(JTA) – On the morning of June 30, the children began arriving at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Wash., ready for a fun-filled summer.
But shortly before the first little feet descended the bus steps, the sleepaway camp’s Israeli counselors learned from back home about the discovery of the bodies of three teens kidnapped in the West Bank 18 days earlier.
The news about the teens’ fate challenged administrators at Jewish camps like the Conservative movement-affiliated Schechter to deal with the tragedy: what information to present, how to tailor their words to campers’ varied maturity levels and how to mourn the youthful victims while not alarming children for whom camp represents happiness and escape.
Then there was tending to Israeli campers and counselors, for whom the trauma was more personal.
At Schechter, the dilemma for administrators was compounded by the campers being so young – second- through seventh-graders. The teenage cohort wasn’t due until later in the summer.
So nothing was announced that day and no mention appeared on the camp’s website.
“It’s not really a great topic for kicking off camp and having a great summer,” said the camp’s executive director, Sam Perlin. “Getting off to a good start is extremely important.”
Only at the next morning’s daily assembly at the flagpole to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, did Perlin tell campers that the three missing yeshiva students had lost their lives.
“I didn’t say ‘murdered’ or ‘killed,’ ” he related. “I didn’t say how or why.”
Across the country, Camp Moshava, a Modern Orthodox overnight camp in Honesdale, Pa., took a different approach.
Campers arriving on June 24 were greeted at the front gate with placards hung by Israeli counselors featuring the faces of the kidnapped boys and a message in Hebrew praying for their safe return.
The news of their deaths broke nearly a week later at lunchtime, when each shift of children finishing the meal headed to another building for the daily afternoon prayers, youngest group to oldest. At the Mincha service, the fact of the boys’ death was conveyed at an age-appropriate level.
Moshava’s website the next morning showed images of three Israeli flags arrayed horizontally across the screen above the words “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet,” the traditional utterance upon learning of a Jewish person’s death. The left column presented news of the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach.
“We’re a religious Zionist camp. This is what we’re all about,” the camp’s director, Alan Silverman, said when asked about his guiding principles for handling the situation.
Upon hearing the news, he said, “we and the camp psychologists made a plan for each group” that included telling Israeli staffers and campers first. Others were dispatched to share the news with two groups of adolescent campers off site on organized hikes.
Moshava campers of all ages are learning sections of Mishnah in memory of the slain teens. Three eighth-grade girls initiated a project to collect campers’ letters, poems and drawings for albums to be sent to the grieving parents.