At the Trager Family JCC’s Camp J, a pair of summertime Shlichim counselors brought Israel to life

By Andrew Adler
Community Editor

L-R: Shlichim counsellors Adi Dari and Gal Salomon, pictured with two Camp J friends (Photo by Andrew Adler)

Among Israel’s most valuable exports are the young adults who, each summer, travel to the U.S. to be counsellors at Jewish day and overnight camps. They’re part of Shlichim (Hebrew for “Emissaries”), a program administered by the Jewish Agency for Israel that aims to “provide a living connection to Israel by promoting Israeli experiences, facilitating Jewish social activism, and speaking authentically about faith and culture.” 

Two Shlichim, Adi Damri and Gal Salomon, spent June and July as counsellors at the Trager Family JCC’s Camp J. It was the first time in the U.S. for both young women, visiting Louisville not long after their respective stints with the Israeli Defense Forces, military service required of virtually all Israeli citizens. Once back in Israel, they’ll eventually go on to university and begin new careers. 

Each of these Shlichim had their own Camp J portfolio. Damri, 22, coordinated art activities; Salomon, 23, was Israeli Culture specialist. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each weekday, they shared their lives with campers age kindergarten to 8th grade. Afterward they’d return to their various host families, getting a taste (often literal) of what Louisville and Kentucky had to offer. 

At first this chunk of Americana was somewhat of a mystery. 

“I was thinking this was going to be farm and a desert like in the movies, the Wild West,” Damri recalled, “just a small town with farms all around and not really civilization.” 

Clearly a bit of research was called for. “I was going to Netflix,” she said, “and the first thing that popped up is the Kentucky Derby and I was like, ‘That’s interesting – that’s a place I want to go.’” 

        Unlike Tel Aviv’s Damri, Salomon grew up in Omer, a town small enough that you must drive to nearby Beersheba to find a gas station. Her initial Louisville hook wasn’t the Derby; it was an international reputation that had something to do with chicken. 

    “The only thing I heard was ‘KFC! KFC!” she said. Telling friends she was headed to Kentucky, the standard response was, ‘Oh, so you’re gonna eat KFC!’” 

Selection to the Shlichim program is highly competitive. This summer’s candidates could opt for either a day or overnight camp, but beyond that they had little say about where they’d be sent. Some ended up in large cities like New York or Chicago; others would find themselves dispatched to Canada. 

“We interviewed candidates in February,” explained David Siskin, Director of Camping at the Trager Family JCC. “Then I went to Israel to meet them and share information about Camp J with both our Shlichim.” 

Damri and Salomon were part of a contingent that would do their residencies in the Atlanta and Nashville. They’d met while attending a pre-summer Shlichim orientation session in Israel. Leaders “talked to us about culture differences” between Israel and America, Salomon said, “what to expect and how to behave, and how to see things from an American of view.”  

She and Damri bonded during the long flight to the U.S., knowing they’d be going as a duo from one host family to another. Arriving over the Memorial Day weekend, they had a brief acclimation interval before Camp J got under way on June 5. 

Damri, who’d spent three-and-a-half years assigned to an IDF cybersecurity intelligence unit, adopted an “it’s up to the Universe” kind of perspective on what Louisville and Camp J would bring. 

“I was open-minded – I said, ‘What my fate is supposed to be, that’s what’s going to be.’ So if I got this connection to camp, it’s probably what should be, and I shouldn’t question it. Just go with the flow, and let life take you wherever it takes you. No matter what my expectations, I’m going to learn from this experience.” 

Growing up in Tel Aviv – “with a lot of high-tech, a really busy city where I live in a tiny apartment in a dense population,” she said, “this place 
is really calm.” 

As a teenager Damri had been a counsellor at an Israeli zoo, reflecting her affection for animals and desire to work with children. Though art was her primary responsibility at Camp J, she was as much a facilitator of fun as practitioner of painting. “Yes, I’m the art specialist, but in some way, I bring some sense of Israeli culture,” she emphasized. “If it’s the morning circle, we’re dancing to Israel songs – (which) I’d learned when I was younger as a camp counsellor, so I brought them all to the U.S.” for instance, “or doing Shabbat together, teaching the kids new songs and new dancing.” 

For Salomon – who spent her IDF time as a tour guide in Old Jerusalem —  Israeli culture at Camp J was “whatever you want to do with it. You can talk about cities. Or you can talk about Israeli children’s stories. And holidays, but on Yom Kippur less about fasting and more like bike rides — in Israel, most kids go on bike rides on Yom Kippur because all the streets are empty. And on Shavuot you do water fights. It’s not so religious; it’s more about the culture.” 

Younger campers tended to have odd notions about Salomon’s homeland. “They usually talk about Israel in the way of Bible stories and stuff,” she said. “So they asked me if I live in a tent, and if I drive a camel.” 

      There was also the occasional nugget of Hebrew-language instruction. If nothing else, Salomon said, “I’m sure everybody knows how to say ‘carrot.’” 

        Outside of camp, the two Shlichim became skilled in the art of gracious co-habitation. Each learned how to sense when the other needed some private time. They also experienced what it was like to live with American families – the majority of whom, as it turned out, weren’t Jewish. 

        A few challenges were inevitable. In Israel Damri was accustomed to a nominally kosher diet; in America she developed a few useful workarounds, cooking much her food herself. Fundamentally, though, she and Salomon were simply regular participants amid the overall domestic mix. 

     “You’re just part of them,” she explained, “if you go to concerts, if you go out for groceries – if you go to any other thing.” 

      Like munching popcorn in a darkened theater. “We’ve been to the ‘Barbie’ movie and to ‘Oppenheimer,’” Damri said, adding that “we 100 percent recommend ‘Barbie.’ I think it’s Oscar material.” 

       “It’s dependent on the host family,” Salomon agreed. “With some families we went to the zoo, or to the pool here. One family took us to a Renaissance Faire; (another) to Red River Gorge.”  She and Damri had wanted to see Nashville, but time ran out. Still, there was a measure of regional recreational compensation: Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Ind. 

        With the close of Camp J on Aug. 4, it was time for both Shlichim to go their separate ways. Salomon would fly to Las Vegas to meet her parents; the family would visit New York City and other cities before returning to Israel, where she has a job supervising counsellors at an after-school program for younger students. Eventually, “I want to study education and to be a kindergarten teacher,” she said. “I love kids and have been doing this since I was young – in Israel, you have to volunteer in your high school, so I volunteered in a kindergarten.” 

     In Israel, it’s customary for young adults to take a gap year between their military service and beginning university studies. From Louisville, Darmi was headed to Los Angeles to meet up with her Israeli boyfriend, a cybersecurity researcher she met during her time in the IDF. After a few days in L.A., they were to spend two weeks in Hawaii before returning to Israel (word is that they were able to make it there, despite the Maui wildfires). 

     Further work in cybersecurity and intelligence held scant appeal for Darmi (“I didn’t find myself in those areas,” she said). Meanwhile, she intends to enroll in Tel Aviv University in October. 

    “I feel like looking at what I’m passionate about,” she said. “What I’m most interested in is psychology and the human mind. So that’s what I’m going to study, to work with kids, to see their struggles and how they react.” 

     Whatever lies ahead for Damri and Salomon, it’s clear that they made a big-time favorable impression on pretty much everyone at Camp J and the Trager Family JCC. Indeed, an encore may be forthcoming. 

    “Both of them have been amazing,” Siskin said, “and we are actually looking to bring them back next summer if they are interested.” 

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