A family vacation took on new meaning for Israeli resident Sharon Galperin and her children when they heard firsthand accounts of a Holocaust survivor’s journey on the Exodus ship and toured sites that shape the country’s democracy today. Her family experienced it all in four days and three nights in Jerusalem through the YAHALOM Family Summer Camp.

Israeli parents and children work together on a project at Family Summer Camp in Jerusalem.

Israeli parents and children work together on a project at Family Summer Camp in Jerusalem.

YAHALOM, a Hebrew acronym for Children and Parents Learning Together, is a nonprofit organization supported by UJA-Federation that helps strengthen the Jewish identity of Israeli parents and children. The organization offers a family summer camp in Jerusalem as well as yearlong study programs.

The camp is designed to help Israelis experience Israel as a dynamic Jewish reality. While Israelis like Galperin also attend the camp, the program was originally designed to reach immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The camp helps immigrant parents see the State of Israel through the eyes of their children, and also fills in the gaps of their knowledge about Jewish identity.

This year, of the 800 parents and children who attended the camp, more than 300 were from Russian-speaking families. The camp welcomed 160 Ethiopian immigrants as well.

“YAHALOM is the most inspiring activity I’ve done in years,” Galperin said.

Galperin, her 10-year-old daughter, and her 8-year-old son had participated in the camp last summer and enjoyed it so much they decided to return. Galperin’s husband stayed home with their 4-year-old twins, who are too young for the program.

“What makes YAHALOM special is there is no other family camp in Israel. Other summer programs are for kids. The camp deals with Jewish values, culture, and identity,” explained Derek Perlman, YAHALOM director. “Since we started in 2003, 1,500 families have participated.”

To keep expenses down for families, YAHALOM holds the camp in three dorms used during the school year by high school students.

History Comes Alive

The camp includes visits to local sites like Israel’s Supreme Court and Yad Vashem that teach about democracy and Jewish history. A special highlight for Galperin and her children was learning the life stories of two guests who met with the families.

“We heard from a Holocaust survivor who was on the Exodus ship, and also from an old woman who was born in Jerusalem and lived there during the War of Independence,” Galperin said.

“Visiting in Jerusalem is much more meaningful with my children than going on my own,” said Galperin, who had lived in Jerusalem when she was a student.

One project Galperin especially enjoyed was creating a family seal with her children that included symbols of what was most important to them. “We painted a tree, and its leaves held the six faces of our family; boots, because we like to go hiking; and a pair of hands, because we believe in helping each other. The roots were a kibbutz where my father came from, and a fence to represent the Holocaust that my husband’s father lived through.”

When she returned from family summer camp last year, Galperin said, “I had to have this fabulous feeling stay with us.”

So she reached out to 14 families in her small village, Katzir, between Hadera and Afula, and organized monthly meetings for discussions using Jewish texts that explored such topics as relationships between brothers and sisters, what it means to honor parents, and how families can contribute to Israel. A guide from YAHALOM helped lead the discussions.

What Galperin and her children did on their summer vacation is something they strive to keep alive all year long.

“We got great tools to bring home,” Galperin said. “Now when the children bicker, we say, ‘Remember what we said at YAHALOM about how we’d work out fights.’ ” And with that, she adds, the mood changes.