by Sophia Fineberg, Judaics educator
The back porch of the sifriyah (library) is my favorite spot in camp, and I am lucky enough to teach there for most of every day. The air is crisp, and the sounds of happy chanichim (campers) splashing around in the agam (lake) already float over to my ears. I set up for class by dragging all of the chairs around the picnic table which overlooks this beautiful and happy sight. I pull out my book, my lesson plan, and stack up my campers’ books, notebooks, and pens for them. Soon, they will be coming all the way from the sports courts and fields to join me on the peaceful deck. The distant sound of campers swimming will be overtaken by the immediate noise and excited chatter of my class. They make their way towards the table, rushing to tell me about their morning and which sport they were just playing. Some days, two girls come running to the deck with their books in hands, ready to pepper me with questions about the reading they did together the previous afternoon – it doesn’t get any better than campers curiously reading ahead in our book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
I had the privilege and opportunity to teach this book to the ninth and tenth graders at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin during the 2021 season thanks to a partnership between Ramah Wisconsin and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). Developed by JCRC, The Letters Project is a letter-writing contest based on Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor; With an Extensive Epilogue of Palestinian Responses. The Letters Project creates a meaningful opportunity to explore the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a place of deep and profound Zionism, to find one’s own voice, and to hear different perspectives. My campers and I read, grappled, debated, and, I hope, each came to a deeper, clearer, and more openminded understanding of Yossi Klein Halevi’s challenging and worthwhile book. It is written from the perspective of a Jewish Israeli penning letters to his Palestinian neighbors, explaining his political, religious, social, and emotional conceptualization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The epilogue, which we read in depth, includes response letters from Palestinian individuals to the author. For some campers, this was their first foray into the charged and complicated nature of this conflict, and for others, it was but a small portion of their exposure. For myself, it was a precious opportunity to engage with my campers about an important issue, provide space for them to ask questions without judgment, and offer some information with which they can form their own opinions.
They took the challenge of reading such a packed book and absolutely ran with it. Whether they read ahead or left their book with me and read only during our time together, I saw each one of them consider a new perspective, learn a new idea, or find something that didn’t quite sit well with them. The class culminated in an opportunity for each of them to write a letter of their own. They were mature, inquisitive, openminded, respectful, and driven by their personal values. I am so impressed by all of my campers, and I feel so grateful to have learned from and with them while working through the book and the letter-writing process.
by Carl Schrag, Scholar-in-Residence
As part of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s collaboration with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Rosh Eidah (Division Head) Liat Wasserman and I facilitated a three-part staff seminar/book club based on Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Staff read specific excerpts of letters for each session, and worked in pairs to review the letters before we began each discussion.
The conversation was enriched by the presence around the table of a wide range of people from many backgrounds, who hungered for robust, honest, sometimes sharp dialogue. The book provided excellent framing for intense conversation about Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, the place of Israel in American Jewish identity, and more.