Camp Gesher helps build bridges, Israeli emissary says
TORONTO — Campers will have to sweat for their own food, this year, Yael Polunsky said jokingly.
Polunsky is an Israeli shlichah (emissary) for Camp Gesher, the Ontario summer camp run by Habonim Dror, a labour Zionist youth movement.
“We decided to focus more on building bridges between our values and the child’s life and actions. This year, we are working on building a farm in the camp. The campers could work there, learn about the connection between labour and Zionism, and grow their own food.”
Polunsky, 27, came to Toronto from Jerusalem last year, and, in addition to her work at the camp, she also runs programs for the Jewish and Israeli community in downtown Toronto at the Miles Nadal JCC. This is her sixth mission, after working with Jewish communities in the United States, Belarus, Ukraine and India. She has been working in informal Jewish and Zionist education programs for more than 10 years.
“Every summer, we run an overnight summer camp, Camp Gesher [which means bridge],” Polunsky said. “The camp is located about three hours north-east of Toronto, in a beautiful forest on the shore of Pringle Lake. Our camp, like our movement, is a youth-led camp where our campers are the leaders.”
Most of the 220 campers are from Toronto and Thornhill, Ont., although some come from other Jewish communities in Ontario.
“There are [also] shinshinim [young Israeli emissaries] working at the camp as counsellors and Israel specialists. They run activities about Israel, scouting and Hebrew, while connecting with the campers and other counsellors,” Polunsky said.
“In the last few years, we have been working with the Yaldenu organization, which brings Israeli campers to camps in North America. [This year] we’ll be joined by six 15-year-old campers from southern Israel. They will stay with our oldest group throughout one session. The Israeli campers also run a few activities for their fellow campers, and make a life-lasting relationships with the Canadian campers.”
The camp has been working with Kachol Lavan, an Israeli Hebrew school in the Toronto area supported by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Schwartz/Reisman Centre, and Gesher will host a trip to the campsite for some of the students.
The Kachol Lavan kids will be there for a three-day weekend to get to know the camp and the campers, use the waterfront and other facilities, go hiking in the area and participate in activities in Hebrew.
“Our campers are connected to Israel, either because their parents or grandparents were born In Israel, or because their parents are very much Zionists and support Israel,” Polunsky said. “We [know] that Israeli immigrants to Canada are hesitant about sending their kids to an overnight summer camp, but we don’t want them to miss out on this experience that we are so happy to provide.“
Moshe, one of the campers’ fathers, shares his experience: “Camp Gesher is a community and a family-oriented camp. The alumni keep a great relationship with their fellow movement friends that they grew up with. I was a camper when I was a child, and now I’m sending my kids to the camp so they can have the same adventures. It helps the kids in building their Jewish and Zionist identity. They learn about Israel, about the Jewish world, they learn different skills and have a lifelong experience.”
In addition to the camp, the Toronto branch of Habonim Dror runs programs during the year. A communal house opened last year, to function as a hub for different activities including Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations.
The house is also the home for five counsellors who are implementing the movement’s values by living together in a communal manner, while running all the activities, Polunsky said.
“We also run educational activities for the greater Jewish community about Israeli topics, Judaism, Zionism and world events,” she said. “This year we had more than a dozen different activities in synagogues and organizations. We run holiday activities for kids at the Miles Nadal JCC, work with young kids and toddlers at the PJ library and celebrate the holidays with the seniors at Baycrest.”
As part of the Zionist movement, Polunsky said, “you get to learn new things from new perspectives, you meet new friends who share the same interests and you invest in yourself as a counsellor and a leader.”