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Former college student gives and gains knowledge from experience as Israeli camp counselor

Camp Kefiada campers in Israel’s Negev region sang happy birthday and surrounded Jori Simon with a group hug for her 22nd birthday at an afternoon assembly.

Last year Jorie Simon, 22, planned to get a taste of Israel through Birthright/Taglit, spending her time with other students who attended Illinois colleges through the Shorashim program. She ended up staying on for four additional weeks and “had the summer of her life,” according to her mother, Debby Simon.

Simon graduated this June from Knox College, a liberal arts school in Galesburg, Illinois. She majored in sociology, with a double minor in French and social work. While on the Birthright trip, she learned that Camp Kefiada, a program of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, was seeking camp counselors who were students attending college in and around Chicago.

Wanting to stay on for a while in Israel, she jumped at the chance to apply for a counselor position and was accepted. She got to go back again this summer and although she was still a volunteer, she was given a title boost with a staff T-shirt.

Camp Kefiada is an English speaking day camp in Kiryat Gat in the northern Negev. Counselors help Israeli children in grades four through six improve their basic English language skills in an atmosphere of creative camp activities.

During her first summer at Camp Kefiada, there were 10 American counselors and 10 Israeli counselors, who all arrived a week before the children. They spent the week doing social activities together and bonding so the supervisors could see who worked well together. Then they paired each American with an Israeli.

As camp counselor, a typical day would be to start with morning assembly, about an hour of vocabulary, breakfast, and then 45-minute activity stations broken up into two groups each. Activities included sports, art, music — once a drummer came in and taught the kids how to play the drums and learn some rhythm. Sometimes a third party like a counselor, juggler or music teacher would teach a class. After 45 minutes, the kids would switch stations. This lasted about two-and-a-half hours and they would be sent home.

“In March I was a senior in college and didn’t know what I was going to be doing this summer or after this summer and I thought when else will I have the freedom before I commit to a job to just spend my summer in Israel, free of charge, just to go,” she said.

She had become close friends with her host family’s son, the social manager at Camp Kefiada who is in charge of everything the counselors did outside of camp. She said she texted him and asked if it was possible to return this summer and have a larger role as an arts and crafts teacher.

“So he ended up asking me to do that and I was really excited,” she said. “They gave me more freedom because they knew me.”

At Camp Kefiada this year, Simon was considered part of the staff, which meant a lot more responsibility. Instead of having a group of 10 kids, she was carrying the load of 30 children at once, supposedly with the help of other counselors, “but sometimes they weren’t that helpful,” she said.

“I had more freedom and they said they thought of me as staff, but at the same time I was only one year older than all the American counselors,” said Simon. “I didn’t want to let the power go to my head, so I didn’t abuse that too much, but at the same time I needed their help running a classroom with 30 or more kids.

“I think what I missed most this year being an art teacher instead of a counselor with my own group is that I didn’t get to make those connections with 10 or 12 kids like I did last year and I didn’t have a co-counselor like everyone else did.”

Simon said she learned a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Israelis from her experience. For instance, Americans are a bit more controlling.

“During the week of the training process (this year), Americans were very much ‘to a T,’ ” she said. “The kids are going to do this from 9 o’clock sharp to 9:45 sharp and then we’re going to do this exact vocabulary activity.”

She said she didn’t want to tell them that having done counseling the year before she knew from experience it would not be smooth sailing. “Sure enough the next week, the Americans saw that things do not go as planned, especially with Israelis who are very ‘go with the flow.’ ”

If one of the children wasn’t in class, Americans would get upset and wonder where he was, Simon said. But the Israelis just said, “Oh, he’ll be back, no worries.”

In one cultural activity, the question was asked at what age do you let your child go out somewhere on his or her own. The Israelis said around age 7; Americans thought more like 12 to 14.

However, Simon said she believes she left the Israelis more open-minded through political conversations they had. Other conversations centered on Muslims and war.

“You can very much tell there’s a lot of Islamophobia from the Israelis,” she said.

The Israelis would say things like, “You don’t know what it’s like to have to grab your brother when you hear sirens and take him to the nearest shelter on his birthday,” “You don’t know what it’s like to know a Muslim and not be afraid.”

She said one of the Israeli counselors argued with her several times that President Obama is a Muslim and because of that he is a terrible president.

“A lot of us are college students, millennials, and I want to say more liberal,” she said. “I think (our conversations) caused the Israelis to have a more open mind than to just assume. When I first went to college I had a lot of closed-mindedness as well and it took especially going to a liberal arts school to be where I’m at now, to think critically.”

Simon recently acquired a position at The University of Kansas Hospital’s Marillac Campus, a residential treatment facility for children with mental illness, behavioral challenges and emotional problems. She is the daughter of Debby and Bob Simon of Overland Park.

“I’m just really grateful I had the opportunity to do this and that it’s given me a diverse background and patience because I’m going to start working with these kids (at Marillac), and having the patience with the cultural barriers between Americans and Israelis is definitely going to come in handy,” she said.