On Our Global Jewish Peoplehood
by Toni Davison Levenberg
Yesterday, I spent many hours working on summer staffing and budgeting. My heart hurts as I watch the news coming out of Ukraine. I know planning is important to the success of our summer, but it’s at times like these when the contrast of our lived experiences right now is highlighted for me the most.
As the Director of Camp Interlaken, I have the privilege of working alongside amazing staff from around the world. In the summer of 2019, we were one of the pilot camps in the Machane Olami program through Foundation for Jewish Camp. Machane Olami brings Jewish students and young adults from around the world to work at North American Jewish summer camps. Participants spend their summers immersed in North American Jewish life, broadening their perspectives on the global Jewish community. Likewise, camps benefit from the global perspectives and talents of Jewish young adults on their summer staff teams.
In 2019, Camp Interlaken hired three staff members from Poland through Machane Olami to work as counselors: Paula, Agata and Maciek. We loved getting to know them at camp, sharing our culture with them, and learning about theirs. One of my favorite moments was when Paula & Agata signed up to sing Hinei El Yeshuati together during Havdalah (which you can hear by clicking here). It’s amazing how singing Hebrew songs together can make us forget that we don’t all speak the same language. Campers and staff connected with all of them, and it was a very positive experience.
One of the counselors at camp that summer was Maria. Maria is twenty years old and lives in Kyiv with her family, including her fourteen-year-old sister, Polina. Their grandparents live in Milwaukee, and they have been bringing their granddaughters to visit Milwaukee each summer. Maria joined the Interlaken family in 2013, when she was 12 years old, and Polina in 2015. Maria worked as a part of the counselor team in 2021, and Polina joined us for 2nd session.
It’s been a few years since Maria has seen her friends in Poland, but once you’re part of our family, you’re in it for life. I texted daily with Maria once the war began. She and her family were scared, staying at their home in Kyiv, which is a 16th floor apartment. With tremendous fear, they watched the rockets fall on their beloved city. After going into a shelter briefly, Maria and Polina’s parents made the very hard decision to have the girls pack backpacks and send them to the train station with the hopes they would be able to board the train to Lviv and stay with family friends until they could cross the border to Poland. After hours and hours of travel, the girls made it safely to Lviv.
Maria texted me to let me know that they made it over the border into Poland. They had left with hope as their biggest plan, but camp connections run deep, and by the time they reached the train station in Poland, Maciek, one of our counselors from Poland in 2019, was halfway through his 6-hour drive to pick them up, and he hosted them at his family’s home until they were able to fly to Chicago.
Maria and Polina landed in Chicago, and they are safe in Milwaukee with their grandparents. Their first night here, they slept for 6 hours, which is the most sleep they had gotten since February 24th. We had the pleasure of having Maria, Polina, and their grandmother for Shabbat dinner this past Friday, and it was wonderful to be with them. Maria and Polina’s parents arrived in Milwaukee safely yesterday. The family is ecstatic and grateful to be back together safely.
I’m in awe of our transcontinental community at Camp Interlaken. When we enthusiastically volunteered to launch Machane Olami at our camp, we didn’t know that this decision would help bring two members of our family to safety years later. I am forever grateful that Maria and Polina were able to find refuge with Maciek; I am grateful for his kindness and commitment to his friend that he spent one summer with; I am grateful for the FJC for offering the opportunity to participate in this program for Camp Interlaken. Maria told me that she has received many messages from her Interlaken family and feels very grateful for the support.
In the meantime, I’ll continue with budgets and staffing because Maria and Maciek’s connection is only one of the thousands that happen each summer at Camp Interlaken. Every minute of exhaustive planning that goes into creating meaningful summer experiences and building a strong sense of community and belonging for our campers and staff truly has an exponential and lifelong impact.