the prayers, and Reform communal life that I was not aware of. I started to understand that I was becoming part of the entire Jewish community.”

    Thanks to his experience at Camp Coleman, Greenberg has also incorporated Jewish pluralism into his life back home in Israel. “In my search for communal life in Israel, I found a Reform congregation in Netanya which I connected to with all my soul,” he says.

    Nathan Roi is a writer and editor who works for The Jewish Agency for Israel in Jerusalem. He reports regularly on The Agency's work in Israel and around the world.