The French Connection

Three countries, three languages, one bunch of rowdy campers and a ton of memories.

Ihave an iPod video,” said Eli.

“That’s cool. What movies do you have on it?” my friend asked. 

Eli then opened up his dictionary and corrected himself. His question was, “Do you have an iPod video?”

In spite of language limitations, cultural differences and being out of my comfort zone, I managed to survive camp this summer.

My two friends and I were counselors at Israeliada, a camp in Gilo, Jerusalem. The camp is a partnership between the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn, the Gilo Center and the Toulouse Community Center in France. We each had two co-counselors; one was from Israel and the other was from France. We took the children on field trips every day and worked from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. Disciplining the Israeli campers in Hebrew was a challenging experience. But the real challenge took place in the afternoon once camp was over.

After a staff lunch and meeting the counselors headed onto the tour bus. I have toured Israel before but not like this. We went mountain biking, hiking, visited bat caves and lived with the Bedouins. We visited major tourist attractions such as the Old City and we also went to places where only locals could be found. We spent every weekend in a different city in Israel.

From the second I stepped out of the baggage claim at Ben-Gurion Airport and saw the smile and excitement on the Israeli counselors faces I knew this trip was going to be memorable. They introduced themselves, gave each and every one of us a hug and offered to help us with our luggage. We walked outside and felt the humid summer in Israel.

Outside the airport, an air-conditioned coach bus waited for us. Gradually everyone moved to the back and that was when we started to get to know each other. We asked one another basic questions, like how old are you? How many siblings do you have? Where is your family originally from? I have never really had the opportunity to meet and form friendships with kids from other countries, which made this introductory meeting an interesting experience. 

When I first met the Israelis I thought that they were really different then me. They live in a foreign country, have different mentalities, priorities and responsibilities. After high school my goal is to go to college. I am worried about SATs while they are worried about what division they will join in the army. This is extremely important to them since they will be spending the next three years in the army. Some of the counselors don’t really care about high school nor do they care about their grades. When it comes to the army they are extremely serious and willing to do what ever it takes to join a prestigious unit.

After three days of American and Israeli bonding, the French arrived. By now we were comfortable being ourselves around the Israelis. They knew our story and our personalities.  Now that the French were coming we were going to have to start over. I thought that it was going to be another awkward icebreaker. But I was wrong.

The French arrived at our hostel at 5 a.m. There were three girls and three boys. My friends and I stayed up all night waiting for them. When we met them we were so overtired that we were hyper. This ended up being for the good. The French saw we were acting like ourselves around them, so they had no hesitation in showing their true colors immediately. Within hours the French, Israelis and Americans connected.

The French did not know Hebrew and barely spoke English. The Americans did not know one word of French. We were stuck. There was one French girl, Anna, who spoke decent English and she was our translator. In order to communicate with us the first few days some carried around an English-French dictionary. We had to use extremely simple English words and spoke slowly, clearly and patiently. At times, you thought the French understood what you were saying and you continued on with the conversation but in reality they had no clue what was going on. After a while their English got a little better and we found other ways to communicate like pointing and using hand motions. It’s astonishing how we acclimated to each other.

Working with two people who spoke different languages was an adventure. It was also my first time ever being a counselor. I was really nervous that I was not going to be able to control the kids. The directors of the camp assumed that the Israeli counselor would act like the head counselor since they speak the language and know the children from the town’s community center.

I spoke to the campers in a mix of Hebrew and English. I was told to speak to them in only English, but it was difficult for them to understand. One of my personal goals was not to let the Israeli counselor take the lead, but rather have all the counselors be in an equal position. In order to achieve this we divided up the tasks and each one of us was in charge of different priorities.

I was in charge of testing the kids every morning. Each day the campers had to memorize an English word list that pertained to the activity that we were going to do for that day. For example if we were going on a hike the word list had such as, rocks, soil, trees and flowers. The list contained about 20 words per day. At the end of the day most campers respected and obeyed each and every one of us. 

After three weeks of bonding and having the time of our life, the trip came to an end. At the airport, there was crying, hugging and tons of picture taking. We all promised to post our pictures on Facebook. One of the Israelis said that he was not going to put his pictures up until everyone forgets about one another. He claimed that when he puts his pictures up it would be a way for us to reconnect. As of now he only posted one small album.

We all promised to keep in touch, gave our last hugs and said good-bye. The goal of this trip was to make connections with Jewish children around the world and it was definitely successful. Thanks to Facebook it is very easy to keep in touch. We message each other and IM one another quite often. I feel like the friendships I made will last a long time. During winter break I am going to Israel on a chesed mission where I plan to meet up again with my Israeli counselors and campers.

Nina Bildirici is a senior at Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn.

This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.